Magical Mandarin

Su Yen Hu, founder of Snowflake Books, discusses why more schools should teach Mandarin to engage children

In my experience, living in the UK and following my vocation of writing and producing bilingual English-Mandarin illustrated children’s books, I am of the unfortunate opinion that adults, including teachers, are still resistant to exploring Chinese culture and language. Perhaps they think of China in purely political terms as communists with a questionable human rights history? 

Politics and economics remain strong arguments for teaching Mandarin in UK schools. In December 2105, YouGov Opinion Formers stated that the European Union will be Britain’s largest trading partner in 20 years’ time (52%), with China overtaking the United States as second. Now we have left Europe will this make China the UK’s largest trading partner and the next premier Global power? In a bid to encourage more children to learn Mandarin the Chancellor announced a £10m funding boost in September 2015 with the then education secretary Nicky Morgan commenting: “Teaching pupils these important language skills will ensure they leave school not just with an excellent education but fully prepared to compete in the global race.”

But I don’t think this should be the main motivation for schools and teachers to consider Mandarin, I am not convinced they are purely interested in shaping the next generation of global business moguls.

Su Yen Hu, founder of Snowflake Books

What is more important is the amount Mandarin and associated activities could enrich the curriculum. Chinese culture (alongside the language) effortlessly ticks a whole host of diversity, equality and multiculturalism boxes, and can support many areas of the curriculum, providing a wealth of resources with which children can engage. 

The Chinese believe every child is different and unique, as influenced and illustrated by the stories of the animals in the Chinese Zodiac, who entered a race to win that honour. Through these tales an understanding of physical and perhaps resulting personality differences can help children find ways to appreciate each other’s strengths and tolerate their weaknesses. 

Goat entered the race to represent the goats even if the others were too lazy to do so,

Rat (Mouse) tricked both the cat and buffalo to win his place, but if he hadn’t used trickery a tiny mouse would not have won a place. Rooster was laughed at by his friends, but he was not put off and entered the race anyway. Although they were racing against each other, Goat, Monkey and Rooster helped each other to cross a big river to win a place. Although Goat and Rooster didn’t care that they weren’t first, Monkey did and behaved very badly.

There are many other incidents of accepting unique personalities and differences in Chinese culture that can be extended into other learning. The Nine Sons of the Dragon King were condemned to live on earth forever. Each brother had different qualities, some not so good, but found a way to make himself useful in this life. 

Having spoken to several schools who teach Mandarin already or offer it as an extracurricular activity, they are in agreement that mastery of the language is not the aim here but the introduction of new sounds, a different alphabet, a new culture and ‘providing food for the mind’ is their goal. The earlier such a contrasting language can be introduced in an engaging way the better. For the long-term probability of continuing to enjoy and study the language, it is all of these elements, plus the rich year-round resources of language, literature, food, festivals and artistic styles that should be persuading schools to look at Chinese culture beyond making lanterns at Chinese New Year. I would like teachers to consider Mandarin as a permanent offering to engage children with the rich culture of story-telling, equality and the festivals that accompany it. 

In this way Chinese will no longer be strange or alien, an intangible language and inaccessible customs and culture. The values and morals are not widely different from the UK’s they just have a slightly more exotic appearance. Diversity stems from our curiosity to seek, understand and explore the world; schools could start by simply adapting storytime to help children experience it. 


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