The case for Mandarin

Napoleon once called China the ‘sleeping giant’, warning that once awake, she could shake the world. As the world’s second largest economy, and predicted to be the biggest by 2016, China appears ready to do just that! The country is already leading the way when it comes to its official language; Mandarin is the most widely spoken language in the world with more than a billion speakers.

So why is it important to consider learning Mandarin?

• Communication: Did you know that speaking Mandarin allows you to speak with more people than any other language, including English!

• Getting that dream job: Research has shown that 74 per cent of employers look for employees with at least a conversational second language. In a 2010 CBI survey, UK employers named Mandarin as second only to French in the language skills they are looking for.

• Improving our cultural understanding: More than just a set of words, Mandarin allows individuals to understand and explore one of the most ancient cultures in the world! The British Council claim: “Developing a real understanding of China will be crucial to the relationship, and learning Mandarin will ensure that our young people have the intercultural skills to communicate effectively.”

It’s for these reasons and more that the UK has seen Mandarin’s popularity in schools increase in recent years with GCSE entries rising by 40 per cent over the last decade. Yet, there are only around 100 qualified Mandarin teachers and 16 per cent of secondary schools offering the subject.

The Government has stepped in to help rectify this, and underway is a pioneering national programme which sees the UK partnering with China to train 1000 Mandarin teachers for secondary schools in England. The five year joint programme that started in 2011 is being run by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust and Hanban (the Confucius Institute Headquarters).

But what about introducing Mandarin in the classroom? Yes, it can appear daunting at first, but actually Mandarin is fun due to the very nature that it is so different from traditional European languages taught in schools! Here is what we mean:

• There is no alphabet, just many thousands of characters. Chinese characters represent the oldest writing system in the world.

• Mandarin uses four tones to clarify the meanings of words. It means that for one given syllable or word, you have four different meanings.

• The grammar is a lot easier; there are no verb tenses, no relative clauses and no singular or plural unlike many European languages.

Top tips for making learning Mandarin more accessible:

• Access the ‘real deal’. Internet programmes like Vocab Express and VoIP technology opens doors for students to interact with native Mandarin speakers, whether in person or with pre-recorded narratives. This is vital when learning a language, as it is as much about listening as speaking.

• Explore the possibility of school links. A school connecting with a school in China would allow students to not only practice their speaking and listening abilities, but learn more about a different way of life.

• Practice makes perfect. Online applications like Vocab Express means students can practice their vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation skills at school and home when suits them.

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