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Everything You Need to Know Before Learning Chinese at School

By Joseph, published on 26/09/2018 Blog > Languages > Chinese > Learning Chinese at School

“Failure is the foundation of success, and the means by which it is achieved.” – Lao Tzu

Before you can speak Chinese, you’re going to have to spend several hours learning to read Chinese characters. However, despite how difficult Chinese can be to learn, more and more students are opting to study it because it’s one of the world’s most common languages and it belongs to one of the world’s biggest economies! There are over 4.5 million people in Secondary and Higher Education.

So how can you learn Chinese at school?

Here are a few of your options.

Why Learn Chinese at School?

You won’t hear too many British students speaking Chinese during their lunch break. However, more and more students are choosing to learn Chinese at school as a foreign language. Be it at GCSE, A Level, or degree, you can learn a lot of Chinese.

Which are the best ways to learn Chinese? Learning a language will also allow you to go out and see the world. (Source: jplenio)

So why are some students choosing this language over languages such as French, Spanish, German, and Italian?

The rarity of this language is its greatest strength. In fact, very few people in the UK speak Chinese as a second language. This means that speaking Mandarin will look great on your CV and make finding a job easier. This is especially true in commerce as China is the world’s second-largest economy.

If you learn Chinese, you could end up passionate about Chinese culture. A lot of people want to learn Chinese in order to travel to China and make the most of their time in China by learning about the culture and speaking with the natives.

Languages lessons are a great way to learn more about a specific culture. However, you don’t have to head all the way to China to enjoy Chinese food. Sometimes you can get Chinese lessons that also come with cultural lessons on topics such as Chinese cinema or Chinese cuisine. It’s a great way to motivate you to learn a language.

Learning to Speak Chinese at School

At secondary school, many students will have to choose which foreign language they want to learn.

Studying Chinese at Key Stage 3

Key Stage 3 is when a child is in year 7, 8, and 9, or aged between 11 and 14. This tends to be the age where students will learn basic concepts of Mandarin Chinese. Don’t expect them to be conversing in Chinese just yet as learning Mandarin is one of the most difficult things for an English native speaker to do.

When is the best age to start learning Mandarin? Kids will learn anything quickly if they’re engaged in their lessons. (Source: kian2018)

Most schools where a child can learn Mandarin will introduce students to some basic Chinese grammar and phrases, show them Chinese characters, use the Hanyu Pinyin system for romanising Standard Chinese, and familiarise students with the four tones employed in Chinese speaking.

Since Key Stage 3 leads on to Key Stage 4 (obviously) and GCSEs, most of the topics covered at this level will form the foundation for the vocabulary, grammar, and phrases they’ll need to know to pass the GCSE.

Studying Chinese at Key Stage 4 and GCSE

Key Stage 4 includes the two years where children study their GCSEs. At this level, schools will have less freedom in what they teach students as they’ll have to ensure they’re all learning everything they need to know for their exams.

How long does it take to learn Chinese? Learning to write in Chinese is pretty difficult! (Source: SpencerWing)

Like most language exams, the Chinese GCSE includes reading, writing, speaking, and listening parts.

The AQA GCSE in Mandarin Chinese, for example, places more emphasis on language production with the speaking and writing parts counting for 30% each whereas the listening and reading parts are weighted at 20% each. This means that students should be focusing on actively producing the language rather than having a passive understanding of it.

The listening part of the exam includes pre-recorded listening excerpts spoken by native speakers. The exam lasts between 35 and 40 minutes depending on whether they’re entered in the Foundation or Higher tier.

The reading exam lasts either 30 minutes (Foundation Tier) or 50 minutes (Higher Tier). Students’ reading comprehension will be tested (without the use of a dictionary) by reading extracts from brochures, guides, letters, newspapers, magazines, books, faxes, emails, and websites. Students are expected to be able to identify key points and, at the higher tier, recognise points of view, attitudes, and emotions in texts.

Their speaking test includes two tasks and, unlike the other two parts we’ve seen, are not divided into foundation and higher tier. Students need to produce their own answers and will be tested on their communication, range and accuracy, pronunciation and intonation, and interaction and fluency.

The fourth and final part of their exam is writing. This, like the speaking exam, is marked using a range of criteria. They complete two tasks and each will be marked in terms of content, the range of language, and accuracy.

Like other languages at GCSE, a lot of schools give students the option to start learning Mandarin Chinese when they start their GCSEs, which means they don’t have to have studied it prior to year 10 in order to study it.

Studying Chinese at A Level or Key Stage 5

Studying Chinese at A Level is a great idea for students who’ve already passed their GCSE or those who are interested in learning Chinese at university either on a language course or international business course.

How many Chinese characters are there? Even seemingly simple reading is much more difficult in Mandarin. (Source: hitesh0141)

Similarly to the GCSE, you don’t have to have studied Chinese before in order to do an A Level in it. Of course, this does mean you’ll have to put more work in than a student who’s already passed their GCSE.

More and more students are opting to take Chinese at A Level, too. In fact, in 2018, the number of students studying Chinese at A Level surpassed German for the first time ever!

AS Level and A2 Level Chinese

At A Level, students are expected to improve their abilities in understanding Mandarin Chinese (or develop them if they’ve never studied it before). By this point, they should be able to confidently communicate in Mandarin and also start learning about Chinese-speaking society, history, and culture.

Choosing to Study Chinese at Sixth Form or College

Since Chinese isn’t the most common subject at A Level, it mightn’t be offered at your school’s sixth form and you may have to attend a college instead. Depending on your circumstances and your other A Level choices, you’ll have to decide in some cases whether or not it’s worthwhile attending a sixth form or college that’s worse than your first choice just because it offers Chinese at A Level.

Of course, if you’re absolutely set on studying Mandarin Chinese at university or working with the language, then this choice won’t matter. However, if you’re not sure, you should think very carefully about your A Level choices before choosing not to attend a good sixth form or college just because they don’t offer Chinese. As you’ll see, you don’t necessarily need to study a language at A Level in order to learn it!

International Classes

When it comes to language learning and the Chinese language, spending time in China is arguably the best way to learn Mandarin Chinese.

By attending a class with a Chinese teacher in China, you’ll soon be conversational in the language. Using your new language every day will ensure that you regularly practise your comprehension and production of the language. Additionally, these give you an opportunity to travel to places like Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou, for example. However, keep in mind that in a lot of these places, other Chinese languages, such as Cantonese (in Hong Kong and Guangzhou) and the Hu dialect of Wu Chinese (in Shanghai) are also spoken.

Learning Chinese Outside of School

While a lot of Chinese learning takes place in schools, there’s nothing stopping you from learning a language outside of compulsory education or a university. In fact, you can learn Chinese online thanks to great resources like YouTube channels, blogs, and websites.

Additionally, you can attend Chinese conversation classes, practise with another beginner, or do an online Chinese language exchange where you chat in Chinese with a native speaker for half of the time and then help them with their English for the other half.

If those options aren’t for you, you can also enlist the help of a private Chinese tutor to help you. They can help you learn to speak, read, write, and understand Chinese while focusing on exactly what you want to learn. After all, there isn’t a syllabus for you to follow!

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