Complex characters

2nd June 2006 at 01:00
As the numbers learning Chinese rocket ever upward, Yojana Sharma looks at how the teaching of the language can be improved

Interest in including Chinese as a language option has rocketed in recent years. The British Council reports a huge rise in enquiries from schools keen to introduce Mandarin. Some 2,400 pupils took Mandarin GCSE in 2001.

By 2005, the numbers had risen by 40 per cent to 4,500. But this by no means reflects the numbers that would study Chinese if it were more widely offered in schools, according to Martin Davidson of the British Council.

In February more than 200 school heads and foreign language teachers attended a conference on teaching Mandarin in UK schools - the largest conference of its kind in the UK, backed by the British Council and HSBC bank. "Such was the interest from schools we could have filled the conference twice over," says Anthony Seldon, head of Wellington College which hosted the conference. He is introducing the language in his own school from this September: "By 2015 we should like to see as many studying Mandarin as French."

Joan Deslandes is head of Kingswood Community school, a multi-ethnic school in a deprived area of East London where Mandarin has been compulsory since 2001. "Those who do not do well in French are reaching very high standards in Mandarin. Especially boys," she says. Last year six pupils from Kingswood won a trip to China after the school came first in the annual Mandarin speaking competition organised by the British Council. Some 150 pupils took part from 25 schools and the numbers are rising year on year.

Joan Deslandes says she introduced Mandarin across the school because she wanted a language the pupils could learn "from scratch" and because Kingswood is close to big international banks including HSBC (Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation) headquarters.

Most schools are dipping their toe in the water by offering "taster"

courses or lunchtime and after-school Mandarin clubs. But it is a far bigger jump to bring it into the curriculum and offer GCSE. There is a perception - more prevalent among teachers than pupils - that Chinese is difficult to learn. MFL teachers agree that Mandarin requires a much bigger commitment from pupils than European languages, although its grammar is far simpler. "The problem of Mandarin is essentially about finding enough time in the curriculum," says Lisa Wang, Mandarin teacher at Calday Grange Grammar near Liverpool. Pupils need to put in "double time" compared to what they put in to get good grades in modern European languages. There was also a need for schools to provide supervised homework opportunities, "as this is one subject where pupils can get no help whatsoever at home."

In schools where Chinese is offered within the curriculum, teachers warned that take-up continues to be hampered by an "inaccessible" GCSE and a lack of good textbooks. In many specialist language schools and particularly in selective schools, grade expectations are high. But even the best pupils were getting low grades in Chinese, in part, they say, because GCSE exams are targeted at near-native speakers. Joan Deslandes says she is looking at alternatives to GCSE such as the Certificate of Commercial Language Competence to keep pupils motivated: "Without an exam accessible to all, Mandarin will remain a minority language."

Edexcel launched a new Mandarin GCSE suitable for non-native speakers in 2003. Before that the boards had designed Mandarin exams for their far larger market in East Asia, particularly Singapore and Hong Kong. These exams were inappropriate for British candidates learning the language from scratch in just 3-4 periods a week, says Katherine Carruthers of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, and a principal examiner for Cambridge Assessment's International GCSE and A-level in Chinese. "The new Mandarin GCSE expects pupils to master 600 written characters compared to 900 under the old GCSE, with special extra questions for those who want to go further," Katherine Carruthers says. Lisa Wang adds that: "The 2003 revisions are a very good first step, but they do not go far enough to bring Mandarin into the mainstream."

Learning to write Chinese characters can be a hard slog, but it is often what draws pupils. "Pupils find Mandarin a cool subject because it does not have Roman script. The writing is one of the attractions," says Michelle Tate, Mandarin teacher at Katherine Lady Berkeley School in Gloucestershire where around two dozen pupils chose Chinese as a language option.

Teaching materials for non-adult learners are also an issue. Many teachers have to devise their own. But help is at hand. The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust supports teachers through a special network (see website at end of piece) which also provides lesson plans and materials. "Often there is just one Mandarin teacher in a schools. We help them to meet others and share ideas," says Katherine Carruthers, who is also the Chinese network co-ordinator. "If they want to offer Chinese, there is a growing amount of support, they won't be on their own," she said. The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT) website has teaching ideas to download on the main GCSE topics and is an important supplement to the GCSE Mandarin series of texts published by the British Council in 2004.

In the wake of the February conference the Chinese government also said it would work with English experts to improve textbooks, and provide other support for teachers. The first Confucius Institute will be opened this year in Edinburgh with another to follow soon in London. Part of a worldwide network of 100 institutes, it will provide resources for Chinese studies and promote Chinese culture.

Meanwhile with native teachers more schooled in a system that still favours rote-learning, many heads point to difficulties in recruiting teachers skilled in interactive teaching and able to motivate 11-16 year olds. That is changing. A PGCE with Mandarin is offered by University of London's Goldsmiths College, since 2005 by The University of Sheffield, and from this year, by the University of Exeter. Schools can also recruit Chinese language assistants through the British Council's language assistants scheme. nesedefault.aspa

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