We love Chinese and that’s a fact. It’s now Britain’s favourite food having overtaken traditional fish and chips with a quarter of us rating Chinese as our top takeaway dish*. But we’re not so quick to learn the language or even encourage our youngsters to take up Mandarin so are we ready to rally behind Lord Mayor of London Boris Johnson’s battle cry for Mandarin to be taught in schools as standard?
Boris does have a point. With all this investment in UK infrastructure from China, Mandarin speakers in British-based businesses could well be gold dust in the not-too-distant future.
However, being such a vast country with many regional differences, China itself isn’t linguistically unified: China’s Education Ministry has admitted around 400 million people, a staggering 30% of the population, cannot speak Mandarin and of those who do, many cannot speak the country’s national language well enough**. Is that a good enough reason for our kids not to learn Mandarin or an even better one for them to do so?
When my almost 14-year-old’s school alluded to an aptitude for languages, I leapt on it with relief, perhaps it was possible to find an alternative career option to that of being a Shakespearean actress (there must be more job openings in languages than in the RSC!). When the school mooted the possibility of extra-curricular Mandarin, I whooped for joy!
The Chinese are so keen for the rest of the world to learn Mandarin, they have developed Confucius Institutes to promote the language and its culture around the globe. There are 11 in the UK, which are based at many top universities including Liverpool, Manchester and Nottingham, and 300 worldwide. At Kingswood Community School in East London, Mandarin has been on the curriculum since 2001 and in 2007 it became the first Confucius Classroom in London and the South East.
We can pontificate about the influence of the Chinese government in our educational establishments or accept the practicalities – who else can teach our kids, students and business people to speak Mandarin? Last year fewer than 3,000 pupils studied Mandarin Chinese to GCSE compared with 73,000 who took Spanish**.
Robert Lane Greene , author of ‘You Are What You Speak’ has a different perspective. He suggests the idea of Mandarin rising in status as a language alongside its economic gains may be flawed as evidenced by Japan which grew to become the world’s second biggest economy after World War II but its language failed to achieve the same stature.
The CBI, Britain’s foremost business lobbying group, even has offices in Beijing, admittedly in Brussels, Delhi and Washington too, underlining the importance it places on China for British industry. However, UK bosses still placed the usefulness of German, French and Spanish as a language it would like its employees to speak above Mandarin.
Interestingly, Polish was rated fifth. Perhaps there’s an argument for this language to be taught in schools, particularly where there are a high number of Polish-speaking pupils and maybe with support and input from growing Polish communities. The all-round benefits are obvious: improved cultural relations, higher levels of integration in both the school and wider community and, of course, better language skills – for English-speaking and Polish pupils.
The same, of course, can be said of Chinese. I, for one, am all for Mandarin to be taught in schools but will wait and see how my youngster copes with what has to be one of the world’s toughest languages to learn, at least for Westerners.
*Source: discount website vouchercodes.co.uk survey April 2013