The days of ordering a Chinese takeaway by numbers could soon be over. Alan Johnson, Education Secretary, wants schools to teach Mandarin to help pupils compete in a global economy - and they seem keen to try.
Every child at Brighton College studies compulsory Mandarin, including the three-year-olds. The school, which charges termly fees of up to pound;7,579, introduced the subject last September after partnering Kingsford Community School in east London, which has done the same since 2000.
However, experts advise schools to look at staffing, exam standards and curriculum time before taking the plunge. The language is also an issue.
Chinese is tonal and the only differences between "mother" and "horse" are the tones - so mistakes are easy.
You must know at least 3,000 characters to read a newspaper, and Yasmin Scott, 13, who is learning Mandarin at Blackheath High School in south east London, says the only way to learn is to practise.
"We're used to words, but these are more like pictures - it takes more time to learn. It can be frustrating when you think it can't go into your head, but it does get easier."
Sade Demehin, her classmate, agrees: "You get a lot more done in French, beca-use in Mandarin everything is new. If I pick up a French textbook I can pronounce everything, even if I don't understand it. But Mandarin's a different story. It's different from the way English people speak."
Lessons include special events such as the Chinese New Year, and after 18 months, the class knows how to greet people, speak in present and past tenses, talk to a pen-friend and discuss hobbies and food.
Shopkeepers are also used to passing the time of day in Mandarin with Blackheath pupils, a trend which could spread if learning the language takes off.
"Our phones went red-hot after Alan Johnson said schools could teach Mandarin," says James Rowe, China programme officer at the British Council.
"Some of the enthusiasm is driven by the Government's policy, but some schools are in deprived areas and want something to make their kids stand out."
Roughly 4 per cent of state secondary schools and 18 per cent of independents offer Chinese, and demand for Chinese language assistants through the British Council rose from 35 last year to 62 this year.
Edexcel, the exam board, is also reporting a surge of interest.
But schools say teacher supply is slow. Katharine Lady Berkeley's School in Glouces-tershire has offered Mandarin as an option for brighter pupils for 10 years. A recent job advert attracted just one British-trained teacher.
"The biggest problem for us is staffing," says Janet Lageveen, head of modern languages. "We have not been able to offer Chinese to every year group because of it."
The first PGCE in Mandarin started at Goldsmiths, London, in 2002 and is run by Dr Jim Anderson. Even with three universities offering courses, there have been just 12 graduates so far, with six more expected this summer.
Although many Chinese teachers want to work here, they need additional training. "The Chinese system has a great deal of respect for education and teachers, so people have a huge culture shock if they are not familiar with the British system," says Jim.
Exams are another concern. Edexcel, which offers the only GCSEs and A-levels in Chinese, says it reviewed the standard in 2004 to make them suitable for non-native speakers. Many schools say the exams are too hard and some are opting for the Asset Languages assessment scheme instead.
Curriculum time is a critical issue too. Despite the difficulties, the schools and pupils say teaching Mandarin is worth it. Sade, 13, says: "When I overcome the challenges I look back and think 'Wow, I know all those things'."
* The British Council recruits language assistants, runs summer schools, sets up school links, organises trips and has helped produce the first textbook for the Edexcel GCSE.
* The Chinese Network, run the by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, includes a website for teachers. Visit www.schoolsnetwork.org.ukchinese.
* The new Asset Languages scheme provides more gradual assessment.
* Confucius Institutes promote Chinese language, teaching and culture worldwide. www.londonconfuciusinstitute.org.uk.
A WINNING CHOICE
Kingsford Community School in Beckton, London, introduced compulsory Mandarin when it opened in 2000 to put its polyglot pupils on a level playing field.
Julian Linathan, language college director, says Kingsford's 1,500 pupils speak about 50 languages at home.
"We wanted to choose a language which few people had any experience of so everybody was starting from scratch," he says.
The 11 to 16-year-old school now has three full-time Mandarin teachers and 24 Mandarin classes, including four at GCSE.
Pupils won a national Mandarin performance competition in 2005.
"You have to manage it carefully to make sure it's taught well and get good results, otherwise it would backfire," says Julian.