Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Chinese Infusion: Feature

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Chinese Infusion: Feature

Article excerpt

As concerns mount over school language learning, one academy is lifting Mandarin off the page by steeping the curriculum in Chinese culture and even insisting that staff attend lessons. Irena Barker finds out how this immersive way of teaching works.

First of all, it's the chimney, then the roof, the curtains, then my big hat," explains Haiyan Yin, gesticulating animatedly. "But the hat's too big, hold on to your hat, here's my body ... look at my dress," she concludes with a coquettish flick of her leg.

In the first few minutes, Yin's Mandarin Chinese lesson is baffling, to say the least. All this talk of chimneys and dresses and hats seems to have little to do with the most fashionable foreign language available in UK schools. Indeed, it seems to have little to do with anything Chinese at all. But after a short while, it becomes obvious. These curious descriptions are simply the teacher's imaginative aide-memoire for how to draw the elaborate strokes of the Chinese character chuan, meaning "to wear".

Inspired by Yin's enthusiastic display, students are immediately fired up and take to their own mini-whiteboards. Attempts to reproduce the character yield varied results, but the keenness of students cannot be disputed.

"This is horrible, Miss!" shrieks Federico, a particularly enthusiastic student, as he reveals a messy Chinese character on his whiteboard. The teacher marks the work in front of the class, using the opportunity to teach some numbers as she goes. The emphasis on writing the characters also seems to help lodge the word firmly in the brain.

An artful description of another word - xiang, meaning "to want" - features Yin gazing longingly out of the window and drawing a heart on the whiteboard. The emotive approach seems effective, etching the vocabulary on the soul.

But the dramatised writing techniques are not the only notable aspect of the lively Mandarin Chinese lessons at the new UCL Academy in Camden, North London. Since it opened in September 2012, the university-sponsored school has been aiming for the whole curriculum to be infused with Chinese language and culture.

Rather extraordinarily, all teachers - whatever their subject specialism - have to learn the language and attend lessons alongside the children. Although lessons in other curriculum areas are taught in English, all staff are expected to greet and praise their students using a range of Mandarin phrases. They are encouraged to use Mandarin "phrases of the week" to drive the message home across the curriculum.

Having staff attend lessons also allows Yin to pit her students against their teachers, which turns out to be particularly motivating. So, when assistant principal Tom Bowen challenges the students to translate an elaborate sentence about wearing a red jumper, they will not give up until they have unravelled it.

"Chinese levels the playing field: it is new to most children and staff. If the children can see that the usual experts (teachers) struggle, the playing field is levelled," Bowen says. "They are learning explicit grammar in a kinaesthetic lesson, but by seeing our flaws, it also develops student-teacher relationships. The students get to point out our mistakes, and when do students have the chance to do that elsewhere?"

Even the principal of the school, Geraldine Davies, has started learning Mandarin, although she admits that languages are not her strong point. "I have Mandarin on my iPod on the train," she says. "I greet the students in Mandarin, but I did only French and Italian at O level. My languages improve with a glass of wine, but I'm still really a chemist at heart. Learning Mandarin made me anxious; it made me remember what it's like to be a learner."

The school has been open for only a year, nursing a group of 180 students in Year 7 (aged 11-12) and 125 in Year 12 (aged 16-17). All follow compulsory courses in Mandarin, with Year 7 doing one and a half hours a week. …

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