The real story behind the rise in Chinese study

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We often read about the rise and rise of Chinese teaching in our schools, but what is the real story behind the up-take figures? Katharine Carruthers explains

In August every year, somewhere in the media, a journalist writes a story about the meteoric rise of Chinese teaching in schools as demonstrated by the A/AS and GCSE entry data. Last year, according to the Joint Council for Qualifications, Chinese was the second most popular “other MFL” at GCSE and the most popular at A level (any modern foreign language which is not French, German, Irish, Spanish or Welsh is classified as “other”).

What does this data really tell us? To my mind, the story behind this data is globalisation. At A level, it reflects the number of young people from China coming to the UK to study in the sixth form (predominantly in the independent sector) who do Chinese as a third or fourth subject and at GCSE, it reflects the number of British-born Chinese who want to have (or maybe whose parents want them to have) a qualification in their home language and see it as a pragmatic investment in their future.

However, very significantly, the data also reflects the growth of Chinese as a foreign language in the mainstream curriculum in Britain’s schools. Globalisation is the driving force; students, teachers, headteachers and parents see the need for young people to have the option of learning a language beyond the regular diet of French, German and Spanish and to open their minds to different outlooks on the world. 

In the case of Chinese, it is a world in which words are built in entirely different ways. For example, ? ? where the characters for “spear” and “shield” come together to make the word for “contradiction”. Or ? ?, where the characters for “fire” and “mountain” come together to make the word for “volcano”. Much to the joy of key stage 3 learners, verbs do not conjugate and nouns do not decline.

The 2014/15 Language Trends Survey indicates that about 17 per cent of state schools and 35 per cent of independent schools have some sort of Chinese provision, although the proportion offering it on the curriculum at key stage 4 is, respectively, five and 21 per cent. Nonetheless, the schools who are focusing on Chinese are finding that their results are at least as good as and often better than their results for other languages, and that a greater number of boys are opting for Chinese than opt for other languages.

At the UCL Institute of Education, we are committed to building a national infrastructure to enable the teaching of Chinese in schools with the ultimate aim of giving every child who wants to do so the opportunity to learn the language. 

To support this, we have focused on removing the barriers to the subject’s growth by concentrating on the development of appropriate teaching materials, assessment and, of course, teacher training pathways.

The IoE is just reaching the end of its 4th year of Chinese PGCE provision. Graduates are snapped up by schools. The IoE strategy, working closely with partners in the UK and China, is clear and sophisticated. It involves three specific levers: increasing the supply of new teachers of Chinese, building a national framework of hub classrooms (centres of excellence which reach out to other schools in their locality), and using both of these to deliver enhanced teacher CPD.

The IoE’s 12th Annual Chinese Conference took place earlier this month with an attendance of more than 300 delegates.

While fluency is by no means the only measure of success, the detailed discussion a few weeks back which I had in Chinese with a sixth former (with no background in Chinese) about what the West can do to facilitate the resolution of the Diaoyu Islands dispute must support the aspiration that in the future it should be possible for more bilateral dialogue with China to take place in Chinese as well as English.

Seeing the engagement of those students at an earlier stage of their learning, poring over cut-out characters on their desks and working in groups to arrange them into sentences, or watching a class of year 9 girls, who armed with iPads and film scripts they had written, could make, edit, film and speak in Chinese without feeling inhibited, demonstrates the real motivation and enthusiasm of the learners. 

In a school I visited last week, students were taught the Chinese idiom ? ? ? ? – ji máo suàn pí – chicken feathers, garlic skins, which means “trivia”, and the headteacher rightly declared that the teaching of Chinese is no trivial matter and engagement with the subject has the power to change the lives and outlook of all the young people who learn it, to whatever level.

So the annual discussion of exam numbers for Chinese remains rather superficial, unless the wider picture is better understood.

  • Katharine Carruthers is director of the Confucius Institute for Schools at the UCL Institute of Education in London. Email her at chinesenetworks@ioe.ac.uk


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