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China: Don't Let the Opportunities Get Lost in Translation

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CHINA POWER TRANSFER 2012
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Xin Nian Kuai Le, Gong Xi Fa Cai!

If you didn't understand that, you've just missed out on the chance to make friends this week. And you're not alone.

The Mandarin Chinese language is becoming more and more important for the UK because, quite simply, China is becoming more and more important on the world's stage. In 2011, China overtook Japan to become the world's second biggest economy, and many confidently predict that they'll wrest the top spot from the USA by 2050.

Some knowledge of Chinese language is the ice breaker which gets you talking culture - and business - in China. And our research shows a bit of language and culture goes a long way when you're looking to trade.

For my generation it's a missed opportunity (I've missed it like most of us). But for school kids and UK young people I say these skills are nothing short of essential.

But Houston - or rather Houban - we have a problem. Levels of Mandarin teaching in UK schools are really low. When the British Council and our partners HSBC recently asked UK teachers whether their schools offered Mandarin, only 3 per cent of primary and 9 per cent of secondary teachers said 'you' (yes).

'Er' (two) per cent said their schools have stopped teaching Mandarin - and official statistics show that last year around a thousand fewer pupils took a Mandarin GCSE than in 2010. There's often a perception that the subject is appearing on the curriculum in more and more UK schools, but all the evidence suggests 'mei you' (not).

The biggest culprit is perhaps the status quo. For decades we have all learnt the languages of our European neighbours. My kids do. I love a natter en français but, given our overall lack of appetite for language learning as a nation, we've been treading water when we need to be swimming like a Yangtze porpoise towards Chinese language and culture.

Other countries get it. Last year Australia's Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, announced a 25-point plan to build greater ties with China and the rest of the Asia-Pacific region - which include lessons in Asian languages for all Australian children. In an Ashes year, Australia might well be about to whack the UK for six in competitiveness in Asia Pacific.

Still, there are some promising signs. Not least, Mandarin teaching in the UK is no longer the sole preserve of private schools. In fact, I've seen outstanding examples of Mandarin teaching in state schools. Up in North London I talked to two lads at a big comprehensive who were 'supercool' because they were hot stuff in Mandarin.

Mandarin has a 'secret code' element which teenage boys love - one aged 17 had three different companies courting him and the other was off to University to further master Mandarin . Employability in action.

For schools that do decide to introduce Mandarin, there's real support available from the British Council, HSBC and other organisations. But, ultimately, the decision to put Chinese on the menu can only be made by educators themselves.

'Xin Nian Kuai Le, Gong Xi Fa Cai', in case you were wondering, is Mandarin for 'Happy New Year and Good Fortune'. It's the only phrase I know in Mandarin, but it gets this week's conversations with Chinese delegations off to a smiling start. I wish I had more Mandarin - but every little helps in the global economy.

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