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I have had the occasional parent ask me: why don't we teach Mandarin? Ed Balls, our Minister of Education, has also said that all children should have the opportunity to learn Mandarin. Well, I'm afraid I'm quite Mandarin-sceptic, I'm a Mandarin-contrarian, if you like. So I enjoyed this article, penned by the Head of The King's School, Gloucester, in today's Education Guardian.

"As the general election begins to hove into view, the din in our ears is growing louder, and one of the voices is that of Ed Balls. But as we strain to listen, it becomes evident that he is speaking a language many of us can't understand.

Balls's latest new word is Mandarin. He says he believes that every pupil should have the opportunity to learn this language, just as at times he has said the same about Polish, Russian, Arabic and Bahasa Indonesian, to name but a few.

At the moment the inconvenient truth that only 3,500 – or approximately 1% of all language entries – actually took Mandarin or Cantonese at GCSE last year does not deter Balls. He is determined to square and cube this number in a jiffy and, beyond that, to share his vision of Britain as China's 23rd sheng (or province), a world in which British businessmen and women will sit at the same table as Chinese industrialists and exchange bon mots in Mandarin about the pitiful state of our failing economy.

Of course, he is dimly aware that there are practical difficulties. There is the fact that Mandarin is a language entirely unlike English in its multiple stresses, meaning that the tiniest shift can mean you have called your mother-in-law a horse or "buried" your dog rather than "bought" it. Then there is the fact that standard Mandarin is only standard as far as it describes a number of related dialects spoken in northern and southwest China. Or what about the fact that Mandarin simply doesn't have the tenses that are so much a part of our idiom?

Beyond even these difficulties, Balls seems oblivious to the point that spoken and written Mandarin are so different – or that there is a staggering lack of accessible literature for British students or, for that matter, that there are simply not enough qualified teachers of Mandarin to go round. Even if we open the gates and invite thousands of teachers from China to come, it doesn't follow that such expediency will work. A teacher from Tianjin or Guangzhou cannot simply arrive and jump in, even if they can speak good English to start with, for the best teaching is surely born out of familiarity and a proper understanding of both countries' cultural norms.

Balls, the present government and whatever government is to follow need to think about these things, but mostly they need to yield up their romantic vision of Britain whispering sweet somethings to China when our language teaching is, in any case, a national and international embarrassment.

Since the disastrous decision of 2004 in which modern languages were made optional after the age of 14, the maintained sector has struggled to keep modern foreign languages programmes intact, while the gap with the independent sector has widened accordingly. Some 60% of modern language A grades now go to students in independent schools, ie to just 7% of all Britain's pupils. And nearly 50% of those reading languages at our top 10 universities are independent school products, something that looks like a growing statistic.

Carry on eroding language skills across the country and those who actually acquire qualifications in Mandarin will definitely not be the constituency of which Labour dreams – and will be a constant reproach to the decade of failed education policy that has left our schools in the maintained sector gasping like dying fish on a desolate shore.

Balls and his like seem more and more preoccupied with India and China as the tiger economies. They are probably right in assuming that these are countries destined to achieve more power and influence, but even if this does happen, it is plain common sense that Britain's best chance of competing lies in strengthening our ties with the rest of Europe. It is tempting to taste Mandarin as one of the exotic fruits that Balls is offering us, but what about the apples and pears? In my view, there is no better time than now to consider where we went wrong with supporting and resourcing the teaching of French, Spanish and German.

Confucius may indeed once have said that "to have friends from afar is happiness", but there is another Chinese proverb that I prefer by far, which goes: "If you see in your wine the reflection of a person not in your range of vision, don't drink it".

It is a salutary warning."


  1. "to have friends from afar is happiness"
    This is a very cultural saying in Mandarin.

    Interesting posting indeed!


    Japanese adopted a lot of Chinese characters, so, some Japanese know the advantages of the Chinese language. A learned Japanese states that Chinese language is very systematic and logic. He looks at Mandarin from a different angle.

    Some people say the sound of Mandarin is poetic.

    I am a published author of 5 wonderful books. I'd say the writing of Chinese characters could be beautiful.


    Actually, learning Mandarin can be entertaining, fun, and joyful!


  2. I do not doubt that and my wife has learned a little, to go with her Japanese. It's just that politicians hop on to bandwagons without thinking things through sometimes.


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