Mandarin for starters

Brighton College, on the south coast of England, where the fees are £20 466 a year, has one thing in common with the state-funded Kingsford community school in the East End of London, where more than 50% of students qualify for free school meals. Both are committed to the teaching of Mandarin Chinese. At Kingsford, the subject has been compulsory for all pupils aged 13 and 14 since the school opened in September 2000.

Understandably, then, staff and governors were startled to read in many national newspapers recently that Brighton College would be the first school in the United Kingdom to make Mandarin part of its core curriculum.

‘We’ve been delighted with the response from students,’’ says Joan Deslandes, head at Kingsford. ‘Boys seem to be particularly motivated. Maybe it’s to do with Chinese culture and martial arts. A lot of the commands are in Mandarin.’’ It is, after all, the official language of China, spoken by the majority of its 1,3-billion people.

The Kingsford management team’s decision to offer the subject in the first place was partly a response to the school’s linguistic diversity—to give all pupils the chance to start from the same level with a language they are most unlikely to have encountered before. As it is, more than 50 tongues are spoken within its walls, and 58% of pupils are bilingual or multilingual. Yet Kingsford has a higher proportion of indigenous white students, 45%, than any other school in the London borough of Newham where it is situated.

The school stands in Beckton, a former dockland area a few miles and several light years from upmarket Canary Wharf, where the HSBC Bank has its UK headquarters. As the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, the company is keen to promote Chinese in British schools. Along with the British Council, HSBC recently sponsored a conference on Mandarin and last year it ran a competition for schools where Mandarin is taught.

‘About 20 or so took part, most of them independents [private schools],’’ Deslandes recalls. ‘And we took first prize in the performance section. Six of our students won a trip to China. There were gasps from some of the Chinese nationals present at just how good they were.’‘

Being ‘good’’ at Chinese is not easy for those brought up in a Western culture. To hold a conversation in Mandarin and read a newspaper or a book, some experts suggest, students have to master a minimum of 4 000 characters. Which might explain why even schools with specialist status in languages are not all rushing to pick up the challenge thrown down by the Confederation of British Industry’s Director General, Sir Digby Jones, to support the needs of business by spreading the subject more widely.

Tile Hill Wood Language College in Coventry, in central England, for instance, has no plans to deviate from the policy it adopted in 1998—to offer Japanese as well as French, German, Spanish and Italian. ‘We can’t just switch because a new language becomes fashionable,’’ says the head of languages, Jo Redford.

The new head of Brighton College, Richard Cairns, would argue that the issue is more than just fashion. ‘I was on holiday in Australia over the New Year when I picked up the Sydney Morning Herald,’’ he recalls. ‘They were reporting, rather gleefully, that China had overtaken Great Britain as the fourth most powerful economy in the world. It made me wonder whether we are as concerned about this as we should be. It’s madness that the vast majority of children here are not exposed to Far Eastern language and culture. We rely on the Chinese to make the effort. I felt duty bound to do something about that.’’ Accordingly, the first act of his headship when he took over at the beginning of this term was to add Mandarin to French as a compulsory subject for all incoming pupils at 13. What’s more, he intends to join the classes himself.

His predecessor at Brighton is Dr Anthony Seldon, who has since moved to Wellington College, where he intends to offer Mandarin as an option for junior school children as young as eight. ‘We’re never going to understand the Chinese until we get inside their psyche,’’ he says.

‘So there should be much more teaching of Mandarin in the state sector as well as the independents.”

Certainly the statistics tell only part of the story.

The number of sixth-formers taking Chinese at Advanced Level (school leaver) has risen by almost 50% since 2001. At GCSE level (exams taken at age 16), there have been 40% more candidates.

‘But this growth is from a very low base,’’ points out Isabella Moore, director of Cilt, the national centre for languages. ‘Only around 3 000 candidates sat GCSE Chinese last year, compared to about 50 000 sitting French and 100 000 German. Those who do take a GCSE, however, are much more likely to remain committed and go on to do A-level. Entries at A-level stood around the 2 000 mark in 2005, compared to around 12 000 for French and 5 000 each for German and Spanish.’‘

So where are the candidates coming from? Moore suspects that most are from Chinese community schools—students with a Chinese family background. And those families are predominantly from Hong Kong and the south of China, where Cantonese is the mother tongue. Nonetheless, she remains sanguine about the ability of British children from many backgrounds to grasp the basics of Mandarin.

‘Although Britain has traditionally been a multicultural country with a monocultural mindset, I think that’s changing. A lot of youngsters in our inner-city schools are already operating in three or four languages and their dexterity is a huge benefit.’‘

When it comes to Mandarin, it would seem, she is less concerned by the ability of the students than the supply of teachers. ‘Only two or three teacher-training institutions in this country are offering courses in Chinese,’’ she says. One of them is Goldsmiths College in London, which is now supplying Kingsford with staff. The school has two white teachers who, having lived in China, teach Mandarin as well as French. Another two Chinese teachers were recruited after a trip to China. ‘At the same time, we have some Mandarin teaching assistants, sponsored by the British Council,’’ she adds.

And how many Chinese pupils are there at Kingsford? ‘Two,’’ she says. Which means that the school pioneering the teaching of Mandarin in the UK has more Chinese staff than students.—



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