Blog: Why there's more to learning Mandarin - Michael O'Sullivan

Why there's more to learning Mandarin - Michael O'Sullivan

It is very interesting to see the Government’s announcement that 1,200 new Mandarin teachers will be trained for schools in England, to allow for a massive expansion in the number of students studying Chinese.   Under the inevitable picture of a dragon, The Telegraph quotes ministers justifying this initiative by emphasising the value of Mandarin as a tool of trade.  This is the “language that will help seal tomorrow’s business deals”.  

It is hard to argue with the idea that a new generation of Chinese-speaking Brits will make inroads in the Chinese market by methods beyond their largely monoglot elders. Chinese speakers can reach decision-makers in ways that the monolingual cannot, they can charm and impress with their skills, they can read the documents, understand the nuances, and with luck make crucial interceptions of indiscreet asides uttered on the other side of the negotiating table.

However, getting large numbers of schools to the stage where they can teach Chinese well requires great and sustained investment.  Chinese is hard to learn, at least at first,  and training teachers in the language and how to teach it will not be done quickly.  The future is uncertain, and by the time the fruits of this investment are reaped, China’s economic growth may be less exuberant than of late.

We are keen to learn from the Chinese in so many respects at present, and rightly so: in language, the teaching of maths, building fast trains and so forth.  We could also usefully borrow their habit of long-term thinking. The Chinese are often said to take a long, historical view of large questions, as in Zhou Enlai’s famous remark that it was “too early to tell” what the impact of the French Revolution has been, a mere 200 years after the event.  

So by all means let us try harder to teach children Chinese.  But let’s think about, not just those extra export orders and inward investments we may with luck secure, but about the educational benefits of getting to grips with a language about as different from English as it is possible for a human language to be.  About the cultural value of learning a written language with over 3,000 years of history.  About how children’s minds will expand as they learn to see the world from an altogether different perspective.

For an individual learner, mastering Chinese calls for an effort sustained over years.  For an education system, introducing Chinese as a mainstream subject is the work of a generation.  We need to be in it for the long term, and for reasons that are rooted in the purposes of education, not just dependent on the prevailing export promotion strategy.

Michael O’Sullivan, Chief Executive of Cambridge International Examinations, is a former Director for the British Council in China and a fluent Mandarin speaker.


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