Mandarin is the tongue of change

17th February 2006 at 00:00
China has revitalised the global economy and its language can do the same for learning, says Judith McClure

Where is a consensus in Scotland, as in the UK generally, that too few students take languages to a high enough level and that, consequently, the language skills of the population are too low. The report by HMIE on progress in addressing the recommendations of the Citizens of a Multilingual World report, published in March last year, shows that, while the numbers of pupils from P6 to S4 studying a modern language were high, a disappointingly low proportion went to obtain an award at Higher.

In 2005, there were only 7,772 Highers in modern languages taken in Scotland - 58 per cent in French and 99 per cent in western European languages. The consequences for business, research and the professions are manifest: too few Scottish adults, whatever their standing, are able to communicate in the language or languages necessary to sustain their position in the global economy.

Clearly, the dearth of students in modern languages is resulting in an awareness of the difficulty of securing teachers now and even more in the future. However, it has to be recognised that, in the 21st century, the ability to speak at least one additional language is necessary for as many citizens as possible, preferably for all. There needs to be a focus on communication in other languages, rather than on examination perfection, and on introducing a second language as early as possible, from the first year of primary education - if not in nursery.

As the global economy develops, there should cease to be the emphasis on western European languages which has dominated for so long. There is a growing recognition that Chinese should be taught in schools. It is the language spoken by a significant majority of the world's population and, as China's economic, political and cultural influence develops in the 21st century, it becomes increasingly important that we should increase our understanding of Chinese culture and our Chinese language capability.

In practical terms, our scientists and our business people need to communicate in Chinese and we need to increase Chinese activity in Scotland and Scottish activity in China. There is much support for this generally in Scotland, such as the work of the Scottish Qualifications Authority in China and of higher education institutions, as well as the efforts of the Scottish Executive to secure inward investment and the British Council to facilitate links between institutions, including schools.

The new Scotland-China Educational Network aims to promote links between Scottish and Chinese schools by bringing together those involved. St George's School in Edinburgh has encouraged the teaching and learning of Chinese for the past 10 years. The school has offered GCSE and A-levels for native Chinese speakers and has encouraged Scottish students who wished to take Chinese outside the curriculum to gain unit assessments at Access 3, Intermediate 1 and Intermediate 2 levels.

In 2005-2006, Chinese has been introduced into the primary school. It has also become a language option in S2, with a view to students being enabled to take GCSE in S4 or, as the SQA is developing new qualifications in Chinese, at Intermediate 2. This could mean candidates for Higher Chinese in the year 2008-2009.

St George's has a full-time teacher of Chinese and two Chinese assistants.

It is unlikely that every school would want to sustain that level of staffing, so it is essential that a learning network be formed, with online resources and teachers available to service clusters of schools. The Scotland-China Educational Network is bringing together interested parties to work on these arrangements.

It is clear that Chinese schools are willing to enter into mutually supportive relationships. St George's has links with Yunnan University Secondary School, Chongqing Bashu Middle School and Tsun Tsin Christian Academy in Hong Kong. Other Scottish schools, such as Balerno High in Edinburgh, are in the process of developing partnerships.

These links should prove of immense value to the development of cultural understanding, but if they are to prove effective in the longer-term then the teaching and learning of Chinese must become embedded in the curriculum. In addition, the excitement of learning this new language with its obvious 21st century relevance may encourage the teaching and learning of languages generally by a focus on communication.

While Scotland is a small country, its history, values and culture, together with its emphasis on education, are proving attractive to Chinese institutions and businesses. It is important that we prepare sufficient numbers of our population to seize these advantages. Only a radical approach to language teaching and learning in our schools can make this happen.

Judith McClure is convener of the Scotland-China Educational Network and headteacher of St George's School in Edinburgh.

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