Catch a tiger by the tongue… and learn Mandarin Chinese

Forget ‘bonjour’ – if your child is really ahead of the curve, then ‘ni hao’ is the foreign language phrase that will be tripping off their tongue.

Pupils learn Mandarin Chinese at Brighton college

Pupils learn Mandarin at Brighton college, which pioneered its teaching in the UK (Andrew Hasson)

Across Britain, FGS – French, German and Spanish, the traditional trinity of school languages – is being supplanted by a new acronym – HAM, Hindi, Arabic and Mandarin, considered the languages aspiring entrepreneurs will need to do business with the emerging economic giants of the 21st century.

Last week I talked to Felix Fowler, 17, about getting lost in Tianjin, the Chinese city he has been living in since last autumn. Felix is a pupil at Wellington College International in Tianjin. It’s the second of two schools set up in China as offshoots of Wellington college, the Berkshire boarding school founded in the 19th century by Queen Victoria. British pupils at Wellington are now able to get first hand experience of Chinese language and culture by studying at one of the college’s two associated Chinese schools for a term or longer.

Wellington’s headmaster Dr Anthony Seldon is so passionate about his pupils learning Mandarin that next month he is opening a centre for Mandarin at the college, complete with garden for meditation and three Mandarin teachers. He himself is setting an example by learning Mandarin and hopes to sit his GCSE in the subject next year.

But he has one plea – make the GCSE easier for British teenagers. Mandarin is a fiendishly difficult language, he says, and at the moment the bar is set too high for anyone other than native speakers to score an A or A* grade at GCSE without a disproportionate amount of effort. Unless the exams change there will be a real disincentive for British youngsters to study the subject.

As for Dr Seldon himself – he can count up to 100 in Mandarin – though not always when put on the spot.

Take a free Mandarin lesson at the Sunday Times Festival of Education, Wellington college, Berkshire, which takes place on June 23 and 24. For tickets see 

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