Happy new year of the horse, everybody! It is intriguing to see how mainstream Chinese New Year celebrations are becoming. I remember a time when I moved to London when I just walked around Chinatown watching dances, dragons and performances, and it was a little bit busier than usual, but Chinese New Year was mainly a celebration for the local Chinese population and whoever happened to walk around Chinatown during the time. Fast forward to the year of the horse and here I am on Wardour Street with my two tiny preschoolers and it is so packed the police cordons off all of Chinatown and we couldn’t get close to any of the performances.
Due to the rise of China over the last decade, many prep schools in London (and, increasingly, state schools, too) teach Mandarin and celebrate Chinese New Year. I happened to be visiting Bassett House School in Notting Hill with a client on Friday morning and walked into a Chinese New Year party happening in their nursery, complete with prawn crackers and red lanterns. Pupils at Knightsbridge School visited the Chinese exhibition section at the British Museum and the boys at Dulwich Prep had a little Chinese New Year dress up party.
The children at Sinclair House School (pictured left and on top) have been busy with lots of festivities to celebrate Chinese New Year – including a theatre play based on animals of the Chinese Zodiac, and a “Dress-Up” Day, inspired by traditional Chinese costumes. Pupils had great fun learning about the symbols and stories associated with Chinese New Year, making paper lanterns and dragon puppets. They were also treated to a wonderful performance from a professional dancer who later taught each class how to do the “Fan Dance.” The School has many links to China, and children can opt to study Mandarin from Reception onwards, taught as an after-school club. This is run by Miss Yi, who has been teaching Mandarin at the school since 2009. Mandarin is a very complex language, so at an early age, the most important thing for the children to get right is the pronunciation of the 4 tones. Later in life, children (or adults) can focus on grammar and longer sentence construction — but it is much more difficult at an early stage to pronounce the characters correctly. So through a series of games, singing the character tones, recognising and writing characters, all combined with background in Chinese culture (as you know, learning a language is all about learning the culture of a country), Miss Yi focuses on understanding, reading, writing and pronouncing.
Even more and more state schools are starting to offer Mandarin as one of the modern foreign languages. Highgate Primary School was featured on BBC news recently covering their language classes, and Abacus Primary, a new free school in Belsize Park, has incorporated Mandarin into the curriculum from the beginning. And if what you are looking for is full immersion, you may be interested in the new Marco Polo Academy opening in Barnet in September 2014, a bilingual English – Mandarin free school offering 52 Reception places. As it happens, the academy will also incorporate Singapore Maths into their curriculum.