Since the Prime Minister’s visit to China in December 2013, there has been more talk in the press not just about the rise of China, but also about the teaching of Mandarin Chinese. Does teaching Mandarin make sense for schools – for students, MFL departments or headteachers? From our perspective here at the Institute of Education (IOE), it certainly does.
Let’s take students first. Learning Mandarin Chinese has the same excitement for young people as any language, but more so. When you are 11, learning to conjugate sein or avoir can seem to take forever, but Chinese verbs don’t conjugate and there are no tenses. So the verb ‘to be’ is 是 and it is the same whether it is linked with I, you or they; to make 是 into a past timeframe, you just precede it with 昨天 (yesterday). Progression is easy.
The standard mantra is that characters are hard. This is not true and they often build up logically. Let’s look at a few. Note that they all have the same first character which means electric.
电脑 (electric brain)，电话 (electric speech)，电视 (electric vision)，电影 (electric shadows).
I leave the reader to guess the English meanings, but answers are at the end of this blogpost. More of this approach to decoding characters can be found at www.chineasy.org. Take a look.
For students, learning Chinese is enriching culturally. Study of the language and culture enable an entirely different way of looking at things. Students move quickly beyond the Paul Merton in China comprehension of the country (i.e. that everything is weird) to a more complex understanding of aspects of an ancient culture and artefacts, the ever-popular martial arts and a thriving contemporary cultural scene.
Does teaching Chinese make sense for the MFL Department? It makes no sense not to. The students love it and there is plenty of evidence, albeit anecdotal (for we are yet to push forward on a substantive research agenda) that students who have not hitherto been motivated by language learning enjoy Chinese too. Nearly everyone is starting together at the beginning with characters. Characters are constructed from components; students enjoying shapes and looking for similarities are intrigued by the puzzle. There are no endings, so characters can be manipulated to make sentences easily.
At GCSE, where Mandarin Chinese is embedded in a school, results are often amongst the best in the MFL department. There are now good teaching materials available, written by teachers teaching Chinese in this country. There is a strong Chinese teaching community of native and non-native speaker teachers, which is mutually supportive. There is an Annual Chinese Conference for school teachers of Chinese – this year’s (the 11th) is on 6 June at the IOE with over 270 registered to attend.
Why should headteachers make room for Mandarin? Gone are the days when it was impossible to find a teacher. Mandarin Chinese teachers are doing PGCEs and coming into the system.
There is a chance to give your school an edge. Schools which offer Mandarin Chinese are finding that this is a ‘key draw’ for applicants. Some schools, for instance Kingsford Community School in Newham, have found that focus on Mandarin and Chinese culture for all has also proved a cohesive force for the school community.
Headteachers need to prepare their students for the future. As Leszek Borysiewicz, vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, said in the Guardian this week: “In an international world of tomorrow, I’d love to see more children in Britain having more than one language to be able to fall back on.”
There is no reason why not to add Mandarin Chinese to the range of languages on offer in school and lots of compelling reasons why it is a very good idea.
Katharine Carruthers is director of the Confucius Institute at the IOE. This post was first published by The TES as part of Languages Week
Answers to the character quiz:电脑(computer)，电话 (telephone)，电视 (TV)，电影(films).