The growth in A-level entries for Chinese shows that students are not put off studying languages because of their perceived difficulty, exam boards have said.
Entries for Chinese rose from 3,070 in 2017 to 3,334 this year – an 8.6 per cent rise, with the subject now outstripping German in its popularity.
Speaking to journalists this morning, Pearson vice-president Derek Richardson said that difficulty did not appear to be "the main driver behind the entry volumes in modern languages".
He pointed out that a smaller proportion of candidates received the A* in Chinese compared with German, for which entries plummeted by 16.5 per cent this year.
"It doesn’t seem to me that the grading standards are the sole thing that drives entries," Mr Richardson said.
"Maybe young people are thinking about what languages could be important to them in the future and what languages are most spoken in the world."
Mark Bedlow, director of regulation and business performance at the OCR board, suggested that the increase in entries to study Mandarin could be because of the economic rise of China.
"Some of the trends we’re seeing in subject choices are reflecting students really thinking about the qualifications they need to study, in order to equip them for what they need to do in the next stage of their career,” he said.
However, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, cast doubt on this.
“I don’t think it’s young people getting a sense of where the world is going and saying, ‘OK, I see my future in China.' I would be very surprised if it was that.”
German 'on the brink of extinction' in schools
Mr Barton said the shift could reflect changing demographic trends in the UK.
“Part of it might be that what we’ve got is children for whom Chinese is a first language, or Chinese has been part of their own culture," he said.
He also rubbished the idea that the rise in uptake of the subject was the result of the government's four-year Mandarin Excellence Programme, which was launched by schools minister Nick Gibb in 2016.
"What it’s not [because of] is Nick Gibb’s reforms to do with teaching Mandarin. The reason we know it’s not that is those students won’t have worked their way into the sixth form yet."
Mr Barton suggested that Chinese eclipsing German had more to do with the collapse of the latter because of school funding cuts.
“The biggest pressures on funding have been post-16," he said.
Faced with the need to reduce costs, he said schools had to "increase class sizes" and "cut courses".
"If you cut courses, you cut courses with the smallest numbers. Therefore, you will cut courses like German.
“It’s pretty bleak that what we are seeing in the state sector is the extinction of German – we’re on the brink of that."