Sir Martin Sorrell, the Sinophile chief executive of the advertising conglomerate WPP, was at Kensington Wade, Britain’s first primary school to offer full Mandarin immersion for its pupils, on a recent evening, for a reception to celebrate the Chinese mid-autumn festival.
Sir Martin offered assurance to the gaggle of parents that the ￡17,000-a-year tuition they had shelled out for at the newly opened school was money well spent.
For those parents inclined to start their children early, there is Hatching Dragons, the UK ’s first Mandarin-English nursery. It claims to “foster fluency” in both languages by age five.
“I’ve got enough evidence that if a child joins us at six months and stays until they are five, 50 hours a week, they will be orally fluent,” said Cennydd John, who founded Hatching Dragons in 2015, after the birth of his son. If you doubt him, says Mr John, go check his YouTube videos.
“Chinese is the emerging language because China is emerging as a political and economic power,” said Antonella Sorace, a linguistics professor. “It’s regarded as a good investment.”
Kensington Wade is named after Sir Thomas Wade, a 19th century British diplomat who produced one of the first English-Mandarin textbooks. Its inaugural class of 15 students arrived last month. Three were fluent Mandarin speakers while about half had no Mandarin.
Its two classrooms, in an existing academy, are unremarkable, with toys and early reading books. On closer inspection, it becomes apparent that one is entirely in English and the other in Mandarin. One teacher is British, the other Chinese. The children move between them and their corresponding worlds during the day. The hope is that by age 11, when they graduate, they will be fluent in both.
Kensington Wade also aims to combine two teaching styles. It touts the renowned “Shanghai model” of maths with the creativity and critical thinking prized in a British education.
The benefits of bilingual education are alluring, including greater cultural empathy and cognitive flexibility. Then there is the question of whether children view the language as being useful — the bane of Greek and Latin teachers.
In April, Jo Wallace, Kensington Wade’s headteacher, visited three schools in the San Francisco area that have been offering immersive English-Mandarin instruction, one for more than 30 years.
“I went with the worry that these little kids were going to be confused, that they’d be stressed. And all I saw was children having a lovely time,” she recalled, although she acknowledged that some parents would have to “hold their nerve” in the early days.