No child too young

Updated: 2012-12-14 08:44

By David Bartram (China Daily)

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Government support

While programs such as The Lingo Show can provide an introduction to Chinese, European governments, sensing long-term economic benefits, are putting measures into place that aim to convert interest in Chinese into proficiency.

Last year Sweden became the first European nation to announce plans to offer Chinese to all schoolchildren across the country within the next decade.

"If we look toward the next generation, it's almost unavoidable to think anything else than that China will be a very important global actor," Sweden's education minister, Jan Bjorklund, told local media.

"Chinese will be much more important, from an economic perspective, than French or Spanish. Not everyone in the business world speaks English. Very qualified businesses are leaving Europe to move to China."

Sweden has a strong reputation as a language learner - particularly of English - with a large proportion of the country bilingual. However, some critics have argued that the country's language policy is too euro-centric, and Bjorklund's proposal is an attempt to rectify this.

Elsewhere in Europe there tends to be a north-south divide in terms of Mandarin uptake in schools, with the south of the continent, including countries such as Spain and Italy, slower to adopt Chinese as a major second language.

Germany, too, is struggling. Last year a report from the Padagogischer Austauschdienst, a public organization promoting international exchange in schools, claimed that fewer than 6,000 students across German schools were studying Chinese as part of the curriculum. This compares with an estimated 7.5 million German children studying English.

The UK has done better than most. The government estimates that one in six schools across the country offer some form of Chinese lessons. The language is now the fourth most taught in British schools after French, Spanish and German but at current rates will overtake them by the end of the decade.

Teacher training

Still, the biggest obstacle remains a lack of trained teachers and the funding to provide more. British Minister of State for Schools David Laws described calls for widespread Chinese lessons as delusional on the basis that there are only a handful of qualified teachers in the UK.

But this is improving with the help of Confucius institutes and their Confucius Classroom initiative. Across Europe Confucius institutes are training teachers who are non-native Mandarin speakers how to teach Chinese in schools.

"We started a training program for non-native speakers in 2010," says Spring Zhang, a program officer and Chinese tutor at the Confucius Institute of the University of Manchester.

"It is a gradual process. Most of the primary-level teachers are non-native speakers, so we encourage them to run after-school clubs."

One of the resources, provided by Hanban, is an interactive poster where the teacher can press on a word and a recording plays. This can be particularly helpful for non-native speakers who are not fully confident with pronunciation, Zhang says.

"The most important thing is to develop a framework. If we can persuade more local teachers to attend the training course we can get Chinese learning into more schools. Then when we do have a native qualified teacher from China available it becomes easier for them to settle down in a local school as the school is already offering some Chinese."

The training courses also provide opportunities for career development among non-native teachers. Zhang has been pleasantly surprised at how well her trainees have dealt with teaching the language, and has witnessed some turn Chinese lessons from an after-school club into a full part of the curriculum.

Those schools that are particularly successful in implementing Mandarin lessons might eventually be conferred Confucius Classroom status. One such school is St Joseph's College in London, which was made a Confucius Classroom in 2010.

"It started 9 years ago, when I went on a visit with 25 teachers and politicians from the area to Shenzhen," says deputy headmaster Kevin Dwyer. "When we came back, I though this sounds a good idea. China is going to be the world's leading country in a short period and instead of just teaching traditional languages like French and German maybe we should be looking at something for the future."

The school brought in a Chinese language assistant with help from the British Council, who started running after-school clubs. When her visa ran out, the school went to great lengths to ensure that she stayed, renewing her work permit and sending her on a full UK teacher training course. She still teaches at the school today.

"We started with after-school clubs and then moved it onto the curriculum. We now have 500 of our 1,050 students studying Mandarin in curriculum time, and more students are now choosing to study it over French," Dwyer says.

For China Daily

(China Daily 12/14/2012 page10)

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