There are unfamiliar signs and sounds to be seen and heard at 9 primary schools in East Lothian this school year: once a week, native-Mandarin speaking students from the University of Edinburgh visit P1 classes to tell the pupils about their home culture and playfully teach them Chinese characters, tones and words.
The aim of the project is not only to give the pupils access to a fascinating culture, it also sets the stage for advancing in a language spoken by a fast-growing community later on. The crucial idea is to start early: learning languages is easier for younger children than for older ones, because of greater brain plasticity. Besides greater aptitude, their young age means that they are still naturally curious and enthusiastic about learning a language other than English. Exposure to a foreign language increases general awareness of linguistic structures, which positively affects the native language as well as acquisition of a third language at a later stage.
Under the supervision of Antonella Sorace, assistant researchers Meilin Zhan and Friederike Sell monitor the development of the project. They look at the pupils’ progress in Mandarin as well as their linguistic awareness.
The project is coordinated by the Scotland-China Education Network’s (SCEN) convener Judith McClure. It was launched in October 2013 and serves as a pilot study to the Scottish Government’s 1+2 language learning approach. Based on a report of the Modern Languages Working Group chaired by Simon Macaulay, the aim of this scheme is to introduce two languages in primary school in addition to the mother tongue to better prepare Scottish pupils for our globalised, multilingual world.