Alex Marson, Product Manager at Toptrack Learning and Mandarin speaker, discusses the rise of Mandarin learning in the UK.

If you have been watching the news recently, you will have noticed that the UK and China are getting on ever so well, collaborating on trade and energy among other things. An interesting addition to that list is now language, with the UK government recently announcing an extra £10m in funding for the teaching of Mandarin Chinese in English schools. The plan is to increase the number of students taking the language at GCSE from the current modest total of 1000 to 5000 over a period of 5 years.

And this isn’t simply gesture politics. The recent Languages for the Future report commissioned by the British Council – well worth a read if you haven’t as yet - ranked Mandarin as the fourth most important language for the UK’s future, sandwiched between French and German. This took into account a number of factors, from strategic trade and business priorities to tourism and national security. Arguably another reason to add to this is common courtesy, since there are now more people learning English in China than there are native English speakers in the world. Perhaps the least we can do is to learn to count to ten!

There is another reason for learning Mandarin, less frequently cited than the sorts of strategic business interests hardly likely to resonate with young learners, which is that it is fascinating and fun. An increasing number of primary schools are now beginning to offer the language – and why not! How exciting for a young child to learn about Chinese characters and even learn to read some of them. And say it *very* quietly, but in many ways it isn’t as difficult as you might assume. Take away the characters and what you have is actually a language with a relatively simple structure and a set of grammar rules which don’t come close to the head-scratching exceptions and counter-exceptions of, say, French or German.

There are of course challenges involved in learning a language so far removed from our own. The first main challenge, already mentioned, is of course the characters. There is really no shortcut when it comes to building your vocabulary: it’s simply a case of continually plugging away, day after day. Incidentally it is far more important to be able to read than to write the characters, since recognition is enough to enable you to type in the language: typing is entirely phonetic.

The second challenge is with pronunciation. It will come as news to nobody that Chinese pronunciation has little in common with English. Learners first have to grasp the 21 ‘initials’ and 16 ‘finals’ - effectively consonants and vowels respectively - some of which do require some retraining (or re-educating!) of the mouth muscles. Then there is the small matter of the four tones, which can change the meaning of a particular sound beyond all recognition. From personal experience, this can make for some embarrassing situations…

The good news is that Vocab Express is here to help with both challenges. We have vocabulary lists for all levels, giving students the opportunity to learn the vocabulary they need in an engaging way, earning points in the process. We also have a new feature on the way which will allow students to input Chinese characters (using the pinyin input method) within the Vocab Express application, without having to enable additional languages on your computer or device. On the pronunciation front, we have native speaker audio to accompany all of our Chinese vocab lists, meaning that accurate pronunciation is being reinforced at all times. As students progress through their vocabulary learning, they are also honing their listening – and even speaking – skills without even knowing it.