Ni hao ma? Children as young as five set the pace with a love for Mandarin

Numbers learning the language are set to swell in the new year

Children as young as five are already learning Mandarin in British schools, as David Cameron pushes for it to replace French and German in classrooms across the country.

Pupils at RJ Mitchell Primary in Elm Park, Havering, north London, are among the first of their age group to have the lessons. The numbers learning Mandarin are set to swell in the new year as other schools react to the Prime Minister’s exhortation this month to make it the main modern foreign language in schools.

Children in the first two years at the 217-pupil primary school started learning the language last September, well before Mr Cameron’s words. Headmaster Barry Read said:  “I’ve always been concerned at the lack of languages in the UK. I think our country is so insular I do despair about it.” He said he would like to see Mandarin lessons delivered throughout the school.

The children start by learning Chinese words using English characters. They greet each other with “Ni hao ma?” (how are you?) and “Wo hen hao” (I am well). They address their teachers – Ruthie Davies and Stephanie Driscoll, both of whom are learning the language alongside their pupils – as “laoshi” (teacher).

Later in the lesson they are introduced to Chinese characters. “It feels like art work,” said Ms Driscoll. The pupils also act out words Kung-Fu style to make learning fun – and can access games on the resource via computers at home.

For six-year-old Mason Taylor, this allows him to teach Mandarin to his brother, Regan, who, at nine, is too old to have taken the lessons. “It’s good to be learning other languages,” said Mason. “I like drawing the characters.”

His mother, Mandy, who is a dinner lady at the school, said: “He loves it. He’s teaching me at home on the computer. They pick it up so easily when they’re that young.” 

The Government’s attempts to promote Mandarin have led it to include the language as one of those approved for teaching when languages become compulsory for all children over the age of seven next September.  The difficulty will come when pupils switch to secondary schools. At present, there is not the teaching capacity to build on the initiative.

Speaking in China earlier this month, Mr Cameron said: “It’s time to look beyond the traditional focus on French and German and get many more children learning Mandarin.”

Marcus Reoch, co-author of the Dragons in Europe resource used at RJ Mitchell primary, said: “China is now a dominant force in the global economy and is investing in and also acquiring significant UK businesses. Schools are recognising the need to equip their next generation with the skills to prosper in the global economy, and interest in Mandarin Chinese is high.”

RJ Mitchell’s initiative will be followed by the opening of the country’s first bilingual English/Mandarin state primary school – the Marco Polo Academy in Barnet, north London. The school, one of Education Secretary Michael Gove’s free schools, will open in September.

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