When Xiaoming Zhu first started teaching Mandarin Chinese in the UK, she was part of a small but dedicated network of teachers. She explains how the subject has continued to grow over the past 20 years.
Tell us a little about your background
As the first Chinese national who gained qualified teacher status in the UK, I've witnessed the amazing development of Mandarin Chinese as part of the modern foreign languages curriculum in schools across England. After teaching Mandarin at a school in the East Midlands and promoting the subject in the region for a decade, I now work as the National Network Coordinator at the Confucius Institute in the Institute of Education.
What was it like when you first started to teach Mandarin in the UK?
I started to teach Mandarin nearly 20 years ago when few schools in the country offered the subject. At the time, the resources were scarce and there was little opportunity for any subject-specific teacher training or networking. However, as China has been developing its global role, Mandarin Chinese has been introduced by more and more schools, with some starting it as an extra-curricular subject and others making it an embedded part of their curriculum.
Why do you think more schools are starting to introduce Mandarin?
Today, more schools are offering Mandarin alongside other languages on the school curriculum. Schools make the decision to introduce Mandarin, because they want to give their students an opportunity to learn another rich language and culture. They also realise that Mandarin is very accessible; it’s a subject enjoyed by young learners, and indeed many schools have been encouraged by their students' excellent exam results.
How do you think things differ from when you first started teaching Mandarin in the UK?
Today, both students and teachers are in a much better position than 20 years ago in terms of the resources available to them, targeting different ages and levels. They can readily exchange ideas and learn teaching skills from various discussion forums and training events.
In the last decade, students have also benefited from the extended learning opportunities such as the national Mandarin Speaking Competition and China Study Camps.
Now, the Mandarin Excellence programme by the Department for Education gives schools in England an opportunity to develop their teaching of Mandarin.
Why do you think now marks the perfect time for schools to develop their Mandarin provision?
The Mandarin Excellence programme is an intensive language programme, in which students take Mandarin lessons for an average of eight hours per week. The programme opens up a huge opportunity for schools and young people across England, which was unimaginable 20 years ago. The programme consists of classroom lessons, after-school teaching, self-study and intensive learning both in the UK and China, and aims to take students to a high level of fluency.
Feedback from the students and teachers has been overwhelmingly positive. The students have enjoyed this intensive approach to language-learning, and whilst studying for so many hours each week can be a challenge at first, they have made excellent progress. I have seen some of the work produced by the year-seven students (aged 11) and have been impressed by the level they have achieved and their insightful understanding of the culture behind the language, despite the fact that they were less than a year into the programme.
The teachers have found the teaching experience rewarding, with one teacher telling me it has been the highlight of her teaching career. Many teachers said they enjoyed teaching more, as the expanded curriculum time allowed them to go into detail with the lessons.
As a result, students have made faster progress in developing their language skills and cultural understanding. Other teachers expressed that the programme has given them an opportunity to challenge students appropriately and encourage self-study to bring out the students' strengths. The sense of achievement has made the students proud to be part of the programme and has kept them motivated throughout their Mandarin study over the year.
The Mandarin Excellence programme is being delivered by the UCL Institute of Education on behalf of the Department for Education and in partnership with the British Council.
Funding is available for state secondary schools across England, and schools can now apply to join in the 2018 academic year.