Talking the talk

Updated: 2015-11-20 08:06

By Riazat Butt and Cecily Liu(China Daily Europe)

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The independent Brighton College in southeastern England became the first in Britain to make Mandarin a compulsory subject. It introduced the subject in 2006, making it compulsory at some levels, and subsequently has made it a required subject for students aged 3 to 14.

Alan Bird, the college's deputy headmaster, says it was decided to establish a Confucius Classroom because the school and students recognized the growing importance of China.

"A lot of our students are outward looking, so they appreciate that Mandarin is much more useful than other languages that were perhaps popular 20-30 years ago."

Talking the talk

The college has five full-time Mandarin teachers for about 800 students. The school has 1,500 students in total. Each of the classes lasts about an hour, and students receive lessons once a week.

Brighton College also offers Mandarin as an exam subject for the General Certificate of Secondary Education and A-level studies. About 80 GCSE students and 15-20 A-level students learn Mandarin.

Many of the students at Brighton College have visited China through school exchange trips with the high school attached to Tsinghua University.

The classrooms are fun for students, and have a mix of activities. The teacher may play the guitar and ask students to sing along in Mandarin, lead students in refreshing their vocabulary, or have them watch a video to learn new words.

Thomas Godber, one of the Mandarin teachers at Brighton College, says he typically combines a lesson with some new vocabulary learning with activities. In a lesson about Chinese food and shopping for students 13-14 years old, Godber writes the Chinese and English words on a piece of paper and asks students to repeat after him. Then he shows a lighthearted video in which he walks into a supermarket and points out the names of things in Mandarin.

Another secondary school championing the study of Mandarin is Wellington College, an elite boarding school in Berkshire, west of London, which opened a Mandarin learning center in 2012, the first of its kind in a British school.

Consisting of two classrooms in a pagoda-inspired building with an external water garden enclosed by Chinese wooden fences, it cost 500,000 pounds. In addition to language lessons, Chinese culture and calligraphy lessons will be held in the center, offering students the quintessential Chinese experience.

Teresa Tinley, who co-authored a report last year for the British Council on the teaching of Chinese in the UK, says training is the most important aspect to bringing Chinese into British classrooms.

Tinley says the staffing of Chinese classes cannot solely depend on people coming from China. "Schools are the decision makers as to what languages they teach. They are committed to teaching the languages they deliver.

"Schools need to know they have high-quality teachers who will stick with them. Learning a language needs continuity." But she also says there has to be a coordinated and long-term political strategy for language learning overall in the UK. "One language cannot be taught in a vacuum, or at the expense of other languages."

In the training field, the Confucius Institute at UCL Institute of Education has contributed greatly to standardizing the teaching of Mandarin by providing training to teachers and working on Mandarin teaching textbooks that give teachers and students a more definitive view of how to tackle the complex subject.

Katherine Carruthers, director of the Confucius Institute at UCL Institute of Education, says this has helped to standardize the teaching and learning of Mandarin.

Carruthers is the series editor of the textbooks for teaching Chinese for 11-16 year olds and is chief examiner for Cambridge Pre-U Mandarin Chinese. She now works alongside colleagues at the Institute of Education, London University, on the development of their PGCE course for teachers of Mandarin.