Scottish children as young as 5 are being introduced to Mandarin by Chinese-speaking university students in a bid to engage their interest before they develop a negative attitude towards language learning.
Under the scheme coordinated by the Scotland-China Education Network, native Chinese speakers studying at the University of Edinburgh have started to provide weekly hour-long lessons to 22 P1 classes in 11 East Lothian schools. The initiative will be extended to 11 Edinburgh schools - three primaries and eight secondaries - in the new year.
The Scottish government's ambition is that by 2020 every child will learn two foreign languages on top of their native tongue, beginning the first language in P1 and embarking on a second by P5 - the so-called "1+2" approach.
More than 30 student volunteers recruited by the University of Edinburgh's student volunteering service have signed up to be part of the Early Learning of Chinese Project or Edinburgh City Council's parallel Learning of Mandarin Project, meaning that some schools will benefit from having more than one classroom assistant.
At Sanderson's Wynd Primary in Tranent, East Lothian, two Chinese students have been working with P1 children on a Monday afternoon for the past three weeks. Headteacher Fiona Waddell said it was early days but the scheme had great potential. "It's a two-way process; we have a lot to learn from each other," she added.
It was vital that children started learning languages early, said Antonella Sorace, a leading authority in the field of early language acquisition and bilingualism.
Professor Sorace, who is based at the University of Edinburgh, said: "In the UK, by the time pupils reach high school they're aware that English is widely spoken around the world and decide that there's no point in learning a second language.
"That's why it's important to start early. The student volunteers will be meeting children before they develop this negative attitude, as well as tapping into young children's natural aptitude and interest in language learning."
Yandan Ouyang, who is currently studying for a master's degree in teaching English to speakers of other languages, signed up for the project in a bid to get to know the local community. She is volunteering at Loretto RC Primary School in Musselburgh and is looking forward to the activities she and the class teacher have planned for the Chinese New Year in January.
"It can be hard when you come to a new country. This project means that we have something valuable to offer local people," she said.
In Edinburgh, the volunteers will work with a range of year groups from P3 to S5. At St Thomas of Aquin's High School, a native speaker will support the weekly after-school Mandarin club. This is aimed at S3-5 students and has 25 members.
Liz Gray, the council's quality improvement officer for languages and literacy, said: "We know that if Scotland is to compete in a global market, language skills are vital. Young people are interested in learning Mandarin for that reason - they realise it will be valuable when it comes to their careers.
"But there is also the lure of the new and different. Mandarin is quite exotic and very different from what they are used to."
The impact of the volunteering project will be measured by researchers from the University of Edinburgh.
As well as improving language skills, it could have a positive influence on widening access by bringing children into contact with university students, the organisers believe.
Additional reporting by Hilary Wardle.