Set pupils on the path towards fluency in Mandarin

One intensive language programme is helping students across England to become successful speakers of the world's most-spoken language

British Council

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As the most spoken language in the world, Mandarin Chinese is widely recognised as an important language for young people in the UK to learn. But is it possible for pupils to learn it to near fluency? And could your school be teaching it?

This is the challenge that the secondary school pupils participating in the Mandarin Excellence Programme have chosen to take on. The intensive language programme – which is the first initiative of its kind in the UK – is already seeing hundreds of pupils across England learning Mandarin for an average of eight hours a week.

Here, Samantha Deabreau, Chinese teacher at Christopher Whitehead Language College in Worcester, and Jo Bao, Chinese teacher at Dartford Grammar School in Kent, share their experiences of being part of the programme, and why they would encourage more schools to get involved.

Why should young people in the UK learn Mandarin?

Samantha: Mandarin is an increasingly important language in a globalised society. China’s economy is the second largest in the world – and multinational trade and business increasingly demands it. We need to ensure that our students, the workforce of the future, have every opportunity to be an integral part of thriving businesses.

Jo: I think it’s important for young people to learn about other cultures – and language is a great way to do that. The world is becoming more and more connected so it’s good for young people to think about other countries and ways of life. It also helps them to reflect on their own experience and identity.

How did you get involved in the Mandarin Excellence Programme? 

Samantha: In 2007, I was working as a second-year teacher of French and Spanish at Christopher Whitehead Language College and suggested to my then-language college director that it might be a good idea for his MFL teachers to start learning Mandarin. Four MFL teachers started to learn after school for two hours a week.

In 2010, we felt confident enough as a group of teachers to teach it as a second language to four Year 7 groups and I continued learning alongside teaching a group until October 2012, when I left the school to become head of languages elsewhere. On returning to Christopher Whitehead in September 2012 as a lead practitioner, I was asked to lead and coordinate the Mandarin Excellence Programme as part of my role.

Jo: Dartford Grammar School has a strong history of – and very good reputation for – Chinese teaching, so we were approached by UCL Institute of Education (IOE) about the Mandarin Excellence Programme at the very beginning. I did my teacher training at Dartford three years ago and have been here ever since so that’s how I have become involved in the programme.

How have you and the students found being part of the programme?

Samantha: The students have completely engaged with the programme. They love the variety facilitated by the intensity of learning and opportunities offered and this has meant that motivation is strong. I have been a teacher of MFL for 13 years now and the programme’s intensive learning hours illustrate how this extra time helps learners to retain vocabulary and grammatical structures and be successful in their language learning.

Jo: Having four hours of taught lessons was quite tough at first as planning took a lot of time. In particular, we have two lessons after school so I spent time thinking about how to keep the students motivated in those lessons! However, the students are really enjoying it – I have 100 per cent attendance in class and the students are really focused. They are all very proud to be part of the programme and the extra lessons mean they can see the progress that they are making. I can too – it’s really impressive.

What is the best thing about being part of the Mandarin Excellence Programme

Samantha: I think it is seeing the impact on my students and being able to see their undoubted joy at learning Mandarin in a well-supported fashion. They are being given the opportunity to ‘take risks’ through real-life cultural activities, like ordering food in Mandarin in a local Chinese restaurant, and they are learning that communication is about perseverance, tenacity, strength of character and taking risks. I feel privileged to be part of a visionary programme that genuinely wants language learners to succeed in achieving fluency, which goes beyond the expectations of a qualification.

Jo: The best thing about the Mandarin Excellence Programme is getting to see the pupils enjoying learning such a different language – they’re all really engaged and enthusiastic, which is fantastic. Seeing the huge progress that they’re making is something very special.

What would you say to other schools thinking about joining the Mandarin Excellence Programme?

Samantha: I would say that they should not hesitate. Schools need to be more outward thinking about foreign language needs nowadays. UCL IOE has understood my training needs and through careful planning, together with our Mandarin Teaching Assistant, my students are really flourishing.

Jo:  I would definitely recommend the programme to other teachers and schools. I would say don’t be put off by the extra hours – there is lots of support available and the extra time means that you see the students making strides with their language skills, which is very rewarding. That said, it is important to think about how you best incorporate the additional hours into the timetable and how to select students to join the programme as it is definitely a challenging programme. They do all really enjoy it, though – the pupils in my class are loving the challenge that it brings.

The Mandarin Excellence Programme is a Department for Education funded programme which is being delivered by the UCL Institute of Education in partnership with the British Council. State schools in England can apply to join the programme from September 2018 with funding available to support successful delivery. Find out more here

British Council

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