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Learning Mandarin is NOT the solution!

Discussion in 'Modern foreign languages' started by dominic_mcg, Aug 26, 2011.

  1. Recently published A level and GCSE results have shown that the number of students studying languages has fallen by a significant amount. The government, is trying to resolve the problem (it thinks) by introducing Ebacc, forcing reluctant students to study a language.
    Relevance has always been an issue in the language learning debate and many students either don't see the relevance, don't want to put on the effort or simply prefer other subjects. Given the choice, many year 8 and 9 students I have encountered would drop languages in favour of more PE, ICT, Technology, Drama, etc. and I probably would have done, too.
    This is not because they don't like languages, but because they would prefer to do something else. Analogy: I love drinking coffee but give me the choice between cup of coffee and a cold beer on a hot summer's day and the beer would win every time.
    So, what is the solution?
    Make language learning "fun"?
    Make it more relevant?
    Force students to study MFL?
    I don't know.
    But I do know that teaching Mandarin in our schools is definitely NOT the solution.
     
  2. Recently published A level and GCSE results have shown that the number of students studying languages has fallen by a significant amount. The government, is trying to resolve the problem (it thinks) by introducing Ebacc, forcing reluctant students to study a language.
    Relevance has always been an issue in the language learning debate and many students either don't see the relevance, don't want to put on the effort or simply prefer other subjects. Given the choice, many year 8 and 9 students I have encountered would drop languages in favour of more PE, ICT, Technology, Drama, etc. and I probably would have done, too.
    This is not because they don't like languages, but because they would prefer to do something else. Analogy: I love drinking coffee but give me the choice between cup of coffee and a cold beer on a hot summer's day and the beer would win every time.
    So, what is the solution?
    Make language learning "fun"?
    Make it more relevant?
    Force students to study MFL?
    I don't know.
    But I do know that teaching Mandarin in our schools is definitely NOT the solution.
     
  3. Mandarin Chinese is much harder to learn than French, German or Spanish - and the same can be said for Japanese. I have had a go at learning the basics of Mandarin and Japanese, and I found progress was extremely slow. My experience in learning Hungarian was similar. Hungarian is not in the Indo-European group and therefore has little in common with most other European languages. But I made reasonable progress in "survival Hungarian" as I had to travel to Hungary on business at least three times a year for a period of five years during the 1990s. All business negotations, however, were conducted in English or German (my first foreigh language). I never got beyond the level of just about grasping the gist of a business conversation in Hungarian.
    Having recently returned from a summer holiday in France and Switzerland, where I observed many Brits struggling to make themselves understood in French and German, I think we have a long way to go to bring our knowledge of European languages up to scratch before we consider teaching exotic languages that we are highly unlikely to use.
    And forget about the idea of Mandarin and Japanese being useful for business. Anything less than a degree in any foreign language, followed by a top-up course in the language of commerce, will be of little practical use.
    Regards
    Graham
     
  4. Well said both Gentlemen! I am sorry to have to agree (being a lover of language learning) I taught French and German full time from 1985 till 2008 when they let me out for good behaviour. Since then I have dabbled in teaching Geography, ICT, English, primary school children and even those slow learners known as adults. And believe me the hardest of everything was teaching languages Even French -when France is our nearest neighbour - seems to have little relevance to our northern children who will (quote) never go to France on holiday. So how people think teaching them an even harder language with a different alphabet like Chinese will fix things I do not know.
     
  5. I absolutely agree. We all have students who are still at the Je mapple stage of French after 5 years. How would these students ever cope with a language in a different script, with far fewer cognates?
    When they can't even cope with le and la how will they deal with ideas such as diferent meanings for different pitch or varieties of plural?
    I know languages are hard and a slog but I do feel that a lot of what we have to contend with is basically the laziness of some students when asked to do simple tasks such as learning a list of 20 words.
     
  6. I'm afraid I can not agree. I have personally encountered so many cases in UK where any level of Mandarin landed people with jobs, jobs like Chinese establishments seeking British employees (these establishments are fast growing), teacher training for Mandarin speakers, shops, many companies, even nursaries; Not to mention the millions of European people living and working in China! Most of employers interested in language skills are not looking at the language skills alone, they are looking for people who have certain level of cultural understanding by speaking the languages. As a language teacher, one can never teach language outside its culture context. It is this cultural understanding that will empower young people in this global society. And I'm afraid it is down to our teachers to motivate our students and give their language learning a powerful purpose. My school has a link school in Beijing. The Penpal system and future exchange visits have already put the students in such a context that made learning immediately relavent. It simply opens up their world! I agree that my students may never be able to communicate fluently in Mandarin during their school years, but they will leave school with more broad and balanced views on the cutures that seem so alien to them before.
    Most of our students come from rather socially deprived areas, many of them have yet even tasted any Chinese food. We'd agreed on a pretty realistic approach with their Mandarin learning - they won't make much figures for GCSE league table. But I strongly believe that the skills and the learning experience will land them jobs.
     
  7. The biggest problem facing languages in schools, as you have mentioned, is making them relevant. Put another way, the issue is motivating students to study a language - giving them a convincing reason why learning a language will benefit them. I'd just like to make a couple of points about Mandarin.
    One way to motivate students is to introduce them to the culture of the country where the language is spoken - this is very important when teaching a language like Chinese, which has its roots in a very different cultural background. I find that students are very interested in finding out about life in China - Chinese schools, Chinese family life, holidays and festivals, arts and crafts, calligraphy, how Chinese characters have developed.... and so on. This can motivate them to learn the language too. We need to open the students' eyes to different cultures and different ways of seeing the world. One of the reasons we teach languages is to broaden horizons in order to encourage tolerance and respect.
    Mandarin Chinese is not an easy language to learn - but many people who have experience of learning European languages tend to assume that Chinese has all of the difficulties of a European language plus the added challenge of a different script. This is not the case. Chinese grammar is much simpler than that of European languages - there are no tenses, no genders, no verb conjugations to learn. The challenges of learning Chinese lie in learning to recognise and write Chinese characters. Tones are also often cited as something that makes Chinese very difficult but tones can be learnt gradually through listening to the language and repeating the sounds - if the wrong tone is used then the meaning is usually apparent from the context of the conversation anyway. Mandarin Chinese is not inaccessible and students who struggle with grammar will find that aspect of Chinese much easier to get to grips with.
    The argument that anything less than fluency in a foreign language is not useful in a business context may have some truth in it - but does that mean we should not teach languages at all if we are not able to obtain that level? Surely the aim of learning a language in school is laying foundations for the future - whether that be using a few phrases on holiday/at work, continuing to study the language to a higher level or learning a different foreign language!
    I don't believe that Mandarin is the solution to the problem of the decline of languages in our schools - but I don't understand why Mandarin is being singled out. I don't believe anyone out there is suggesting that all schools scrap French, German and Spanish and teach Mandarin instead - just suggesting that a knowledge of Mandarin and China is something that will benefit our students in the future. Offering a wider range of languages might help - students have more chance of finding a language which suits them or that they find interesting.
    I don't know what the solution is, but I think that Mandarin does have a part to play in language teaching in our education system.
    @dominic_mcg: I agree with all of the points you make about languages in general but am a little confused about why you have decided that Mandarin should not be taught in schools. Do you have any experience of Mandarin that has led you to this conclusion?
    In case you were wondering, I am a Mandarin teacher :)




     
  8. By the way, I met a young man from Croatia on my return flight from China last week. He launched one of the first websites associated with China in Croatia. His Mandarin was very basic but had some good understanding of the country by following the news and reading books. He had such an ambition in promoting multi-culture and creating trading opportunities in his country.
    This is what language skills (culture awareness) can create for young people!
     
  9. I agree - the experience of learning Mandarin and developing intercultural awareness are extremely valuable, both personally and in the job market.
     
  10. lifereallyistooshort

    lifereallyistooshort New commenter

    I think if you trawl back through various earlier threads you'll find out why there is a certain focus here on Mandarin as the answer to all the world's MFL problems!
     
  11. Geekie

    Geekie New commenter

    I think teaching languages to the masses is doomed to failure in this country while the anti-hardwork, quick-win, easy-way-out culture exists. As MFL teachers we oblige learners to really think hard, to exercise their brains, to WORK. Until we have a culture-shift that sees a revival of learning for learning's sake, valuing education and general knowledge and wanting to stretch and improve yourself, we're onto a loser. Whichever language we try.
     
  12. I have seen a few posts about this, but sorry if I've missed some vital points from earlier threads :)
    It does seem like we need a bit of common sense on the Mandarin side here though - Mandarin is not the answer to all of the world's MFL problems but it should not be dismissed either.
    If we are going to find solutions then we all need to work together regardless of which languages we teach.


     
  13. I agree that the quick-fix culture does no good to young people.
    There are no shortage of such culture that promote "learning for learning's sake, valuing education and general knowledge and wanting to stretch and improve yourself". The Chinese being one of them, which gives us all the more reason to teach and learn the language.
     
  14. Having read this article in the TES it seems I was right after all. Students are abandoning Chinese GCSE because it is too hard. Numbers have fallen from 3650 candidates in 2010 to 2104 this year. Is that about a 40% drop? Compared to a 13% fall in all GCSE languages.
     
  15. padjo

    padjo New commenter

    From the TES article that you mention it looks like the drop was caused mainly by a change in the format of the exam, rather than because the language is too hard.

    Looking at the difficulty of learning such a different language, with a completely different writing system and completely different culture, it does make you admire the 200million+ Chinese speakers who are making exactly the same journey by learning English. Maybe we are just a bit thick. Or maybe, to be fairer, people only learn things when there is an economic incentive. That has certainly existed in spades over the last 30 years in China. But by, say, 2020 there will be so much of our economic activity owned or controlled by China that there may well be a strong economic and cultural incentive for us to learn Mandarin Chinese.

    I think that children at Primary school today are very likely to be more successful in the job market if they have a foreign language when they enter it, but I bet I know which one their employers will be asking for.
     
  16. musiclover1

    musiclover1 New commenter

    Having read this article in the TES it seems I was right after all.
    It says quite clearly that pupils didn;t abandon Chinese GCSE - they changed to the IGCSE, which is not at all the same thing.
     
  17. musiclover1

    musiclover1 New commenter

    Sorry, I still haven't worked out how to quote yet.
     
  18. spsmith45

    spsmith45 New commenter

    There are a number of reasons for not doing Mandarin:
    1. Lack of skilled teachers.
    2. Difficulty level of language for most children
    3. French and German still most in demand in the jobs market according to employers' surveys.
    Geographical proximity (jobs, holidays, living abroad)and cultural desirability for UK citizens (literature, film, history) also make the traditional modern languages most attractive.
    It is not all doom and gloom. We still produce a decent number of modern linguists, just not enough. Although numbers have been falling at A-level, think where we were in the 1960s.
     
  19. chriszwinter

    chriszwinter New commenter

    Couldn't agree more!!!
     
  20. spsmith45

    spsmith45 New commenter

    Funny, I don't see that caricature in the kids I teach. They seem to work harder than twenty years ago. Is that just a grammar school thing?
     

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