Thursday, 13 August 2015

Manchurian Candidates

One of the annoying (because so ill-informed) things occasionally spouted by self-styled "utilitarian" bashers of Irish is that we should instead all be learning Mandarin — which, they contend, is the Holy Grail of future economic advancement, both personal and regional.

The Blether Region loves languages, no matter where they come from, and there is no doubt that anyone learning Mandarin, or another Chinese dialect such as Cantonese (better represented locally) would be culturally enriched by the experience, no matter how far they progress with it, something the utilitarians rarely mention.

But do the Mandarin-backers really appreciate how difficult it would be to learn a tonal language with a pictographic writing system? Of course not: they only speak English themselves. There is a place for teaching Mandarin, but common sense suggests that the best way to do it would be to recruit seasoned linguists for scratch courses at university or, alternatively, send European children to Mandarin-language schools alongside Chinese counterparts from the get-go.

Of course, one could also hothouse speakers of Mandarin at private schools, something that would no doubt stand pupils in good stead later on. Many such schools, however, are focused on getting pupils into Oxford and Cambridge, and presumably a Chinese language qualification would not attract any more points than French or Spanish.

Evidence for the extreme difficulty of learning Mandarin, and even of recruiting pupils to do so, is provided from Scotland. The Herald rather illiterately reports that:
"The Scottish Government's clear focus on Chinese - where teaching funded by Chinese Government - continues to fail to translate in to large numbers of learners.
Figures fell this year, to just 89." 
Yes, 89 pupils in a country with a population of over 5 million.

The Blether Region has no particular grouse with the Scottish Government, which, after all, is promoting Mandarin as part of a wider language package that also supports Gaelic (rather than as a half-hearted rhetorical alternative to it).

It does, however, show just how ill-suited the conventional state school environment is to learning Chinese.

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