The Conservatives are promising more Mandarin
teachers – and in an ideal world every young person should be able to
learn it as a language of their choice. But is this a manifesto pledge
that can be implemented?
Tucked away in the Conservative manifesto is the pledge: “increase the number of teachers able to teach Mandarin”.
Call me suspicious or even cynical, but l have
concerns. I love languages and believe that all children should have
the right to learn one from an early age. I would love all young people
to learn a language until 16, but not as long as we have only GCSE to
assess and reward their efforts – in my opinion, GCSE assessment sets
many good young language learners up for failure.
But this is about Mandarin. Why Mandarin?
Well, as one tweeter said when I asked the question on Twitter: “global
race to the top, skills and jobs, high wage economy”. I agree. In an
ideal world it would be brilliant if every young person were able to
learn Mandarin as a language of their choice.
So why am I suspicious? I know that some
schools are teaching Mandarin well and are committed to its status as a
modern foreign language. I am not decrying what they do brilliantly, I
am just asking if what they do is truly replicable and sustainable for
more schools, and if the line in the manifesto can really be
For a number of years while heading up the
secondary team at CILT, the former National Centre for Languages, and
later at the then Centre for British Teachers, I worked closely with the
British Council in training Chinese teachers of Mandarin, in China and
in the UK. We trained them to come to teach in primary and secondary
schools for a year.
The teachers were wonderful and many made huge
sacrifices to spend their time here. They lapped up our training,
brought their own linguistic, pedagogical and cultural expertise to our
schools, built great relationships with teachers and pupils and, in many
cases, gave our children memorable and gorgeous experiences of modern
On my extensive visits to primary and
secondary schools I saw some “lovely” lessons but little that was
actually about teaching young people to speak Mandarin. The cultural
aspects were engaging and motivating, which is a great start, but the
language work tended to be heavily based around vocabulary learning or
short phrases. At the end of the year the teachers go home – they cannot
stay longer than a year – and I always wondered what, apart from the
feelgood factor, was left behind?
So, a few questions. How do we create more
home-grown teachers of Mandarin to provide sustainable, high quality
teaching? What happens at secondary transfer? We already have major
challenges with the traditional foreign languages at transfer as
children often begin with one language
and then are expected to switch to a different one. Mandarin will be no exception
Also – and this one is controversial –
Mandarin is hard to learn to a high level. If it is assessed solely by
GCSE, will it be any more attractive to young people than French, German
or Spanish, which they often start with great enthusiasm and
confidence, but struggle with when it comes to the exam.
Language teachers know that pupils’ skills
need to be supported by excellent links with schools abroad and ideally
exchanges or language-focused visits. Trips to China are expensive. Much
more so than to France or Germany. Who will support exchanges for less
Finally, we have thousands of fantastic young
linguists in our country whose skills are little recognised. And it is
about to get worse if A-levels in a range of community/heritage
languages are dropped.
Maybe if these youngsters’ language skills
were recognised they would rise to the challenge of learning a new
language with non-Roman script and tones. Maybe they could even become
the new generation of Mandarin learners and teachers. They already start
with the massive advantage of being bilingual, bi-literate and
Learning Mandarin is a great opportunity but it may be that the policy needs more thought before sticking in a manifesto.