Mandarin for all

According to this report, the UK Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, would like all secondary pupils in UK schools to have the opportunity to learn Mandarin. One reason for this is that a poll of employers found that Chinese is the most useful language for employees to know after French and German.

The poll, conducted by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) in 2008, found that 52% of employers wanted French speakers, 43% wanted German speakers, 38% wanted speakers of Mandarin or Cantonese, and 28% wanted Spanish speakers.

The UK government would also like there to be a greater range of languages offered in primary schools, including Mandarin, Arabic and Japanese.

Critics of these plans point out that the government should be worry about the ever decreasing number of pupils are studying any languages at secondary level, and that there aren’t enough teachers of Mandarin and other languages.

There’s an comment piece on this story in the Telegraph in which the writer claims that schools should concentrate on improving the English of pupils, rather than trying to teach them ‘difficult’ languages like Chinese. This is a common argument when languages are mentioned – many believe that today’s youth have poor English, especially written English, and don’t know their grammar, and therefore shouldn’t waste time learning foreign languages. Such opinions are often based on impressions, prejudices and are rarely backed up with evidence.

Are such arguments used in other countries?

15 thoughts on “Mandarin for all

  1. I don’t know about the arguments used in other countries, but I do wonder if the Powers That Be really expect that children would leave school with a useful level of Mandarin – bearing in mind how few are able to go beyond elementary conversation in French or German, even after four or five years of study.

  2. English-speakers are the only ones who have the luxury of ignorance of foreign languages, since everyone else tries so hard to learn English.

  3. I grew up in the U.S. and took two years of Spanish in high school because I had to, not because I chose to. However, because I was exposed to two school-years worth of Spanish, the language was “de-mystified” for me. It went from an “alien-tongue” to something that I actually sort of understand (how it works, not that I am able to hold worthwhile conversations). If I truly wanted to, I believe I could start learning Spanish and master it much easier than had I not taken the two years in high school.

  4. @FM
    Native English speakers are in a totally different situation to non-native English speakers. Within reason, English is a de facto lingua franca (I really hate using Latin in English, but is there a more practical way to express that?), so it is obvious what foreign language they should learn (as an L2 anyway) and there is huge incentive to do so. I was genuinely surprised by how exposed to English music, films, TV and music the young Germans I know are. Except for the few interested in languages, there is little incentive to learn any one foreign language or even any at all in English speaking countries. That’s why people leaving school have extremely poor language skills, they have no incentive because they believe this “the whole world speaks English, why should I learn a language” fallacy.

    Switching to Mandarin would make little or no difference I think. Starting to teach a language earlier makes no difference. The only thing that will mean that a large body of students speak a language well is incentive to learn, there is simply no way around this.

    One phrase, and I’m not sure did you use it or is that what was implied, I liked, was “should have the opportunity”. We cannot make uninterested people learn languages they don’t want to, what we can do is give the opportunity to those who do.

    And one question, you say people are worried about the numbers taking languages at second level. Does that mean that learning a language is non-compulsory in the UK? In Ireland, everyone must study English, Irish and one modern European language (in practice French and German, rarely Spanish and Italian), I presumed that language learning was compulsory in the UK as well, like in Germany.

  5. Here in the US, I’ve never heard “too difficult” as a reason for not requiring languages. The usual argument is “we can’t afford it”, with undertones that language classes are fluff like (allegedly) arts and music.

    The argument is usually about language classes in middle schools and junior high schools (students approximately 10-14 years old), and the most frequent counter-argument is that since kids learn languages differently after puberty, a critical chance to help their developing brains is being lost.

    High schools (14-18 years old) generally require two years of foreign language study, and calls for that to be increased most often talk about staying competitive in international business.

    The standard options at the time I was in high school were French, German, Spanish, and occasionally Mandarin. Arabic has been made more available since the mid-1990s, but I’m not sure how widespread it is. I expect Mandarin is getting more popular as well.

  6. In Japan, people continue to debate the state of English education, leaving almost no opportunity at school for other foreign language learning until a Japanese student reaches the university. Most people blame The System for the comparatively low level of English ability among Japanese, but as Declan says, the system cannot convert uninterested students into hungry language enthousiasts.

    There are plenty of language school businesses in Tokyo, but again the emphasis is on Business English (Eikaiwa), with a few other schools offering courses mostly in Chinese, Korean, French, and Spanish.

    As English is a sort of lingua franca enjoyed by native English speakers, Japanese and the opportunity to live in Japan, in my opinion, is the target of many East Asians who become multilingual to be competitive, leaving the typical Japanese person complacent and comfortable with monolingualism and a minimal grasp of English.

  7. Declan – languages were compulsory in secondary schools in the UK up to the age of 16 (GCSEs), but this requirement was dropped in 2002. This was apparently to “to create space in school timetables to give disaffected pupils more ‘relevant’ lessons.” Since then the numbers taking languages after the age of 14, when pupils start preparing for GCSEs, has dropped by 32% (source).

    The UK government would like all pupils between the ages of 7 and 14 to learn a Modern foreign language. This is currently compulsory only for 11-14 year olds, but they’d like to make it compulsory for 7-11 year olds from next year as well. A survey in 2008 found that 92% of primary schools are already teaching foreign languages.

    In Wales Welsh has been a compulsory subject for all pupils up to the age of 16 since 1999, though it is not well taught in some schools and many pupils leave school with only a basic knowledge of the language (source).

  8. I used to teach French in high school in France and heard from students’ parents the same argument numerous times: “they should learn French properly before studying all these foreign languages” (in France, the study of two modern languages is compulsory in high school). When I could be bothered, I answered that the more languages you learn, the more proficient you are at languages. I am not completely sure that this point is scientifically validated but it usually shut them up ;-).

  9. I believe it is, Sandra – learning a different language, especially if you were monolingual before, requires the brain to “re-wire” itself to take a new, often more analytical approach to any language, including the native one. This would help tremendously with things like grammar. I’m currently studying French in school, and I enjoy comparing all kinds of languages I encounter with each other.

  10. Some years ago a Japanese colleague wrote a paper on what they thought was the poor state of English instruction in Japan and asked me to proofread it (and for general comments).

    I said that my first impression from the points they were making (a lot of stuff about how many years Japanese people have to have English classes and how unimpressive the results generally are) was not that there’s that much wrong with the instruction, but rather that English simply isn’t very useful for the great majority of Japanese people who had no special reason (desire or need) to use it on a regular basis.

    I also pointed out that more and better classes (their proposal) wouldn’t make much difference and that the overemphasis on English was also hurting Japan in dealing with other Asian (and other) languages.
    They actually kind of agreed but said they wouldn’t have thought of that in a million years, the propoganda in Japan about the importance of English makes questioning the status quo pretty difficult.

  11. Japanese adopts a lot of Chinese characters, so, some Japanese know the advantages of the Chinese language. A learned Japanese states that Chinese language is very systematic and logic. He looks at Mandarin from a different angle.

    Some Americans say the sound of Mandarin is poetic.

    I’d say the writing of Chinese characters is beautiful.

    It’s also very interesting to note that every Chinese character and pronunciation has a reason or logic behind. That means we can learn Mandarin much easier if we understand the reasons or logic behind.

    Learning Mandarin can be entertaining and fun. I have an ambition to help people in the world learn Mandarin easily with lots of fun.

  12. I’m sure living in England, Mandarin is not the most useful language to learn. When I was in East London, I could have done with some conversational Sylheti. Urdu wouldn’t have gone amiss. I would have liked to have been able to order food from my local Chinese takeaway in Cantonese.

    The thing that really annoys me is how all learning has to be vocational. It’s primary purpose is to get jobs and help the economy. Mandarin is now a business language. I love languages; the one thing that puts me off learning languages is attaching ‘business’ to the name of the language.

    Absolutely students should have the opportunity to learn Mandarin. They should also have the opportunity to learn Latin and Classical Greek. Forget about business langauges, students should be taught endagered languages.

    I think everyone should learn sign language. It would bring the deaf into the community and it’s a useful backup should you find yourself in a noisy club and you want to chat someone up.

  13. Omniglot: Please correct your information on Penkyamp. Below is the correct tonal marks!

    分 ———- 粉 ———- 训 ———- 芬 ———- 坟 ———- 愤 ———- 份

    fänt —— fãnt ——– fânt ——- fänt ——– fant ——– fánt ——- fànt

  14. Hello Omniglot: I’m sorry to take up space in a thread on the Sinitic language. But this is related to a newly invented writing system for a Chinese ethnic group: the Turkic (Oghuz to be precise) Salar (Salazu) ethnic group of Qinghai.
    Since 2005, the Salars have adopted the modern Turkish Alphabet and have finalized it in 2008. Now the Salar Youth Forum is in the process of producing 1) Salar Grammar theoretical materials, 2) production of Salar folk songs, poems and translation of Chinese pop songs into the new script and even writing 3) a Salar version of the Wikipedia

    Following is the
    1) Salar Youth Forum, Salar Script and Grammar Section:

    and the

    2) Salar Wikipedia

    Some Salar folk songs captioned with the new script can be found on Youtube under Salar Youth Forum’s “Salır Sazlar” section

    Apologize to all the people sharing info on Mandarin here. The Salar Youth Forum is actually written 80% in Mandarin among mainly Mandarin speaking forum members. So it will be very beneficial for you to enjoy its postings on China’s ethnic diversity.

  15. When children are small that’s when new languages need to be introduce, and like Weili said if kids don’t come out of school speaking the chosen language it will be easier for them to learn it at latter age. Learning a language just for learning it I don’t think is viable, but if there is a purpose that will be a success.

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