'Forget French, learn Chinese,' David Cameron urges as he ends China trip

David Cameron winds up his tour of China with a message for British school students

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 December, 2013, 6:10pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 December, 2013, 7:46pm

Forget French, it’s time to learn Putonghua, said David Cameron as he wrapped up a visit to China on Thurday, accompanied by six government ministers and the largest trade mission ever led by a British prime minister.

“Learning English is a key part of schooling for these Chinese 6-year-olds. More British children should learn Mandarin”, Cameron posted on Twitter and Facebook as he sat in the classroom of a Sichuan primary school.

Learning English is a key part of schooling for these Chinese 6-year-olds. More British children should learn Mandarin
British prime minister David Cameron

“By the time the children born today leave school, China is set to be the world’s largest economy. So it’s time to look beyond the traditional focus on French and German and get many more children learning Mandarin,” Cameron was quoted as saying.

The British government has announced an expansion of the UK-China School Partnerships programme, which will provide funding for study visits to China for 60 British head teachers and aims to double the number of Chinese learners in Britain to 400,000.

The most common languages on offer in British secondary schools are currently French, Spanish and German. Only 9 per cent of 15-year-olds are competent in their first foreign language beyond a basic level, according to a recent European Commission study.

A report by the British Council found that 1 per cent of the British adults surveyed were able to speak Putonghua well enough to hold a conversation.

Speaking of the need for British to learn Chinese, Cameron quoted Nelson Mandela. “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language that goes to his heart”.

Many took to social media to respond to Cameron’s comments. “I’d rather not learn Mandarin thank you very much!”, wrote Laura May on Facebook.

Others were more enthusiastic, “Well said DC, what is the point of going down the route of our schoolchildren learning the usual languages like Spanish, French or German when these languages are losing their relevance on the world stage”, wrote David Yem.

The French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault arrived in Beijing on Thursday, hours after Cameron’s departure. 

Cameron spent three days in China, making his debut on the country’s own Twitter-like social media platform, Weibo, by announcing his arrival in Chinese on Monday. He was unprepared for the deluge of comments and tough questions that ensued.

Cameron met with Zhang Dejiang, China’s top legislator in Beijing on Monday. He later visited Shanghai where he spoke to mayor Yang Xiong to promote British exports and addressed students at Jiao Tong University, where he said he would welcome Chinese investment in Britain’s high-speed rail network.

The business delegation that accompanied Cameron struck deals worth £5.6 billion (HK$71 billion) over the three days. The delegation comprised 120 large and small companies from a variety of sectors including luxury goods, the arts, the financial sector and medical product providers.

Jaguar Land Rover secured a £4.5 billion export deal and a boutique food company that makes gluten, nut and dairy free sauces signed a deal worth up to £6 million. Britain made a commitment to sell China £45 million worth of pig semen every year, which will improve Chinese pigs’ genetics and boost local production.

The trip was the British prime minster’s second visit to China since he took office in May 2010 having been delayed by diplomatic difficulties involving Tibet.