Chinese 'pioneers' set the pace

27th August 2010 at 01:00
Only two candidates sat the new Advanced Higher in Mandarin this year - mother and daughter Susie and Francesca Leiper

For the first time ever, Scottish pupils were able to sit Highers and Advanced Highers in Mandarin and Cantonese this year.

When the invigilator saw Susie and Francesca Leiper were down to sit the Mandarin Simplified Advanced Higher (for non-native speakers), he assumed they were twins. In fact, the pair are mother and daughter and were the only people in Scotland to sit the exam, having studied Chinese together at Francesca's school - St George's School for Girls in Edinburgh.

Mandarin Chinese is completely unrelated to English, which is a considerable barrier for learners to overcome, says Susie. But her children were introduced to it at an early age.

"They made that huge leap without really realising it," she explains.

When Francesca was just eight, the family - mum, dad and four children - moved to Hong Kong for six months. The children attended an international school where English was spoken, but Francesca and elder sister Chloe chose to study Mandarin.

Susie's introduction to Chinese languages came earlier and in the form of Cantonese when she and her husband lived in Hong Kong for six years in the 1980s.

"My boss was Chinese and her English was better than mine, so I thought `I've got to try and match this a little,'" says Susie. "My degree was in French but I loved learning languages."

Back in Edinburgh when Chinese assistants started to be introduced to schools, the Leipers tapped into their skills, organising after-school classes once a week.

"It was just 15 minutes but the students all hated it because it was on a Friday," says Susie. "One boy just wanted to play on the computer, and he used to glower at me."

Frustrated that she could not understand what was being said, Susie began to study Mandarin herself, finding it easier than Cantonese because there are only four tones as opposed to seven.

In 2006, Susie achieved her Mandarin GCSE, having studied the subject with daughter Chloe who was then a pupil at Edinburgh Academy. "Chloe was fine with it, as long as I snuck in quietly and didn't say `hi' to her friends," says Susie.

Susie then kept her hand in, attending night classes at St George's, which led to her sitting the Advanced Higher with Francesca.

Francesca says: "I quite wanted her to join me. After GCSE, everyone but me dropped Mandarin at AS-Level last year (when the new exam did not exist in Scotland). It was hard work being one student in a subject like Chinese, seven lessons a week. I needed someone to push me a bit and compete with."

Studying for the qualification was a lot of hard work, says Susie. "Once I started, I felt I had to take it seriously and do well; otherwise, people would have thought it was a difficult thing to do and you couldn't get an A."

Mum was always ahead with the Chinese novel the pair had to read. But Francesca was the better speaker, having visited China three times in recent years. "The feedback from the oral exam was that mother was more nervous than daughter," says Susie laughing.

At the end of the day, however, both came out with As, setting the bar high for future candidates.

Judith McClure, convener of the Scotland China Education Network, described Susie and Francesca and the 37 other candidates who opted to sit the new exams in Chinese as "pioneers".

She urged headteachers to introduce the subject into their schools, despite the tough financial climate.

"It is important that we are inspired by these Higher and Advanced Higher candidates who had the courage to learn a challenging language, because they recognise how important it is for the future," Dr McClure states.

On Sunday, Francesca left for China where she will spend seven months before returning to the UK to study Chinese at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies.


Putonghua, literally "common speech", is the standard form of the Chinese language and is known as Mandarin Chinese.

In Mandarin Chinese, there are four tones. Depending on the way you say it, "tang" can mean soup or sugar, "mai" can mean buy or sell, and "ji" can mean chicken or jealous.

The earliest recognisable Chinese characters date back over 3,500 years and were discovered carved into tortoise shells and cattle bones. This makes written Chinese the oldest system of writing in continuous use.

Chinese characters give no indication of how they are pronounced. A Romanisation system called Pinyin was devised in 1958 in China. The country also went through a language reform movement in the 1950s and 1960s, resulting in 2,000 characters being simplified.

There are about 50,000 Chinese characters. An educated Chinese person will know 8,000 but you only need to know around 2,000 to be able to read and write it.

Emma Seith

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today