AS the Chinese usher in the Year of the Ram this weekend, new figures show Mandarin is becoming a popular option for pupils.
Mandarin, the official language of China, is spoken by twice as many people as English worldwide. And it is taught in dozens of English schools. Four years ago, there was no mention of Chinese in official reports from the Office for Standards in Education.
By 2000, a handful of schools taught Mandarin, or the less formal Cantonese, mostly in after-school classes. But a recent answer to a parliamentary question revealed that in the past academic year 50 schools studied the language.
Chris Davis, headteacher of Queniborough primary in Leicestershire, is taking Mandarin lessons after a visit to China to link up with Renmin primary in Chonqing. Pupils at his school already learn French and he is considering introducing Mandarin.
Mr Davis said: "I think it is very important that children understand different cultures. They are going to grow up in a world where greater international understanding and awareness of languages is crucial."
The Government allocates pound;300,000 a year to the British Council UK-China Educational Co-operation programme, which includes language courses.
Dr Dilbahar Tawakkul, manager of the British Council's China programme, said: "We can safely say the number of schools teaching Mandarin has doubled in the past couple of years. There is an awareness that in future there will be a demand for people who are able to speak fluent Mandarin."