CHILDREN as young as four will be given lessons in Mandarin under radical plans to equip them for a world in which China is an emerging superpower.
The drive will see dozens of native Chinese speakers from Edinburgh University visit classrooms across the Capital and East Lothian as teachers bid to spark an enduring interest in foreign languages.
Seven Edinburgh primaries – Sighthill, Pentland, Dalmeny, Clermiston, Granton, Craigour Park and Stockbridge – will host Mandarin lessons after the programme rolls out in the new year, with classes also set to take place at Gracemount, Craigmount and St Thomas’ RC secondary schools.
And in East Lothian, 22 P1 classes in 11 schools have already begun to provide weekly, hour-long sessions with student tutors. While some Scottish secondary schools offer teaching in Chinese to local communities, it is thought the Edinburgh and East Lothian initiative is pioneering the roll-out of structured lessons in mainstream classrooms to pupils as young as four.
Parents and education specialists said the programme would be crucial to helping children compete in today’s global economy.
Mum-of-four Lucy Brett, 33, whose children, Rosie, seven, and Benjamin, five, attend Stockbridge Primary, said: “It’s great to be learning any language from a young age and it’s a sensible language to be learning given the growth that’s going on in China.
“Native speakers are always going to be of benefit to children for learning a language.”
Co-ordinated by the Scotland-China Education Network, the programme is being rolled out as the Scottish Government works towards a target of having every child learn two foreign languages on top of their mother tongue, with the first taken in P1 and the second by P5.
Ms Brett said bringing in student volunteers could even offer advantages over a system in which lessons are given by fully trained staff who may only have basic skills in languages.
“Ideally you would have a trained teacher who is a fluent speaker but at the same time, the chance to learn with a native speaker is going to be as good as anything that’s on offer,” she said.
“There are always new things coming into the curriculum – it’s important that children have a fun and creative time at school, and they are always interested in languages and different cultures.
“I think my children will be very keen to do this and having to help them with Mandarin homework doesn’t phase me.”
Bosses at Edinburgh University said the programme would meet growing demand for teaching in Mandarin.
Natascha Gentz, chair of Chinese studies and director of the Confucius Institute for Scotland, said: “It’s a clever way of making use of existing resources to promote learning Chinese in schools, which I believe will be an essential competence for our pupils’ future career opportunities.”
Liz Gray, the city council’s quality improvement officer for languages and literacy, said Mandarin is “quite exotic and very different” – helping maintain kids’ interest.
She said: “We know that if Scotland is to compete in a global market, language skills are vital.” A recent British Council study found Spanish, Arabic, French, Mandarin and German are the five languages considered most important to the UK’s future.