Teaching the UK to speak Mandarin

“A lack of language skills in the UK is costing our economy about £48bn. The shortage of Mandarin speakers is part of the problem. I don’t want young British people to get left behind.” –Vince Cable

As China’s economy and influence continue to grow, so too does the importance of Chinese language skills for UK businesses.

With the UK striving to increase its competitiveness facilitating Chinese companies’ investment in, and purchase of, British goods and services needs to be prioritised. Increasing the number of Chinese speakers in our own country could boost inward investment by Chinese companies otherwise barred by language and cultural difficulties, particularly as London positions itself as a global hub for offshore renminbi trading.

Although teaching Mandarin is a challenge, it is necessary for fostering economic growth and global competitiveness. So what should a post-2015 government need to prioritise in order to improve Mandarin proficiency in the UK?

Improve access to quality language teaching

Despite the British Council naming Mandarin Chinese as one of ten Languages for the Future and government rhetoric about increasing the number of secondary school pupils learning Mandarin, there are relatively few GCSE and A-Level participants compared to other languages, such as French.

The problem is not necessarily a lack of willingness to implement language courses, however, but a lack of access to qualified teachers (exacerbated by current immigration policies towards non-EU workers). A recent survey by the British Council found that 24% of UK primary schools had no staff with a language qualification higher than GCSE, let alone any training in Mandarin. Indeed, schools in the US are going as far as stopping Chinese programs in schools owing to a lack of qualified teachers.

In addition, many schools rely on financial aid from Hanban—the Chinese Language Council that runs the Confucius Institute program—which provides assistance supplying Mandarin teachers to UK schools in partnership with the British Council. Recent controversies surrounding Hanban, however, highlight the difficulties in dealing with Chinese government-controlled programs.

Increasing the number of Chinese nationals admitted into the UK to work as language teachers should be considered as a short-term solution to this problem. But in order to guarantee both teaching quality and academic independence from Hanban, British-government funded teacher training for UK-based Mandarin teachers is necessary. Mandarin teaching needs to be fully incorporated into education in the same manner as European language teaching – an integral part of the curriculum funded by the government and not by foreign political organs.

Increase cultural exchange

Although the British Council is taking positive steps through China Scholarships and the Generation UK programme, the government lacks a coherent policy or programme to support its rhetoric on developing exchanges with China. Proponents of the UK’s current dialogue with China will point to the recent Memorandum of Understanding signed during Premier Li Keqiang’s recent visit, stating that “the UK will send 80,000 students to China for study by 2020.” But issues such as expensive flights, lack of rigorous language education at home, and an absent overall educational framework that includes cultural exchange will hinder the ability of UK students to learn Mandarin. 

Cultural exchanges have been shown to be positively correlated with improved language skills. The majority of scholarships to study Mandarin abroad, however, are currently offered by governments in the Peoples’ Republic of China and Taiwan, with the UK lagging in both its provision and publicity of British government-backed programmes. Only 5,400 UK students went to China last year, compared to 20,000 US students (and 100,000 Chinese students in the UK).

This stands in stark contrast to other Chinese scholarship programmes from the US, where Mandarin has been identified as critical for national security. US programmes, such as FLAS and CLS, offer study abroad opportunities that are not simply funding to attend Chinese institutions, but are US-managed language programmes emphasising an American curriculum, teaching standards and learning materials. UK-managed and funded exchange programmes—echoing those in the US—would allow British students to experience China while maintaining UK education standards.

The launch of the Young Fabians China Programme will enrich debate about China among young people in the UK. But there is still a need for discussion about changing education needs and the evolving UK-China relationship – topics the government would do well to support.

James Evans works in public affairs and is a published Chinese-to-English translator. He has previously worked and studied in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

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