So What are you Doing for your Dissertation?

See my eye twitching? See the life slowly leaving my eyes?

I’m kidding. It’s not that bad yet. But it will be.

But all kidding aside, my dissertation is going to be my baby for the next nine months (oddly fitting, isn’t it?), and I’m incredibly excited to get started on my field research and literature review. So what am I researching?

The extreme TLDR version is this: the growth of Mandarin education in the UK. But you wouldn’t be reading this blog if all I gave was the extreme TLDR version, would you? What follows here is an adaptation of my dissertation proposal:

Let’s start from the very basics of language education in the UK and where it stands today. The United Kingdom, despite having an extremely linguistically diverse population, currently lags behind other European nations in language education. Part of this is because as a result of the one-two punch of the British Empire (which controlled about a quarter of the Earth’s surface at its height) and American economic, cultural, and technological dominance, English has an incredible global range, and learning English is necessary to engage with the global economy. So what’s the point of learning German or Spanish or Hindi if everyone you meet in Munich, Madrid, or Mumbai will just speak English with you, or at least make an effort to do so?

That said, the UK government and organizations like the British Council are now trying to promote more language education, coming at it from an economic perspective: knowing how to speak Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, or Mandarin Chinese shows cultural competence and awareness, and is a good business skill. I could go on and on about marketing certain subjects or skills as economic assets or value-adds to the workforce, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish that I’ll probably get into in a later post. The important thing is that the UK government views language learning as an economic asset.

Mandarin Chinese education has existed in the UK for quite some time, but until very recently, it was mostly confined to highly specialized language study (for example, people training to be diplomats in Asia) or to heritage language education — students of Chinese background learning their parents’ or grandparents’ language from members of the Chinese-speaking community in the UK. With China’s meteoric rise on the global political and economic stage, the UK government is now working to bring Mandarin Chinese education into the mainstream, from a peripheral heritage language to an “asset” language that will help students compete in the global economy. Per a study by George X. Zhang and Linda M. Li, in 2010, 10% of secondary schools in England offered Mandarin Chinese as a foreign language (Li and Zhang, 2010). In 2015, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne pledged 10 million pounds to double the number of British students studying Mandarin Chinese by 2020 (BBC, 2015).

Now, this is all well and good, but Mandarin education still has a lot of hurdles to clear before it can be a widely taught, successful foreign language in the UK (or in the US, for that matter). I mentioned earlier that Mandarin Chinese education in the UK was, until very recently, mostly developed for students who grew up in Chinese-speaking families and communities — this means that most of the materials and tests available for teaching Mandarin Chinese right now are geared towards people who already have a foundation in the language. A lot of schools, even if they’re enthusiastic about including Mandarin in the curriculum don’t want to offer more advanced Mandarin Chinese classes or exams (such as the A-Level exam) because they believe that the tests are designed for students of Chinese background (particularly, native speakers taking it for an easy A), and thus too difficult for learners who come in with no Chinese at all (and would subsequently lower the school’s GCSE/A-Level scores). There are also too few qualified Mandarin teachers, and not enough programs to train more (DCSF, 2007; Board and Tinsley, 2014).

Where do I come in with all of this? A lot of overviews of Mandarin education in the UK tend to focus on the macro issues: how many schools are teaching it, how many kids are taking the A-Level and GCSE Mandarin courses, et cetera. I want to focus on the heart of the matter: the students and teachers (though particularly the students). What is motivating UK students to study Mandarin? What do they need to succeed as Mandarin learners and speakers? As a Mandarin learner myself, I know firsthand how important motivation is for learning a language as difficult as Mandarin. I consider my study of Mandarin a journey, and I hope that in my dissertation, I can document British students’ odysseys into a new language, and (a bit selfish and navel gaze-y, I know) discover more about my own language learning journey(s). In addition, I want to examine what materials and resources Mandarin learners in the UK have access to, and how these materials and resources may help or hinder them in their study of Mandarin Chinese, especially with regard to motivation and concepts that English-speaking students may find difficult.

Ultimately, my goal is to have a body of research that will inform practice — it sounds a little egotistical, but I hope that my research can help make Mandarin education in the UK and in other English-majority countries more effective, sustainable, scalable, and fun for students and teachers alike. I also want to make sure that Mandarin is being taught to expose students to the diversity and richness of Chinese culture and history and to help them reap the neurological and educational benefits of learning another language, not just to make them good workers (though I can attest that having “Proficient in Mandarin Chinese” looks mighty nice on a resume…hint hint, employers).

Sources:

Board, K. and Tinsley, T. (2013) Languages for the Future: Which Languages the UK Needs the   Most and Why. Retrieved from http://www.britishcouncil.org/sites/default/files/languages-for-the-future-report.pdf

—. (September 2014) The Teaching of Chinese in the UK Research Report. Retrieved from             https://www.britishcouncil.org/sites/default/files/alcantara_full_report_jun15.pdf

Li, L. M. and Zhang, G. X. (2010) Chinese Language Teaching in the UK: Present and Future. The Language Learning Journal, 38(1), 87-97

Mandarin Language Learning: Research Study. Department for Children, Schools, and Families. (2007) Retrieved from http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/6645

No Author (2015, September 22) Mandarin lessons to get £10m boost, says Chancellor. BBC News. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-34331189

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