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UK Mandarin pupils learning to persevere

By Cecily Liu  (China Daily)

09:07, June 13, 2012

A British boy studies Chinese during a class at TEDA International School in Tianjin in March 2010. WANG HUAN / CFP

Headmasters are commonly known for their wisdom and authority, but Anthony Seldon hopes to demonstrate his struggles when learning Mandarin to encourage his pupils persevere in their own learning.

Seldon, headmaster of the 150-year-old Wellington College founded by Queen Victoria to educate the sons of soldiers, became Britain's first headmaster to study Mandarin last autumn at the GCSE level (British curriculum for students aged 14 to 16).

"I came up with the idea because I think it's important for headmasters to try and encourage their students by doing things themselves," he said.

"The fact my students see me study Mandarin and find it difficult will be a source of encouragement for them, and I'm all for that," he added.

Indeed, Mandarin has become a popular pursuit at Wellington College. Already 80 out of its 1,000 pupils from age 3 to 18 have decided to take the language five years after the college started offering it alongside traditional second languages such as French and German.

The school also opened a Mandarin center this month, becoming Britain's first school to do so.

The center, which cost 500,000 pounds ($768,000) to build, consists of two Mandarin classrooms in a pagoda-inspired building with an external water garden enclosed by a Chinese wooden fence.

In addition to language lessons, Chinese culture and calligraphy lessons will also take place in the center, offering students the quintessential Chinese experience.

"It's not just the language. It's about understanding the Chinese way of approaching life. When you're in that space, you hear the music, and see the sights, you're in a bit of China," Seldon said.

The idea of building the Mandarin center started six years ago when Seldon visited China for the first time. A family that had three children at Wellington College told Seldon: "Wellington must embrace China."

Seldon took the advice, and eventually settled on the Mandarin center project.

The center was built this year and took just three months to complete. The tall pillars, red lanterns and rounded wooden bridge rolled out before visitors' eyes.

"I think it's just exquisite," Seldon said, admiring the architecture.

The center is not the only "China experience" the college offers its pupils learning Mandarin. The college opened its first overseas campus last year in Tianjin.

Eleven students from Britain are in Tianjin for an exchange program that allows them to experience the real China for at least a term, and they will soon be joined by six more students.

With Victorian architecture closely resembling its 150-year-old parent school, the Tianjin campus is currently home to 260 pupils. Wellington College also plans to open two more schools in Shanghai soon.

Meanwhile, the trend of learning Mandarin has swept across all British schools.

FGS — French, German and Spanish, the traditional trinity of school languages — is now being supplanted by a new acronym, HAM — Hindi, Arabic and Mandarin — which are considered the business tools of the 21st century, according to a Daily Telegraph report this year.

Within the past two years, 14 private schools have entered pupils for a new exam in Mandarin. By the end of June, 300 pupils from prep schools across Britain will have gained the Independent School Examination Board's certificate of achievement in the subject.

"China, the world's biggest and fastest-growing country, will become the dominant economy in 10 to 15 years' time," Seldon said.

"The job of every headmaster is to prepare their young people for the world, and the 21st century world is one that is inconceivable without comprehending about China."

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