[lg policy] UK: Chinese language plea proves tough to translate
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Sat Dec 7 14:59:40 UTC 2013
Chinese language plea proves tough to translate
By Helen Warrell, Public Policy Correspondent
It is not often that a diplomatic gesture made on one continent is felt in
primary school classrooms on another. But David Cameron’s exhortation from
China this week that UK pupils should ditch French and German in favour of
re-enlivened the debate on Britain’s difficult relationship with
While some critics suggested that the prime minister’s comments were
designed merely to please his hosts, they underlined the increasing
consensus that the UK’s education policies should align with its trade
ambitions. Only last month, the British Council warned of an “alarming
shortage” of Britons able to speak languages identified as key to the UK’s
future prosperity and global standing. Of the ten languages prioritised in
the report, Mandarin was at number four – just below French, and just above
Joan Deslandes, headteacher and founder of Kingsford Community School in
Newham – one of east London’s most deprived boroughs
unusually quick to see the potential in Chinese languages. From when the
school first opened 13 years ago, Mandarin has been compulsory for 11 to 13
year-olds, and 70 pupils took the subject for GCSE this year. Ms Deslandes
admits that many schools are too afraid of league table slippage to try a
subject perceived as difficult, but she saw it as a way to unite culturally
diverse pupils. “We have over 60 languages spoken around our school, but
Mandarin isn’t one of those,” she says. “For once, this is a language where
everyone is on a level playing field.”
However, Geoffrey Bowden, general secretary of the Association of
Translation Companies, warns that prioritising Mandarin above French and
German is “simply short-sighted”. Pointing out that UK exports to France
and Germany currently far exceed trade relations with China, he urged a
wider focus across a range of languages. “David Cameron is right to say
that Mandarin is a very important language for people here to learn, but
it’s not an either or,” Mr Bowden said. “We need to think about exposing
young minds to as many different language options as possible.”
There are still big barriers to an increased uptake of Mandarin. A YouGov
poll earlier this year showed that only 3 per cent of primary and 9 per
cent of secondary schools offered Mandarin lessons, and 2 per cent said the
subject had been dropped altogether. Michael Gove, education secretary,
signed a deal with China’s Hanban – the office for teaching Mandarin as a
foreign language – to bring 1,000 more teachers to the UK three years ago,
but demand still outstrips supply.
Several people told the Financial Times that a key problem remains
acquainting Chinese natives with the UK school system and helping them
adapt to the less formal classroom environment. It has also been difficult
just to keep Chinese teachers in the country. Last month Scotland’s first
minister Alex Salmond criticised a Home Office decision to not to renew the
visas of two Mandarin teachers from China
had spent a year in Scotland as part of a Confucius Institute programme.
Some schools, however, have had significant successes. Wellington College,
an independent school in Berkshire, last year opened a £500,000 Mandarin
language centre housed in a pagoda complete with Chinese water garden.
Currently 105 of the school’s 1,000 pupils are studying the language.
The new UCL academy in North London has gone even further, with compulsory
Mandarin lessons for all pupils right up to sixth form, and school staff.
Tom Bowen, assistant principal responsible for languages, explains that the
headteacher will often address pupils in Mandarin outside lessons and
expects them to respond in the same language.
He admits that it is a “very hard” subject to master, but says the benefits
outweigh the barriers. “It’s really important that children learn to
understand a culture that’s not their own . . . Chinese is now just part of
our academy life.”
Not ‘too difficult’ and a good test of character
It involves learning thousands of characters and developing an ear for
subtle differences in tone, but education experts still deny that Mandarin
is harder to master than European languages.
Katharine Carruthers, director of the Institute of Education’s Confucius
centre – which promotes Chinese teaching – argues that the significant
advantages of Mandarin are its lack of verb tenses and noun articles.
“Anyone who has ever tried to teach year 7 and year 8 to conjugate avoir
and ȇtre and then when you think they’ve got that, the passé compose… might
not think Mandarin is too difficult,” she says.
Technology has also helped enliven the tedious job of memorising lists of
Chinese characters, with a profusion of new online games which test pupils’
knowledge via animate characters bounding around the screen.
Ms Carruthers adds that for some children, learning Mandarin, with its
focus on sound and visual images, may even be easier than grappling with
the technical grammar of German or French. “There’s now some really good
evidence that schools are doing better in GCSE Chinese than in other
languages,” she says.
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