Wanted: home-grown teachers of Mandarin

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 implemented.

Apart from the feelgood factor, what did these Chinese teachers leave behind?

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 China.

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 wealthy students?

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 bicultural.

Learning Mandarin is a great opportunity but it may be that the policy needs more thought before sticking in a manifesto.

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