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Students from Shanghai visited King Edward VI School, in Bury St Edmunds, last year.
Students from Shanghai visited King Edward VI School, in Bury St Edmunds, last year.

Saturday is International Languages Day. So which is the most commonly spoken language in the world? If you guessed English, you’re wrong. Spanish? No. French? Try again. Mandarin Chinese is spoken by over one billion people and is the most commonly spoken language worldwide.

So why aren’t more of us speaking Chinese or at least learning it in school?

For the last few decades the Government has pushed for more students to learn modern foreign languages - particularly French. This is understandable. A large proportion of export and import trades are made with France and French-speaking countries. But even with the Government’s encouragement for more students to learn Chinese, only 3,700 UK pupils took the GCSE exam this year. This compares with 150,000 pupils taking the French GCSE with there being only 160 million French speakers worldwide, so this doesn’t seem proportionate.

When Jo Churchill, the Conservative MP for Bury St Edmunds, came in to our school last week she spoke about Suffolk’s major international trading partners being situated in Hong Kong. There is a multimillion pound deal being discussed at the moment with a company in China.

Bury St Edmunds’ links with this economic powerhouse are of vital importance to the local area. Our school is fortunate to have a teacher of Chinese for weekly after-school lessons. There is also a successful Shanghai partnership which is approaching its ninth year. It not only provides the opportunity for young Chinese students to visit Britain, but also allows many English students to travel to China.

But this is a rare privilege. Most schools teach only traditional European languages. The UK is therefore at risk of falling behind the rapidly growing and emerging world markets. But as I have found out, learning to speak Chinese is demanding and potentially risky.

Here’s an example. In the Chinese language there are devices called tones. Different tones on a word mean different things. ‘Ma’ (with a flat intonation) means ‘mother’, whereas ‘Ma’ (with a raised and falling tone) means ‘horse’. Being able to understand this is paramount, as nobody wants to be in the unfortunate position of calling their mother-in-law a horse – at least in most cases.

Friends of mine have shown an unwillingness to learn another language. The typical responses are ‘Why can’t everyone just speak English?’ or ‘Most of the world speaks our language anyway.’

This seems short-sighted. For leisure and business purposes we stand to be more respected and successful if we are seen to be making more of an effort. Respect is an integral part not only of the Chinese culture but many cultures worldwide.

Almost certainly by 2018 China is going to overtake America to become the world’s largest economy. They are on an upward trajectory to ‘take over the world’.

Everyone can benefit from learning Mandarin - even if only a few simple phrases. Not only is Chinese the language of the future, but understanding tones may prove useful in the long-term - preventing you from inadvertently insulting your mother-in-law.

Georgia Walker is a student at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds