What is it? The study of the language spoken by about one-fifth of the world's population. You learn Mandarin for the written stuff and Cantonese when speaking the lingo. For AS-level, you have to do three comprehension passages and one piece of continuous writing - an essay to you and me. Oh yes, and a translation from Chinese into English. No literature at AS-level, or speaking and listening. But you learn about China's culture and society through the passages you translate. At A-level, you do a comprehension, a translation from English to Chinese, and two essays based on topics and texts.

What is it? The study of the language spoken by about one-fifth of the world's population. You learn Mandarin for the written stuff and Cantonese when speaking the lingo. For AS-level, you have to do three comprehension passages and one piece of continuous writing - an essay to you and me. Oh yes, and a translation from Chinese into English. No literature at AS-level, or speaking and listening. But you learn about China's culture and society through the passages you translate. At A-level, you do a comprehension, a translation from English to Chinese, and two essays based on topics and texts.

Why do it? Because you think it will be useful. Most students are from families of Chinese origin and their parents speak the language.

What skills do you need? A good ear. And it's crucial to have GCSE Chinese, according to Manling Chau, the principal examiner for the examining board Edexcel.

How much practical work is there? None.

Ratio of coursework to exams: No coursework.

Is it hard? You have to master a completely new "alphabet", or rather, set of characters. That's the really difficult part because you have to recognise them and they're not like anything you've ever seen before. To read a book you need to have mastered 2,000 to 3,000 characters; for GCSE, it's fewer. Then there are the tones. Several characters have the same sound but different tones, and actually mean completely different things. Some people complain that Chinese is not phonetic, but that's not entirely true, according to Ms Chau. The language has a logic of its own. In some ways, Cantonese is simpler than Western languages - for example, there are no tenses to worry about.

Is it enjoyable? Yes.

Who takes it? Mainly students from ethnic Chinese backgrounds. There are quite a few overseas students registered, including a contingent from Hong Kong and South Africa.

How cool is it? Becoming more popular. Last year, there were 2,026 A- level candidates; this year, there are 3,226.

Added value: If you're very lucky, you may find you land a field trip to Hong Kong or Beijing. If you're not, you'll have to make do with your local Chinatown.

What subjects go with it? History, politics and geography.

What degrees does it lead to? Chinese. At the School of Oriental and African Studies, you can combine the language with another Asian language or with other courses from a very long menu.

Will it set you up for a brilliant career? Yes. China has huge potential business opportunities opening up. So, knowing the language has got to be useful.

What do students say? "I really enjoyed GCSE, so I decided to take it a step further. I speak Chinese at home but am learning about my culture for the first time. The writing is the most difficult part. I am taking A-level in one year which makes life hectic." (Hoka Katherine Leung, 17, Camden School for Girls, north London.)

Which awarding bodies offer it? Edexcel.

How widely available around the country? You can find it in most big cities.

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