The Early Learning of Chinese Project

30 November 2013

Primary-Pupils-300wPrimary school pupils across East Lothian are currently benefitting from an exciting new language learning initiative co-ordinated by the Scotland-China Education Network (SCEN).
The Early Learning of Chinese project launched in October and will see Chinese speaking students from the University of Edinburgh volunteer their time to help deliver P1 Mandarin lessons between November and the end of the school year. The project is being piloted as part of the Scottish Government's 1+2 language learning proposal, a product of the National Languages Working Group. National Languages Working Group chair Simon Macaulay explains:

"Our 2012 report stressed the importance of improving language learning in Scotland by implementing a 1+2 model of language learning for all pupils. The first foreign language would start in primary one and the second in primary five. While we see a language like Mandarin as complex, five year olds have no such preconceptions and absorb information rapidly. By utilising native speaking international students to help with these lessons we're hoping to instil an enthusiasm for languages in very young pupils, which they may then maintain and develop into high school and beyond."

Learn-Chinese22 classes in 11 East Lothian schools have signed up to be part of this pilot project, itself a spiritual successor to an even earlier scheme called Exciting Languages that saw student volunteers from a variety of countries visit East Lothian primary schools on a weekly basis between January and May 2012 in order to introduce them to their native language and culture. The idea was developed by a Languages Think Tank chaired by Scotland-China Education Network convener Judith McClure.

The Early Learning of Chinese Project seeks to build on the success of this trial and further refine the central concept by implementing changes suggested by Fiona Pate, the Inspector of Schools at Education Scotland. Fiona evaluated Exciting Languages and has offered to assess its new incarnation later in the school year.

Over 30 student volunteers signed up to be part of the Early Learning of Chinese Project and the City of Edinburgh Council's parallel Learning of Mandarin Project, meaning that many schools will benefit from more than one classroom assistant.

All volunteers are native speakers of Mandarin and many are studying education or related disciplines. The volunteers were recruited by Edinburgh University's student volunteering service (EUSA Volunteering) and attended a training and induction session held at Loretto Primary School in Musselburgh in October 2013. The training was coordinated by Scotland's National Centre for Languages (SCILT), the Confucius Institute for Scotland's Schools (CISS) and the University of Edinburgh's Professor of Developmental Linguistics Dr. Antonella Sorace, a leading authority in the field of early language acquisition and director of the public engagement centre Bilingualism Matters.

Learning-Parent-ToddlerProfessor Sorace explains: "Very young children don't learn languages in the same way as older children. Instead, they need to be immersed in activities where they hear the language but are not necessarily aware that they're learning. This helps them to become more aware about how language works in general, meaning that they also become better at appreciating the structure of their native language. In the UK, by the time pupils reach high school they're aware that English is widely spoken around the world and decide that there's no point learning a second language. That's why it's important to start early. The student volunteers will be meeting children before they develop this negative attitude, as well as tapping into young children's natural aptitude and interest in language learning."

As well as learning about the importance of bilingualism (which in this context refers to the knowledge of another language rather than implying fluency), the student volunteers also received training from SCILT, who gave the students some ideas for activities that they might want to try with the school pupils. However, all student volunteers will work closely with qualified and experienced class teachers to plan lessons, working with them in a creative way that fits their own interests rather than using prescribed or prewritten content.

A research student (Meilin Zhan) supervised by Professor Sorace will observe classes to record how the children respond, what kind of activities they are exposed to and how they develop. Meilin will also examine how well their understanding of English improves as a result of being exposed to a second language.

Yandan Ouyang is one of many passionate and engaged students who have signed up to volunteer for the project. Yandan is currently studying for a Masters degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) and recently completed her first visit to Loretto Primary School in Musselburgh:

"I've already met up with the class teachers and I will meet the children for the first time next Monday. I'm very excited! At the end of January we're planning an activity based on the Spring Festival. We'll tell them more about the festival and teach the children some simple Chinese songs and characters. The main reason that I decided to volunteer for the project is to help people, as I wanted to get to know the local community. I went onto the EUSA Volunteering website and this looked like the most suitable thing for me to do.  I'm going to be a teacher in the future in China as I love working with children. This project will give me the opportunity to inspire them and get them interested in other languages. I also hope they'll be encouraged to travel to China in future."

Primary-laptopThe project also contributes to the widening access agenda by bringing primary school pupils into contact with university students, giving them an early insight into the benefits of higher education. In turn, the international students gain valuable skills in relating to teachers and pupils, get to meet members of the local community and have an opportunity to demonstrate their native culture and language.  

Yandan adds: "It can be hard when you come to a new country. This project means that we have something valuable to offer local people."

The Early Learning of Chinese project really is win-win formula. It makes students from China feel valued and welcome, helps class teachers gain valuable insight into Chinese culture and exposes young children to an exciting new language.  The scheme will hopefully spark a genuine enthusiasm for language learning that East Lothian and Edinburgh pupils will carry with them for many years to come.

Hilary Wardle, SCEN Correspondent