Language learning in UK schools is in decline. GCSE take-up of these subjects in some areas has dropped by as much as 50 per cent, and the trend continues at A level: the number of students studying German A level, for example, has dropped by 45 per cent since 2010, while French – still the most popular foreign language – has also been in steady decline.
But there’s one language that’s bucking the trend. It’s one that could open up a new world of opportunity to students. It’s the most widely spoken first language in the world. It is Mandarin. It has moved from being a fringe, specialist language taught in higher education onwards, to one that is enjoying increasing popularity in classrooms across the UK, experiencing an almost 10 per cent increase in popularity last year. But why?
Mandarin speakers: 'The 1 per cent'
Even as more Chinese people study English to greater levels of proficiency, pupils in the UK who study Mandarin gain an early advantage in the international arena with the insight it gives them into China and Chinese culture. Learning Mandarin is a passport to joining the “one per cent”, although this 1 per cent is the proportion of Mandarin speakers in the UK rather than elite billionaires.
A 2018 survey of more than 1,000 senior business decision-makers in the UK found that 77 per cent thought speaking Mandarin would give school-leavers a clear advantage over their peers. The same survey also found that 66 per cent of business leaders were having difficulty recruiting Mandarin speakers in the UK. The demand for the language is there, and schools that teach Mandarin know that this skill will have a profound effect on young people’s futures, opening up career opportunities in diplomacy, trade, hospitality, security, banking, healthcare and technology, to name but a few.
China is the second largest economy in the world and predicted to be the largest by 2050. This naturally has enormous repercussions for both business and politics, and the way school children today will see the world in the future. And China is a big deal in the present. In 2017, UK exports to the country were valued at £22.3 billion and, as Britain looks for new trade deals, China will be high on its list.
An independent path
One of the most exciting things for pupils learning and speaking Mandarin is that it is something that their parents (and most of their teachers) probably cannot do. It’s important to start carving out your personality as a young person, and learning Mandarin can instil a wonderful feeling of independence. Mandarin students are already forging their own paths, developing a skill that few adults in their lives possess.
The popular choice
The number of pupils taking languages at A level continues to drop, but Mandarin is becoming more popular. Last August, the number of students taking Mandarin at A level overtook those taking German for the first time; rising from 3,070 in 2017 to 3,334 in 2018 (an 8.6 per cent increase). Since 2016, the Department for Education in England has been funding an intensive Mandarin Excellence Programme in English secondary schools, putting 5,000 students on track to fluency in Mandarin Chinese by 2020, via eight hours of study per week. The government believes that pupils on the scheme will have a significant advantage when looking for jobs, helping Britain to compete in an increasingly global economy.
New ways of thinking
Learning a language is about more than just vocabulary and grammar, it brings new ways of thinking. In a logographic alphabet, words are built in an entirely different way to European languages. For instance, 火 means fire. A fire vehicle (火车) is a train. A fire mountain(火山) is a volcano, but fire big (火大) means to get mad, be angry. Looking at a passage of characters as a puzzle to be solved opens up a whole new approach to learning.
More than words
Exposure to other cultures is an important basis for increasing understanding and trust between different countries and their people, and learning a language is the best way to access that relationship. Enabling this to take place when young people are forming their impressions of the world means they can approach globalisation with an open mind and existing knowledge of other peoples and ideas. What starts in the classroom can spread around the world.
There’s an entrepreneurial spirit among many young Chinese people and they are often looking for partners in the UK to work on all manner of digitally driven enterprises from virtual reality and robotics to e-commerce and mobile technology. There are also pressing global challenges that the next generation from both countries will need to work on together such as creating sustainable cities, global healthcare initiatives and environmental initiatives. With travel becoming increasingly easy, these opportunities are wide open for those who have inter-cultural competence and knowledge from learning Chinese. For many, joining the 1 per cent of UK Mandarin speakers may be the first step in joining the world’s global citizens.
Katharine Carruthers is the director of the UCL Institute Of Education (IOE) Confucius Institute for Schools