Must we kowtow to Mandarin?

22nd December 2006 at 00:00
Forget being able to order baguettes in a French bakery or finding your way to the Bahnhof: British firms said in a report by the Hay Group last week that Mandarin must replace French in schools if Britain is not to lose out in the economic race.

Also last week, Lord Dearing said in a report about a decline in take-up of French and German that Mandarin should be offered in schools, and that languages should be relevant to teenagers. Quite. Disaffected pupils who see little point in French will have less reason to learn the tongues of more distant countries.

Teenagers abandon French in droves because it is regarded as difficult. But the Foreign Office lists Mandarin among the most challenging for high-flying diplomats to learn. America's State Department has calculated that it requires three times more lessons for its own diplomats to become proficient in Mandarin, compared with French or Spanish. Put another way, learning Chinese is equivalent to learning three modern European languages.

We laugh when Brussels says that young Europeans should master two EU languages other than their own. Ten years ago, Australia and the United States were gung-ho about Japan. Huge efforts were put into teaching Japanese in schools, and exchanges were established.

But young Australians and Americans found there were few jobs for outsiders, even those with a smattering of the language. Japanese fizzled out. Now Mandarin is the new Japanese. The US and Australia are snapping up Mandarin teachers and creating shortages elsewhere. In the UK, we are very far from replacing French with Mandarin, but schools offering the subject are already complaining to the British Council about the "quality" of Mandarin teachers. In China, interactive teaching is an alien idea. Those who master it are in high demand in the West.

David Graddol, in his book English Next, warns about a decline in job opportunities for monolingual Britons as others become proficient in English. He believes that, unlike Japan, China will dominate simply because of its size. Still, it is hard to believe Britain's impending decline in the world may be due to a lack of Mandarin skills.

But remaining monolingual will not help. Mr Graddol believes generations of Brits have been poor at languages because French was badly taught at school. Rather than just replace French with Mandarin, we need better ways to teach relevant languages. The way things are, either Mandarin will fizzle out like Japanese, or bad Mandarin will replace bad French as the reason we remain monolingual.

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