A lot of schools around the world have added Mandarin to their curriculum as a second or third language. At face value this would appear to make a lot of sense. China is predicted to be the world’s largest economy by the time that our primary age kids reach the world of work. Today there are about 30 million non-Chinese learning Mandarin; a figure that is expected to rise exponentially over the coming years.


At my school, we have introduced Mandarin to our grade one and two children. Our students are mostly bilingual and have fluency in both English and Bahasa Indonesia. The introduction of a new language certainly broadens their horizons and has encouraged some students to join additional Mandarin extracurricular courses. Students seem to enjoy the subject and my eldest cheerfully tries out her Mandarin on anyone she thinks might understand.


However, a recent Economist article questioned just what benefits a non-Chinese learner will gain from learning Mandarin and how that balances out against the time and other opportunity costs of learning it. One of the key problems identified with Mandarin learning is that it’s obscenely difficult;


“With its tones and horribly complicated writing system, Mandarin is much harder to learn than most European languages. The Foreign Office, for example, gives its officers four times as long to get from beginner to operational level in Mandarin as it does in Italian, French or Spanish—and only those with the greatest aptitude for languages are selected for it. The vast majority of Westerners who travel to China to study Mandarin give up, go home and forget what they have learned.”


Chinese schools also put a heavy focus on teaching English. University is a closed door to students who do not have a degree of English fluency so the new generation of Chinese executives joining the workplace will be the most fluent English users yet.


“Within China companies can hire an expatriate who speaks Chinese. Or, more often, they take their pick from an abundant supply of local graduates in English who are happy to work for 2,000 yuan (£130) a month.”

Although fluency may not be a realistic (or even necessary) goal for most students, a working knowledge of the language, culture, and history of the country would go a long way towards preparing our children for the future. This is a country that will play a major role in our kids’ lives and an understanding of the basics of Chinese language, culture, and business practices could provide benefits further on down the line.