Chinese infusion

As concerns mount over school language learning, one academy is lifting Mandarin off the page by steeping the curriculum in Chinese culture and even insisting that staff attend lessons. Irena Barker finds out how this immersive way of teaching works

First of all, it's the chimney, then the roof, the curtains, then my big hat," explains Haiyan Yin, gesticulating animatedly. "But the hat's too big, hold on to your hat, here's my body . look at my dress," she concludes with a coquettish flick of her leg.

In the first few minutes, Yin's Mandarin Chinese lesson is baffling, to say the least. All this talk of chimneys and dresses and hats seems to have little to do with the most fashionable foreign language available in UK schools. Indeed, it seems to have little to do with anything Chinese at all. But after a short while, it becomes obvious. These curious descriptions are simply the teacher's imaginative aide-memoire for how to draw the elaborate strokes of the Chinese character chuan, meaning "to wear".

Inspired by Yin's enthusiastic display, students are immediately fired up and take to their own mini-whiteboards. Attempts to reproduce the character yield varied results, but the keenness of students cannot be disputed.

"This is horrible, Miss!" shrieks Federico, a particularly enthusiastic student, as he reveals a messy Chinese character on his whiteboard. The teacher marks the work in front of the class, using the opportunity to teach some numbers as she goes. The emphasis on writing the characters also seems to help lodge the word firmly in the brain.

An artful description of another word - xiang, meaning "to want" - features Yin gazing longingly out of the window and drawing a heart on the whiteboard. The emotive approach seems effective, etching the vocabulary on the soul.

But the dramatised writing techniques are not the only notable aspect of the lively Mandarin Chinese lessons at the new UCL Academy in Camden, North London. Since it opened in September 2012, the university-sponsored school has been aiming for the whole curriculum to be infused with Chinese language and culture.

Rather extraordinarily, all teachers - whatever their subject specialism - have to learn the language and attend lessons alongside the children. Although lessons in other curriculum areas are taught in English, all staff are expected to greet and praise their students using a range of Mandarin phrases. They are encouraged to use Mandarin "phrases of the week" to drive the message home across the curriculum.

Having staff attend lessons also allows Yin to pit her students against their teachers, which turns out to be particularly motivating. So, when assistant principal Tom Bowen challenges the students to translate an elaborate sentence about wearing a red jumper, they will not give up until they have unravelled it.

"Chinese levels the playing field: it is new to most children and staff. If the children can see that the usual experts (teachers) struggle, the playing field is levelled," Bowen says. "They are learning explicit grammar in a kinaesthetic lesson, but by seeing our flaws, it also develops student-teacher relationships. The students get to point out our mistakes, and when do students have the chance to do that elsewhere?"

Even the principal of the school, Geraldine Davies, has started learning Mandarin, although she admits that languages are not her strong point. "I have Mandarin on my iPod on the train," she says. "I greet the students in Mandarin, but I did only French and Italian at O level. My languages improve with a glass of wine, but I'm still really a chemist at heart. Learning Mandarin made me anxious; it made me remember what it's like to be a learner."

The school has been open for only a year, nursing a group of 180 students in Year 7 (aged 11-12) and 125 in Year 12 (aged 16-17). All follow compulsory courses in Mandarin, with Year 7 doing one and a half hours a week. This academic year, there will be two qualified Mandarin teachers including Yin, who trained as a teacher in China before coming to the UK. Support is offered to students who speak a range of community languages, in particular to boost their reading and writing.

`A bold statement'

But the obsession with Chinese does not stop at language learning - it permeates everything in the school. For example, Bowen went as far as teaching himself t'ai chi so he could hold sessions with students and would like to gain a qualification in Mandarin so that he can eventually teach it.

Students are also treated to masterclasses in Chinese writing and have created artistic displays on the meaning of different colours in Chinese culture. Experts have visited to teach fan dancing, opera mask painting, calligraphy and Chinese cookery. The school also receives support for its Chinese curriculum in the form of three native-speaking mentors, currently undergraduates at University College London, the academy's sponsor.

"If we have to make a bold statement about doing Mandarin, we have to do it damn well," Bowen says. "But by making that bold statement, we have also to make it accessible to all children."

The school aims for all students to achieve a qualification of some kind, from an Asset Languages certificate to a GCSE or A level. "Our ambition is to establish ourselves as a centre of excellence for Mandarin," Bowen says.

Senior staff say the first year of the project has gone well, although there have been occasional complaints from parents that Mandarin is the only language currently available. Spanish will be offered from this month and there are plans to introduce other languages in due course.

But this blanket approach to languages is on the rise: it is being adopted in a number of schools including City Heights, a new academy in Lambeth, South London, which opens this month. There, principal Jim Henderson intends to make Spanish language and culture its specialism, giving every student and all staff the opportunity to learn the language and culture of Spain and Latin America.

He also hopes to form partnerships with schools in Spanish-speaking countries, and there will be an emphasis on Latin American history in humanities.

"Language has to follow culture. If you're not interested in the country and the people, why would you be interested in the language?" Henderson asks. "This approach aims to enthuse the children with an interest in Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries, and language learning becomes part of that." A number of support staff are Spanish speaking and all the school signage is written in Spanish as well as English.

Henderson also hopes to exploit local connections to bring Spanish speakers into the school to give talks. Latin American shop owners in the Brixton area, he says, will have exciting tales to tell about their immigrant experiences. He adds that making the whole school learn Spanish together has a "unifying" effect, creating a sense of togetherness.

"It will become our second institutional language, reflecting the large Spanish-speaking population in the area," he adds.

Meanwhile, other schools are going a step further by offering trendy but resource-hungry "immersion" teaching in a variety of languages.

Research has suggested that teaching students other subjects in a foreign language not only helps them to learn the new language but, somewhat counter-intuitively, improves their results in the subject being taught. Bohunt School, an academy in Hampshire, England, has pioneered the approach, and students are taught subjects as varied as physical education and ICT in either Spanish or French. From this month, Year 7s will be able to follow academic courses taught in Mandarin.

But it is the approach to Mandarin at UCL Academy that will be music to the ears of politicians who are keen to emphasise the importance of Mandarin Chinese in the global economy.

Halt the decline

England's three main exam boards announced an inquiry recently after it emerged that A-level entries for French, German and Spanish had dropped by a collective 17.8 per cent since 2008. It is hoped that up-and-coming languages such as Mandarin and Arabic, which students might see as more relevant to the modern world, could help to reverse the decline.

However, it is not all good news for Mandarin. The most recent Language Trends survey by the CfBT Education Trust shows that although the proportion of state secondary schools offering Mandarin rose from 9 per cent to 16 per cent between 2007 and 2009, it fell to 14 per cent in 2011. More than a third of independent schools offer the subject.

Entries for A-level Chinese (including Mandarin and Cantonese) actually fell over the past year, with 3,326 students sitting the exam in 2013, down by around 100. AS-level entries also dropped slightly.

Numbers at GCSE have plummeted in the past few years, largely because of changes in the way it is examined, so that a school can host the exam only if it has a qualified teacher. Indeed, experts say that the key obstacle to the teaching of Mandarin is the paucity of qualified teachers - there are only around 100 in the UK.

This means that Mandarin is usually an adjunct to the main curriculum, offered as a lunchtime or after-school club. China's government itself is hoping to address this by extending the reach of its Confucius Institute, which promotes Chinese language and culture abroad. The UK branch was recently taken under the wing of the Institute of Education at the University of London, a move designed to significantly increase the number of teachers trained.

The Confucius Institute has been charged with the job of delivering dozens of new Mandarin teachers each year, either through traditional training routes or by helping teachers from China to convert to the British system. The institute also has a network of 34 Confucius Classrooms across the UK - trailblazing schools offering Mandarin that promote good practice and offer support to other schools planning to introduce the subject.

Indeed, there seems to be no shortage of schools wanting to bring Mandarin on to the curriculum. It looks as if Yin could have her work cut out.

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