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Mandarin is already taught at a number of schools as an optional modern foreign language. Over 13% of state schools and 46% of independent schools offer Mandarin as an MFL option for their pupils (Language Trends Survey).

In primary schools, it is often taught as an extra-curricular activity (such as an after school or lunchtime club), in secondary schools and colleges it is taught to GCSE/GCE level.

The main reason for the recent growth in teaching Mandarin is because it is becoming an increasingly widespread and popular language, especially for business. Offering it as an option for MFL lessons allows children to become more prepared for the future.

But does the increasing usage and popularity of Mandarin mean that we should start teaching it as the default modern foreign language?

What are the current default languages?

For just about every school in the country, the default modern foreign language is French.

It has been that way for decades, and many schools have established relationships with French schools and communities, and arrange annual school trips or student exchanges. This gives their their students regular opportunities to use the language they have been learning, as well as to experience life in a different country.

As a nation, we have a close connection with France – after all, we are only separated by the English Channel, and it is a popular holiday destination for families.

Some schools have also been known to teach Spanish or German as the default language, with French as an optional choice once you reach GCSE level. However, this is a less common prioritisation of languages in the classroom.

Many would say that after so long it is time for a change, and Mandarin may prove itself a more useful language to learn for the future.

Why Mandarin?

The business sector speculates that Mandarin will come a close second to English in terms of being the most spoken and used language. As a result, they have encouraged people to start learning Mandarin, as it can work as an excellent advantage in the business world.

Children have also been encouraged to take up the language – giving them a head start with greater potential employment opportunities, but also preparing them for an ever-evolving future. With an increasing number of Mandarin speakers in the world, its relatively recent growth as an optional language in schools is no surprise.

In 2010, over a thousand Mandarin teachers were hired for British schools, in hopes of encouraging students to learn a new language willingly, and in 2016 the government announced a £10 million Mandarin excellence programme to promote the language at a secondary school level.

British employers are now actively seeking candidates with Mandarin as a second language, and successive governments have recognised the need to introduce Mandarin into the curriculum where possible.

The advantages of learning Mandarin in school

  • Learning complex languages like Mandarin when you are young makes the process much easier. As a result, it is more likely to lead to fluency with practice and regular lessons.
  • China is the most populated country on Earth, which leads to an increased number of Mandarin speakers. Whilst not yet a lingua franca, the growth of China’s population and global influence could lead to it being seen as such within a couple of generations.
  • Being able to communicate effectively in Mandarin, gives students an advantage when applying for employment in sectors that encompass the Chinese market.
  • China is at the centre of the global economy. Future generations will likely need a better understanding of the language and culture.

Should it become the default modern foreign language?

This is not necessarily an easy question to answer, especially as we can never be sure how the future might unfold.

Current statistics show that Mandarin is the most spoken language in the world – with Spanish and English in second and third place. However, it is not yet the most widely spoken language in the world. English is still spoken in more countries than any other language, with Arabic and French also very widely used.

So is the time right for Mandarin to become the default modern foreign language in schools? It is certainly going to be useful in the future, so maybe we should be forward-thinking and start to encourage more children to learn Mandarin at any level.