Master Mandarin? We're flummoxed even by French

26th February 2010 at 00:00
Focus should be on `easier' European languages, argues East of Scotland European Consortium

Mandarin should not be a priority for Scottish schools because it is too hard to learn, believes a body representing 13 local authorities.

But one of the country's most prominent supporters of Mandarin teaching said that a language's usefulness, rather than its difficulty, should decide its relevance to schools.

The East of Scotland European Consortium argues that Scots' poor record with languages provides an argument against Mandarin. European languages should continue to be schools' main concern, it argues in response to a European Commission consultation on "learning mobility".

Policy adviser Jonathan Robertson said: "The view we put forward is that (Mandarin) is very important and should be a focus for the future. However, how can we expect to become proficient in a hard language such as Mandarin when we can't even learn Spanish or French?"

Mr Robertson, who cited British and American data showing that Mandarin could take three times as long to master as French or Spanish, added: "While the Chinese government is investing money for the teaching of Mandarin in Scotland, we have had huge investment in the teaching of modern European languages for decades and still have not got anywhere.

"My view is that we should focus first on modern European languages, which are easier and can act as a vehicle to improve an individual overall aptitude for learning languages. This will mean it is subsequently easier to learn a difficult language such as Mandarin."

But Judith McClure, convener of the Scotland China Education Network, said: "The need to learn a language must not be decided on its degree of difficulty, but on its importance and use.

"China is the oldest continuing civilisation in the world. Today it has 1.3 billion people, its global reach is ever increasing and its economy is set to dominate. We simply must prepare our children and young people for the world they now inhabit and even more for their future lives by giving them the opportunity to understand Chinese culture, history and politics, and to acquire a level of Mandarin appropriate to the individual's needs."

Dr McClure praised the consortium's paper for advocating a "strong programme of international education" and improvements to the teaching of languages in nurseries and primary schools.

"Paradoxically, the study of Chinese language and culture, as many primary schools are finding, stimulates international awareness and interest in languages generally," she said. "The consortium is right to argue for action, but let us not stop in Europe."

Education Secretary Michael Russell this week underlined the Scottish Government's support for the teaching of Chinese language and culture. He announced two new "Confucius classroom hubs" - at Dunfermline's Queen Anne High and St Ninian's High in Giffnock, East Renfrewshire - bringing the national total to 10. More than 60 per cent of pupils now had "fantastic opportunities for Chinese learning", he said. Six pupils from each hub will visit China this summer, following a successful study visit last year.

henry.hepburn@tes.co.uk.

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