Making Mandarin Massive

by Rob Neal

As China impacts British students’ lives more than ever before, it is crucial that more of our young people begin learning Mandarin Chinese. Currently the majority of Mandarin language teaching in UK schools takes place as an extra-curricular activity, often involving very small numbers of students and peripatetic teachers. For example, whereas 150,000 students took GCSE French last year, barely 3,000 took GCSE Mandarin. Moreover, many of these pupils come from Chinese-speaking backgrounds and learn Mandarin at supplementary Chinese weekend schools as opposed to mainstream schools. Overall, the profile of Mandarin learners in UK schools remains skewed towards those from more affluent backgrounds.

Obstacles to mainstreaming the subject in UK schools include a shortage of qualified teachers, as well as a number of linguistic challenges that learning Mandarin poses for Anglophone school children, as a result of its non-alphabetic script and tonal system.  As a Mandarin teacher at an inner city school in Manchester, I have found that one of my most urgent classroom priorities is how to help my students make their limited Mandarin intelligible to others. As much as non-standard pronunciation, the real cause of the problem is arguably inadequate lexical knowledge. In other words, rather than emphasising tones, it is probably more productive to introduce new vocabulary in a manner in which learners find engaging and are more likely to remember.

In this spirit, I have linked up with Mungo’s Hi Fi, a sound system based in Glasgow who follow the original Jamaican sound system tradition. They have generously provided me with a number of ‘riddims’ which I adapt to include key vocabulary. Students are invited to download the tracks and encouraged to listen to them outside school. Mungo’s Hi Fi, who appear regularly at international festivals such as Glastonbury and WOMAD, are happy for the tracks to be in the public domain on a non-commercial basis for non-commercial use, as long as they are properly credited. A link to an example can be found at

As Mandarin teaching and learning becomes increasingly diversified, teaching approaches will need to become more and more tailored to students’ own interests. The approach outlined here will not, of course, give the students any real understanding of how the tonal system actually works, but will, I hope, provide them with a source of high frequency formulaic chunks, as well as helping reduce the ‘cognitive load’ of having to concentrate on every tone at the individual syllable level.  Given that a number of my own students are of Jamaican heritage, it is highly appropriate to collaborate with Mungo’s Hi Fi. It is my hope that this link grows in future years and can be rolled out in Mandarin classrooms across the country.

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