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The speech of officials finds its form in classrooms

Mandarin is being seen as an important language for pupils' professional future, writes Sue Leonard

It is 8am on a Thursday and eight children aged 10-12 are trying their hand at Chinese calligraphy with varying degrees of success.

The teacher, Dongjie Chen, has just shown them a story on her laptop, explaining why Chinese people hang the character for happiness upside down on their doors at New Year, and is giving instructions in Mandarin on how to write traditional spring couplets.

The class is taking place upstairs in James Gillespie's Primary in Edinburgh, while downstairs a beginners' class is under way. Set up by the pro-active Parent Teacher Association, this is one of a growing network of Mandarin clubs and classes springing up around Scotland as a result of increasing awareness among parents and teachers that learning this language could help their children professionally in the future.

"My dad says it is a very important language to speak for when you get older," says 10-year-old Catriona Grant, whose sister Rebecca, 12, also attends the class.

"It's harder than other languages, but it is fun," adds the P6 pupil who, in the past two years, has learnt most of the numbers and how to have a basic conversation.

Eleven-year-old Nellie Ngai speaks Cantonese at home. "My mum says I should try to learn Mandarin because it is the most common language in China," says the P6 pupil who also attends classes at the Edinburgh Chinese Language School at the weekend.

There's no yawning and no daydreaming, even though many of these children have more than six hours of schoolwork ahead of them and most of their classmates are still at home having breakfast.

"Children learn Mandarin in a natural way," says Chen. "If you come here once a week, no matter what you learn, you just get familiar with the language and the culture."

Around Scotland, schools are opening the minds of their pupils to eastern delights from lantern making to calligraphy and getting to grips with a tongue where tone and pronunciation mean everything. The Scotland China Education Network, a learning and support group founded three years ago, includes 58 state and independent secondary and primary schools.

Mandarin is offered as part of "Chinese Studies across the Curriculum" in six secondary schools run by Perth and Kinross, and 35 of the authority's 77 primaries have been embedding Chinese studies into the curriculum. The pupils are exposed to the language in their broader work in the classroom. They have taster sessions and learn calligraphy; what they learn is also taken into geography, history and maths classes. Perth and Kinross employs four of the eight Chinese language assistants presently working in Scotland.

Judith McClure, headteacher at St George's School for Girls in Edinburgh and convener of SCEN, says: "There is a huge amount of enthusiasm in terms of raising awareness of China. It is reviving the interest in the learning of languages generally."

St George's introduced Mandarin in 1995 to enable native speakers of Chinese, mostly boarders, to take examinations up to university entrance level. Three years ago, the private school introduced Chinese into the curriculum. It is taught to all pupils from P4 onwards.

New "Confucius Classrooms", a Scottish Government-backed project will enable more state schools to introduce Chinese language and culture into the curriculum from nursery to high school. Ministers want at least 200 pupils in school to be studying for national qualifications in Mandarin by 2010. Six Confucius Classrooms will be set up by the end of the year and six new Chinese teachers will be working in Scottish schools. St George's in Edinburgh will be one of the first to get going before the summer.

Kay Livingston, head of international education at Learning and Teaching Scotland, says: "It is a significant development and is part of a bigger plan to prepare young people for life and work in a global world."

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