Class of cultures: Meet the Mandarin pupils bringing the language of the world to the UAE
Forward-thinking pupils in Abu Dhabi are trying their hand at mastering the globe's most spoken language.
Nearly a billion people in the world speak Mandarin, and pupils at an Abu Dhabi school are voicing their support for the most popular language on the planet.
Mandarin is by far the largest of the Chinese dialect groups, spoken by about 70 per cent of all people in the most populous country in the world.
But it is not just in China where the complex language is a medium. In classrooms at Brighton College in Abu Dhabi, eager learners are busy trying to master Mandarin.
Many have roots in China, while others are keen to broaden their horizons and be able to converse in the native tongue of a powerhouse nation.
It could be an important tool for their own futures. China is already the "primary partner in the Gulf region and North Africa", according to Ali Al Dhaheri, the UAE Ambassador to the People's Republic of China.
President Xi Jinping of China is on a week-long tour of the UAE for a series of high-level meetings designed to strengthen ties between the two nations, after an estimated $50 billion (Dh183bn) worth of trade last year.
Now pupils at Brighton College in Abu Dhabi are playing their own part in forging closer links.
Arvin Igli may have learned to speak basic Mandarin when he was very young, but he soon lost it while growing up – until he was able to revive the language at his school in the capital.
Born to a Chinese mother and Swiss father, his mother tongue could have been Chinese, but he then started to learn his father’s language – German, and forgot all about Chinese.
“I think Mandarin is harder,” said the 13 year old.
Today the Year 8 pupil is one of many pupils studying Mandarin at Brighton College in Abu Dhabi.
“I started learning Mandarin in Year 5, in the beginning it was quite easy I was able to introduce myself, but then it got hard when it got more complicated. Characters are the toughest.
“My mum sometimes teaches me at home, she makes me write characters. She gives me the characters in cards, and I have to remember them and then she tests me; sometimes I pass.”
While he travels to China for holiday every year, he seldom practices his Chinese speaking skills. “I speak English when I go, the younger people learn it in schools.”
“My grandparents don’t speak English, but I know how to chat in basic language, and I can at least tell them what I would like to eat.”
He is optimistic that by pursuing the language further at school, and later on at university, he will become fluent and it will come in handy when he pursues a career in architecture engineering.
“It can be useful maybe to communicate with customers,” he said.
His classmate Alex Ure hardly has any Chinese roots, yet it was also his mother who pushed him to study the language since Year 5 at school.
“We had the choice of one language, and she said Chinese is one of the main languages in the new world, so take the opportunity,” said the 13-year-old Scot.
“I’m thinking of being a lawyer. If I have a case in China where they speak Chinese, that will be really helpful and I will get really famous.”
He acknowledges that he still has a long way to go to master the language, and he is doing what he can to make it happen.
“On my phone I use some of my storage to download apps that the school recommended and they did help me. We do online tests and revision and recaps of everything you’ve learned, and the school gives us quizzes and we try.”
Lesson time is also a chance to get educated about the Chinese customs and cultures.
“It is very complicated, there are so many different parts of it, and there are so many festivals. The animals in the Chinese New Year are pretty hard to remember too.”
So far, the fruits of learning Mandarin, he says, was being able to talk to Chinese people.
“I went to Hong Kong a year ago and there were a lot of people who spoke only Chinese, and I tried to help my family order stuff for food, and the people were very nice and they understood me.”
“Then I thought I was right to learn Chinese.”
Hollie Wilson, from Scotland, also pictures a career where speaking Chinese will become a very useful skill. “I want to become a psychiatrist and I can see myself going to China,” said the 13 year old.
“It’s just great to know you are learning a language that could eventually take over the world. I’m not sure when but can definitely see it in the near future.”
She also plans to continue pursuing the language after school. “I know some very basic conversational techniques and occasionally I try to create conversations with any Chinese person I meet.”
“A year ago there was a brunch and I tried to talk to a Chinese man, and we started talking about the weather for some reason,” she said, laughing as he recalled the memory.
“And it was surprising that he understood what I was saying.”
The pupils are specifically attracted to select Mandarin as their choice of foreign language because the classes are quite interactive, said Samantha Attfield, head of languages at Brighton College prep school.
“It is really good for social learners, and many enjoy the different qualities, because it is a completely different thing, not like Arabic or European languages that they are used to hearing the sounds of.”
“And the teacher uses picture cards to teach them.”
The pupils have also proven to be loyal to the language.
“In year 5 and 6, the pupils do two languages and then drop them. Those who take Mandarin are very dedicated. They continue to senior studies and during lunch break you see them doing Chinese calligraphy.”
Meng su, the Mandarin teacher for years 3 and 6 and 8, tries to be creative with her teaching skills.
“They enjoy a lot of games, we play quizzes and sometimes I play for them simple Mandarin songs and Mandarin Tuk; so most of the time we are learning through those activities, and we play.
“It is a joyful language to learn,” she said.
The pupils also get a glimpse of the Chinese culture while learning the language. “We introduced them to the typical holidays like the travelling boat and mooncake festivals. we showed them some videos and showed them stories, they also tasted the mooncake and they liked it so much.”
“We also have the Chinese fairy tales translated into English, usually if they complete a test and have extra time I give them a book to read."