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Language of Future: Why Mandarin Chinese is Taking Off in Schools Print


Original Text from www.independant.co.uk 

By Steve McCormack  Thursday, 5 July 2007


Far from being intimidated, the pupils marvel at the characters' intricate shapes

Mandarin Chinese is booming in British schools. New figures show a 27 per cent rise this year in pupils sitting the version of the GCSE most suitable for newcomers to the language. And there has been an even more noticeable increase in Mandarin pupils for the first stage of the new Asset Languages qualifications system, where entries have gone up 900 per cent.

Although the absolute numbers of pupils involved remain small – 729 sat the GCSE this year, and 1,501 took the Asset test – the trend is striking proof that languages can quickly take hold and flourish when introduced in a school. One such school is The Ashcombe School, a large comprehensive language college in Dorking, Surrey, where Mandarin has become a part of school life.

It's a normal summer-term lunch time. Footballs are being lazily kicked around the playground. A ragged queue snakes its way out of the busy dining room, and large groups of year-11s wait to file into the hall to sit one of their last GCSEs. In the background, though, a strange noise can be heard coming from a classroom window. Young voices are chanting monosyllabic sounds in unison, as a teacher holds up A4-sized cards bearing bold, black characters. No one raises an eyebrow: this is a familiar scene.

It's the weekly intermediate Chinese class. Next door, another teacher is taking a group of beginners. The specialist language college has scheduled Mandarin into both timetabled lessons and lunchtime clubs. The subject is open to pupils of all ages, and about 50 students are studying it. Over the years, hundreds have acquired some proficiency, and a few have gone on to study Mandarin at university. The school also sends staff around its feeder primaries to introduce the language to younger children.

Ashcombe was one of the first schools in the UK to start teaching Chinese, and in the last year or so more have followed suit. But while a few independent schools, among them Wellington College and Brighton College, have attracted headlines by making Chinese a compulsory subject for new entrants, their public-funded counterparts have taken a more gradual approach.

There are now about 400 state schools in the country where some Chinese is taught. For the first time, under reforms about to be implemented to the secondary curriculum, schools will be allowed to choose a non-European tongue, such as Mandarin, as the compulsory language taught to pupils when they arrive from primary school.

The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT), which works closely with the Government and represents more than 85 per cent of secondary schools, has signed an agreement with the Chinese government to bring teachers from China to help in British classrooms. The first will arrive for the start of next term. By September 2008 there should be 100 across the country.

"There's a groundswell of interest among parents which is causing real momentum," says Katherine Carruthers, Chinese coordinator at SSAT. "People in increasing numbers realise that their children should learn something about China and its language." Ashcombe's experience, however, suggests it would be unrealistic to expect Chinese to sweep through British schools right away. Ashcombe deliberately chose not to make the language compulsory for all, instead allowing pupils to opt in if they so chose, something they have largely done in small groups so far.

Neither does the school pretend that Mandarin is an easy language. The characters bear no resemblance to any European scripts. And correct intonation is so crucial that the teaching must proceed at a relatively slow pace, leavened by games and lighter activities to maintain enthusiasm.

"If you're objective, you have to say it is a hard language," says Anne Martin, a Chinese graduate who teaches two days a week at Ashcombe. "But the approach to teaching it should not start by telling pupils they'll find it harder than other languages, because it will put them off. It's important that when they start, it has to be fun."

The fun element shines through at St Martin's, Ashcombe's neighbouring primary school, where Martin runs a weekly after-school beginners' class. Today's lesson begins with the children confidently singing from one to 10 and back in Chinese. That is followed by a shopping game involving the repetition of short phrases, using real Chinese banknotes. The pupils also draw Chinese characters on the board. Far from being intimidated by their alien appearance, the pupils marvel at the intricate shapes.

Looking on, the language coordinator at St Martin's, Jackie Pidgeley, is delighted her pupils are getting this chance so early in life. "For some pupils, Chinese can really be much more of a switch-on than the standard European languages they'll meet," she says.

Ashcombe has developed a range of activities to support the classroom learning of Chinese. Chief among these are twinning arrangements with schools in China, and an annual sixth-form trip to Shanghai, during which students are immersed in Mandarin. Its English department has recently started including elements of Chinese literature in lessons for year 8 classes. And several teachers, of various subjects, have themselves joined the after-school Chinese lessons. All this bolsters the credibility of Chinese as a subject.

"When you introduce one of the world's most difficult languages, you have to think through the implications," says Peter Thompson, the deputy head. A Spanish and French teacher himself, he has been learning Mandarin in after-school classes with other staff members. "We have deliberately put down roots in every area of school life, so that the language element becomes sustainable," he says.

Across the state education system, a key factor influencing the sustainability of Mandarin is the availability of teachers. There are perhaps a few hundred of them teaching Chinese in schools at the moment, usually spreading their time between several different institutions. Unlike Martin, the majority are Chinese, and only a handful have formal teaching qualifications. As it stands there are so few teachers that it would be impossible to maintain a comprehensive programme of Chinese across a significant slice of the school system. "We recognise that it's very important to grow our own teachers," admits Carruthers, "but the teachers coming from China will support us in the short term."

The incoming teachers will be based at five "hub" state schools, one in each English region, where Chinese is already taught as a mainstream subject. It is hoped those schools will pass on their experience. It is too early to judge whether Chinese will really take hold in British schools, but a modest bridgehead has been established.

The Beijing Olympics and rise of China as an economic power will help. But much may depend on Mandarin itself: if the language ever threatens to rival English on the world stage, demand to learn it will certainly receive a substantial boost.

Easy or excruciating? Ashcombe pupils' verdict on learning Mandarin

Alex Gowan-Webster, 14 "It's quite hard when you first learn it, but when you get the knack, it's OK. Writing the characters is really difficult, but you just have to repeat them again and again to get them right. I'd like to speak Chinese because it seems as if it is going to be the next international business language."

Georgia Isbell, 12

"I found it quite easy when I started. I can now do members of the family, talk about food and drink, describe clothes and if they're nice or ugly, and say things about countries and sports. Writing the characters is quite easy, but learning what they mean and speaking them is hard."

Samantha White, 12 "It's a really fascinating language and most of the people in the world speak it. I really want to be able to learn it because China is getting bigger and bigger like America. The difficult bit is pronouncing the words the exact way. If you don't, you can get a bit screwed up."

Tom Westcott, 16 "Learning it has been enjoyable because it's been so different, although it is hard. I'm going to carry on with it for the next two years, but probably not do it at university because I want to be a pilot."

Felicity Morter, 24, former Ashcombe pupil, studied Chinese at the University of Central Lancashire "I didn't get on with French and German: The masculine and feminine thing were annoying. But when I went on a school trip to Shanghai, I got the bug. I can now translate newspaper articles, and in my oral for my finals I talked about global warming."  

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