By Vicky Gough, Schools Adviser, British Council

05 February 2014 - 09:42

Chinese Mandarin is considered one of the most important languages for the UK's future. Photo of Year of the Horse celebrations in Liverpool by Beverley Goodwin, Creative Commons licence.
'Chinese Mandarin is considered one of the most important languages for the UK's future.' Photo ©

Beverley Goodwin, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.

UK schools traditionally teach European languages, but with several current government initiatives attempting to also connect the UK better with China, the British Council's Vicky Gough answers how UK schools can help their students pick up Mandarin Chinese.

The languages that will seal the business deals

At the end of his visit to China in early December 2013, the UK Prime Minister said it was time for British school children to look beyond the traditional focus on European languages. He said they should consider learning the languages -- as he put it -- that will 'seal tomorrow’s business deals'.

The British Council recently published a report called ‘Languages for the Future’, which spelled out the challenge for the UK to boost its linguistic abilities.

The report identified one of the most important languages for this country’s future as Mandarin Chinese -- hardly surprising, given the size of China’s economy, and the fact that Mandarin is spoken by around 800 million people.

What hinders UK schools that want to teach Mandarin Chinese

There are several factors hindering UK schools, however: Recruiting high-quality teachers is a challenge and even the short-term teachers supported by us and our partners HSBC and Hanban need to be further supported in the classroom, as they are not used to the UK education system and may have different expectations on behaviour management, teaching styles, and so on. Teaching resources at primary school are scarce and wider guidance within which to use these is also missing. This means that Chinese is more likely to be taught in independent schools, to gifted students rather than across the cohort, and as a taster rather than being embedded in the curriculum.

What some UK schools are doing to teach Mandarin Chinese

Despite the challenges, there are examples of good practice. At our HSBC-sponsored event for UK headteachers last week, Clare Kelly, headteacher at Dane Royd J & I in Wakefield, said that intercultural understanding provided the fun, enjoyment and relevance of the school's languages programme, which includes both French and Chinese. The reason it works is a combination of well-trained Chinese language assistants supported by class teachers who remain in all lessons, a library with cultural resources, a clear teaching plan built on intercultural understanding, including typical Chinese learning activities such as morning exercise, art and dance, and strong links with a Chinese partner school, used to work on joint curriculum projects and exchange resources.

Another example worth mentioning is Bohunt School – its motto: 'If you do what you’ve always done, then you’ll get what you’ve always got.' The school discovered CLIL (Content and Language-Integrated Learning). Modules or units of work in many subject areas are prepared and delivered in the students’ second language, often after a year or two of conventional language lessons. They developed a curriculum model of one third immersion, starting in 2009 with French, 2011 with Spanish and 2013 with Chinese. At the end of the second year, the group that took part was, on average, two sub-levels ahead of its peers across all subjects. Their progress in the language was more than twice as fast as that of their peers. Even their understanding of English was superior. Their confidence and resilience had increased through a supportive and collaborative approach to learning and their attention was more focused.

What next for Mandarin Chinese in UK schools

With Hanban, we are commissioning research to assess how many Mandarin Chinese speakers the UK will need in order to effectively engage with Chine in the future. The research will also establish the current capacity and output of Chinese speakers and identify any gaps. Finally, it will analyse the current policy environment and provisions for Chinese language learning in the UK, particularly the public education systems, and identify the specific factors that help and hinder greater take-up of Chinese.

The Institute of Education (IOE) also launched 'Mandarin Chinese for Primary Schools'. Funded by HSBC’s Global Education Programme, the project will run for five years initially and support primary schools that wish to study China and Mandarin Chinese, by sharing best practice and developing resources. It will also encourage much-needed research into effective ways to teach Mandarin in UK primary schools.

Updated: UK schools, find out how you can apply for a language assistant who is a native speaker of French, Spanish, German, Chinese, Italian, Russian or Irish. Applications are still open.

UK primary schools, download our Year of the Monkey education pack to introduce your students to the differences and similarities between UK and Chinese culture.

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