There’s a certain irony in teaching modern foreign languages. For sure, schools are attempting to halt the free-fall the numbers of students taking foreign languages by using many different persuading arguments. We hear about how it will help you in a more globalised world – particularly one in which Chinese and Mandarin in particular are more important, giving you language skills that will put you a cut above the rest when it comes to applying for jobs. It makes travelling easier too, with the ability to converse better with the people you meet on the way. All in all, it’s something I’ve been quite a proponent of.
Despite the flaws in the way that schools teach modern foreign languages, I do think that they certainly provide students with a basic understanding in terms of what schools want them to learn for exams. It’s better than nothing.
The choice available isn’t too shabby either – I could, and did, study French, German and Spanish at GCSE. I also did French at A Level. A nice wide range of languages, then. I’d be happy with that.
Back to that irony then – what schools don’t do enough of, and that’s actually teaching the most widely-spoken language in the world – not just in terms of native speakers, but the most widely-spoken of all. I am, of course, talking about Mandarin.
With 960 million native speakers, Mandarin is fast becoming a popular option across the world as a foreign language study, yet we seem to be lagging behind in Britain.
In a study of 832 teachers conducted in February 2013, only 9% of secondary school teachers said that it was available in their institution as a subject. Fast forward to June of this year and that number is 11% (for state schools). Not exactly rapid growth, is it?
There is somewhat brighter news for those at independent schools, where the availability rate is 38%. However, this is by no means a completely finished job.
At present, only 30 specialist teachers in Mandarin qualify each year – due in part to the fact that only 1% of the UK population fluently speaks Mandarin anyhow.
I can hear the cries of ‘well, what’s the point then?!’ already. What you have to remember is that this isn’t solely to help with speaking different languages in our country, but to help people of all ages with international mobility – quite important given that we’re talking about 15% of the world we aren’t reaching out to fully.
Help does, however, appear to be at hand for a lack of teachers and stagnant numbers of students. Last month, Education Minister Elizabeth Truss was reported as saying that the number of students learning Mandarin could be doubled by the time we get to 2019. Sounds rather optimistic, but there is a lot of optimism behind the prediction to match, thanks to a new centre to be opened in London for the Spring of next year.
The Confucius Institute will help teach the language and provide support to teachers in training – the idea is to increase the number of qualified teachers in Mandarin to 1,200 by 2019. This in turn will help boost numbers, with any luck.
The hope is that these newly-qualified Mandarin teachers will head into state schools, where the need is greater at present.
The biggest player in foreign languages and student mobility, the British Council, has described the news as ‘excellent’. Indeed, Director for Strategy John Worne said that: “This is excellent news. Growth in the number of students learning Chinese over the past few years has been sluggish at best – despite it being one of the most important languages for the UK’s future on the world’s stage, according to our own British Council research.”
According to Ms Truss, the centre will be “world-leading” and was a “huge step forward” to increasing the popularity of the language in schools up and down the nation. With the backing of the British Council and the Department for Education, I can only imagine that this is going to be rather fruitful for the education system and languages. With any luck, it’s going to help pick up numbers and drive some enthusiasm.
All of this comes as UK employers reported to the Confederation of British Industry that Mandarin came in at number 2 on their list of most desirable languages for candidates to have. The top choice was French – clearly showing the value of those years I spent toiling over grammar!
Such a high rating for Mandarin really doesn’t surprise me, given China’s current position as the fastest-growing economy in the world. Businesses are bound to be searching for candidates who understand this and are prepared to travel across the world, expanding and strengthening trade links as they go.
I have one reservation about all of this, and that is how the Department for Education will deal with the actual curriculum material. There is bound to be a certain amount of changing to make it more ‘in line’ with the other languages as the participation increases. That said, I think it would be wise to avoid the same format of the other foreign languages on offer – something I’ve discussed and criticised in the post I’ve linked to earlier. The issue here is that there needs to be a definite practical emphasis on this – lots of work on business and enterprise skills and how to converse with people in a professional environment. It needs to fit the purpose for which employers like it.
I fear that if we have the Department for Education turn it into the same sort of style as the other modern languages out there, we’re going to see the value and hard work all lost. Why? Because the current style doesn’t work on the speaking or the practical skills that people will want to use them for.
In my view, if the content is interesting, engaging and relevant to the global economy, this will work a treat – Confucius will help boost numbers and take-up is surely going to be much greater. I like the idea and I hope it results in many more people learning the language.