Why the future could well be Mandarin

Tony Xu at Confucius Language Academy, Leeds.
Tony Xu at Confucius Language Academy, Leeds.
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The number of people learning Chinese is growing all the time. Chris Bond visited a language academy in Leeds to find out more.

HOUSED in the middle of a business park on the edge of Leeds city centre the Confucius Language Academy doesn’t look too promising from the outside.

But inside it’s a different story where the principal and managing director Tony Xu is waiting with a welcoming smile and a refreshing cup of tea, or cha. “Here you are in a bit of China so we drink Chinese tea,” he says jovially.

He has good reason to be happy. Since setting up his Chinese language academy in 2008 he’s gone from teaching 15 students to running a successful business that has around 200 pupils on its books.

I say pupils but those studying on the courses here range from children whose parents hope to give them a head start in the world, to entrepreneurs eager to cash in on China’s booming economy.

It is this economic might coupled with its growing importance on the world stage that has had our political leaders clamouring with each other to forge closer links between the two countries. Last month Boris Johnson and George Osborne visited China and this week the Prime Minister is there leading a trade delegation to drum up business for Britain.

China’s growing importance in the past decade or so has also highlighted the value of learning Mandarin, something Mr Johnson touched on during his recent visit. The London mayor, who is studying the language himself, said British children should be taught Mandarin as standard in schools.

His comments were in stark contrast to those he made back in 2005 when he suggested teaching Mandarin to young children wasn’t a priority. But he’s not alone in waking up to the importance of being able to speak Chinese.

In Japan, for instance, Mandarin Chinese is now the most taught foreign language after English. Britain, too, is trying to keep up and next year the first English-Chinese bilingual primary school in the UK is due to open in London.

Tony’s language academy has an advantage in that he’s already been going five years. “It’s definitely getting more and more popular and each year I see the difference,” he says.

There is a growing demand for Chinese courses and Tony and his team of experienced teachers run classes that cater for beginners right through to advanced level students, as well as after school clubs and self study courses.

The business programme is particularly popular. “There are more firms doing business in China, or planing to do business in China,” he says. “This year we have an IT company and they are going to promote their project in China and almost all the company is learning Chinese so we go and teach them.”

The fact that Mandarin Chinese isn’t taught as a compulsory foreign language in schools has opened the door for businesses like this. “More and more people are subscribing to our courses and because some schools don’t do after school clubs we’re getting more parents sending their children to us because they would like them to learn Chinese early on.

“China is playing a more important role on the global stage and people see that it will be even more powerful in 10 or 15 years, they look ahead and have the foresight to get their children learning the language to prepare them for being a global citizen.”

We’ve long been criticised for being lazy when it comes to learning languages which harks back to our misguided belief that other people will speak English – an attitude that sadly still exists today.

But while in recent decades most children were taught French and Spanish, or possibly German, in another 10 or 20 years it could well be Mandarin that tops the language list. Tony believes it’s only a matter of time before it becomes a mainstream subject in UK schools.

“I think it should be. It’s a good idea, especially for the new generation because to equip them to speak Mandarin Chinese will be good for them and this country.” He says we can’t afford to be left behind. “It’s a globalised world nowadays and if you miss the Chinese market it’s a big miss.”

But what about the language itself? There’s a perception that Chinese is incredibly difficult but when I mention this to Tony, who has more than 30 years experience teaching languages, he shakes his head.

“Some people say it’s a difficult language to learn but I think it’s a misconception. They look at the characters and think ‘how can I learn that?’ But Chinese is not a difficult language to learn. It’s easier than English and other European languages in many ways.”

He says the pronunciation is more straightforward. “When I started to learn English I couldn’t say the word ‘exercises’ because it had so many syllables. Other people couldn’t say ‘excuse me’ it came out as ‘kiss me’. All the Chinese characters only have one syllable which is a lot easier, so pronunciation-wise and speaking-wise Chinese is easier.”

The tone you give these characters is where it gets more complicated. “English has tones as well but these don’t change the meaning of the word, only the connotation. But Chinese is slightly different. The different tones indicate different meanings of the same sound, so it’s a change but it’s not impossible.”

He believes from a grammar point of view Chinese is simpler to grasp. “With English there is ‘he was,’ ‘we were’ and so, but with all the Chinese verbs there is no inflection.”

But what about the written language, which looks so utterly alien from our own, surely that’s difficult to learn? “It looks daunting but it isn’t. Every language has its own system and with Chinese we don’t have alphabetical letters but we have what we call ‘components’ or ‘radicals’ and you piece these together to form different characters.” There are 33 of these so-called radicals that you need to learn first in order have a basic understanding of the language.

For all its difficult reputation, and contrary to popular opinion, there’s only actually one official language in China, Mandarin. “We have a lot of dialects but the written word is the same.”

But despite the potential benefits there appears to be a reluctance among some schools to embrace Mandarin. “I guess that some headmasters are not keen on taking Chinese on. The reason for that is because they are more keen on league table positions and they think Chinese may be too difficult for students and will affect their status, which is understandable.”

I sit in on a beginners’ class with six pupils who come from a variety of backgrounds. Helen Weeds is a teacher in North Yorkshire who’s eager to learn the language so she can teach it at her school. She believes there are a lot of benefits to learning Chinese. “It’s not just about the language, there’s so much else to learn about the culture, geography and history of the country.”

Fellow pupil Laprecia Sutton, from Leeds, visited China earlier this year and plans to return next Spring to do an internship at an education centre. “It’s an amazing country, but having been there I realised that knowing the language was really important because they don’t speak much English.”

Sayed Shah runs a take away business but has ambitious plans to set up a clothing company in China in the next five years and wants to be able to speak the language. “I thought it was going to be very hard but it’s been quite easy. I’m teaching my five year-old and four-year-old daughters at the moment and they can speak as much as I can,” he says.

It’s hard not to be impressed by the dedication of these pupils, and they’re not alone. It’s estimated there are more than 100 million people learning Mandarin outside China, people who see it is a passport to new opportunities in an increasingly competitive world.

For Tony, who first arrived in Britain in the 1980s and became a British citizen in 1996, it’s something he’s passionate about. He calls China his “motherland” and Britain his “fatherland” and believes their two languages are now most important. “English is still the number one language in the world, but Chinese is catching up.”