With a program to make 5,000 UK teenagers fluent in Mandarin by 2020, students are learning the language, reports Wang Mingjie in London.
It is Wednesday evening and Sarah Evans’ friends are enjoying a drink at a pub but the 25-year-old, who works for a hedge fund company in the City of London, does not join them because she is at her weekly Mandarin class.
“I think to be able to speak Mandarin fluently is very important to me as it can undoubtedly give me an edge at my job,” said Evans, who is already able to make good conversation in Chinese.
Her story is one example of the growing interest in Britain in learning Mandarin. As relations between China and the United Kingdom have improved during the last 45 years, learning Mandarin has become increasingly popular.
According to the British Council, the number of people taking Mandarin exams at the General Certificate of Secondary Education level increased by 92 percent over the past five years to 4,044 students in 2016.
There are about 130,000 British students of all age groups studying Mandarin at the moment, according to figures from the Chinese embassy.
Wang Yongli, minister counselor for education at the Chinese embassy in London, said Mandarin was of little interest to British people decades ago, but the expansion of the Confucius Institutes and the smaller Confucius Classrooms, with support from local governments and universities, has played an important role in the rise of Mandarin in the country.
“They are seen as centers of excellence to provide great support to teachers and schools in Mandarin teaching through a wide network. To date, there are 29 Confucius Institutes and 135 Confucius Classrooms in the UK,” Wang said.
His view was echoed by the UK’s Minister of State for School Standards, Nick Gibb, who believes that a high level of fluency in Mandarin will become increasingly important in the competitive global economy.
“As part of our drive to extend opportunity, we want to give young people the opportunity to study the language and to acquire fluency in both spoken and written Mandarin,” Gibb said.
In 2016, the British government launched its 10-million-pound ($13 million) Mandarin Excellence Program, which aims to get 5,000 students on the way to fluency in the language by 2020.
The program is being run by UCL’s Institute of Education and the British Council. On average, the students study Mandarin for eight hours a week.
Progress test results in October indicated that the first cohort of almost 400 pupils from 14 schools across England are excelling when it comes to learning Mandarin Chinese. The majority of pupils achieved marks of 80 percent or higher across specially created tests in reading, writing, listening and speaking.
Katharine Carruthers, director of the UCL Institute of Education Confucius Institute, said: “This program provides a real boost and unique opportunity for more motivated pupils to be on track toward fluency in Mandarin, and intensive learning is an important part of that. All of the pupils who attended this innovative teaching day are clearly benefiting from being part of the program.”
Chijioke Davies, 12, from Dartford Grammar School in Kent, joined the program because he wanted to have a bigger challenge than regular Chinese lessons.
“The best thing about being part of the (program) is that I have something to be proud of and I can say that I am good at a language,” he said, adding “if anyone is thinking about joining the program, I would say that they should join because it is an amazing experience.”
Speaking about her experience of the program, 12-year-old Carla Turbides from the Anglo European School said: “The best thing about the Mandarin Excellence Program is learning about another language and culture, and doing it together with your friends. It’s a great program that offers amazing opportunities for the future.”
In 2013, the British Council introduced its Generation UK campaign, which aims to increase the number of British students and interns with placements in China to 80,000 by 2020.
Carma Elliot, director of the British Council in China, said there are now some 7,500 young British people gaining experience in China. This number has grown by around 40 percent in the last three years.
British students’ ambition to excel in Mandarin follows strong interest among Chinese students to learn English, which began in the late 1970s. As a result, China now boasts the largest English-learning population in the world, with an estimated 200 million students. In China, most students take their first English lesson during the first or third year of primary school.
While there has been a surge in the number of Britons learning Mandarin, the number of Chinese students studying at British universities has also continued to rise during the past four decades, making Britain the most popular destination in the European Union.
More than 90,000 Chinese students were enrolled at UK colleges and universities in 2015-16, which was up 94 percent on the number from a decade ago (46,960).
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Pupils taking part in the Mandarin Excellence Program participate in a classroom activity at UCL Institute of Education in London on July 14.
School pupils take part in a Talking Treasure Hunt around the UCL campus in London on July 14.