David Cameron, who has notoriously poor schoolboy French, is urging today's youngsters to abandon the language of Molière and Voltaire to concentrate on the tongue of the future – Mandarin.
In a parting shot, as he left China after a three-day visit, the prime minister said that pupils should look beyond the traditional French and German lessons and instead focus on China.
To reinforce his message the prime minister quoted Nelson Mandela, who said learning someone else's language is the best way to their heart. Cameron said: "I want Britain linked up to the world's fast-growing economies. And that includes our young people learning the languages to seal tomorrow's business deals.
"By the time the children born today leave school, China is set to be the world's largest economy. So it's time to look beyond the traditional focus on French and German and get many more children learning Mandarin.
Cameron, who visited a school for six- and seven-year-olds learning English in Chengdu, said that a partnership between the British Council and Hanban – the Chinese National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language – will double the number of Chinese language assistants in the UK by 2016 and provide increased funding to lower the cost to schools of offering Mandarin as a language option.
The announcement was welcomed by the British Council and the British Academy, both of which have been pushing for policies to reverse the decline in students taking modern languages at school and university level.
Martin Davidson, the British Council's chief executive who has been visiting China with Cameron, said: "The promotion of Chinese language in the UK and the English language in China are both vital to economic and cultural relations between the two countries. This initiative will increase collaboration and is particularly significant given that recent British Council research shows that Mandarin is one of 10 languages not widely spoken in the UK and yet crucial to our future growth and prosperity."
The estimated 500,000 ethnic Chinese living in Britain make it the largest overseas Chinese population of any European country.
Professor Dame Helen Wallace, the British Academy's foreign secretary, said her organisation had been arguing for an improvement in foreign language skills, and had identified Mandarin as one of the extended range of languages to be promoted in schools.
But a lack of qualified teachers could be a barrier to improving its popularity, Wallace said.
And she warned: "No such strategy works unless you stick at it. There's no use doing this for two or three years and then forgetting about it – you have to make a long-term investment in this kind of change capacity."Laura Chan, one of the co-founders of the Marco Polo Academy, a bilingual Mandarin-English primary school opening in Barnet next September as part of the free schools programme, said the prime minister's announcement was good news for the status of Mandarin.
华莱士还提醒道：“任何计划只有坚持才能奏效。推广汉语学习也一样，只做个两三年然后置之不理是没有用的。改变目前的语言学习状况需要长期的努力。” 明年9月将有一所名为“马可波罗学院” 的中英双语小学在巴尼特成立，这所学校也是英国“免费学校”计划的项目之一。作为该校创始人之一的劳拉?陈认为，卡梅伦首相此次的呼吁对于提高汉语在英国的地位来说是一个好消息。
From September 2014, studying foreign languages will be compulsory in primary schools under the new national curriculum.