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First Person: ‘Why schools should teach Mandarin’


Mandarin Chinese is spoken by around 800 million people worldwide. That's twice the number of English speakers.

With China becoming increasingly powerful in business, there's a growing need for Mandarin speakers.

The Government is pushing for stronger business ties with China. The British Council programme, Generation UK, encourages British people to go to China and experience it, gearing them towards furthering the links between Britain and China. So why is there such a lack of interest in schools teaching Mandarin?

French and German still dominate modern foreign language courses in school. There are two main problems with this. First, since language GCSEs became optional in 2004, numbers have dropped. The declining trend in language students is incredibly concerning, but it goes with a growing national attitude of "everyone speaks English". I think the diminishing numbers has a great deal to do with a stale language curriculum and boredom with the system. The obsession over these two languages is outdated. Given the amount of education reforms the Government has introduced, it's out of place.

Second, by restricting our students to European languages, we are limiting their opportunities for the future. An often quoted phrase about Mandarin is to "seal the business deals of tomorrow". In China, it's common for nursery children to start learning English, because the Chinese recognise it as an important language. We should reciprocate this, for the possibility that in the near future, Mandarin could overtake English as the global language of business.

It seems unlikely now, but when you consider the fall of French or Latin as Europe's common language, stranger things have happened.

Mandarin is spoken by more people than French and German combined, and spoken by people we are keen to do business with.

Finally, there's more than just the utility factor of Mandarin as a language. It is fun. I started learning Mandarin properly when I was at university. I think people are scared of it because it is so different, but that doesn't necessarily mean difficult. The four tones are not hard to learn. Mandarin's grammar is fairly self-explanatory; a student in the UK would have few problems. It's simple; it doesn't mess around with overcomplicated tenses and rules. I also think it has the curiosity factor.

China is still very far away and, while people might argue you can't visit on a day trip and practise, that's part of its charm in a way.

It's the mysterious East, that faraway place where you know the food and maybe some history but it maintains its own mystique.

Alice Eaton is a history and migration studies graduate who speaks several languages and enjoys foreign travel. She currently lives in Kibworth.


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