Is Mandarin too hard a language to learn for dyslexic schoolchildren

Is Mandarin too hard a language to learn for dyslexic schoolchildren?

16:45 03 March 2015

Imogen Blake

Highgate Primary School mandarin lessons. Head Teacher William Dean with Chinese Cultural teacher Rhona Pennington and year 4 students Maisie (9), Dylan (9), Deeya (8) and Aidan (8) all from class 4PB.

More and more schools are eschewing traditionally-taught modern languages such as Spanish and French in favour of teaching the world’s most widely spoken tongue: Mandarin.



But for those with learning difficulties such as dyslexia, mastering characters instead of an alphabet can be a gruelling, uphill struggle when English can still be a daunting prospect.

It has led some to beg the question: is it always beneficial to encourage those pupils to take up an unfamiliar language so young?

Denise Drinkwater, principal of Limespring School for children with learning difficulties in East Finchley, believes that with the right support, dyslexic pupils can access Mandarin.

However, she highlighted that it may be a challenge for pupils who struggle to discriminate between sounds.

She said: “It should be exactly the same approach as teaching spelling and reading, with lots of over-learning, games, and going over and over the same things.

“If you’re going to use these teaching approaches, then you start to remove barriers.”

Ms Drinkwater, who set up the High Road school in 2012, added: “If they are struggling with reading and spelling, any language is going to be difficult.”

One parent of a dyslexic pupil says she has tried and failed to have her child exempt from studying Mandarin at UCL Academy in Swiss Cottage, where the subject is compulsory for its younger pupils.

She says that her child, who suffers from low self-esteem, has experienced “emotional distress” because of his struggles to learn Mandarin as a result of his learning difficulties.

The Belsize Park parent, who wishes to remain anonymous, said: “If they have struggled with their native language and by the time they are 11, they have mastered it, they won’t disengage.

“But instead they’re saying to them at 11, here we go again, another language to learn, and the choice of that language is Mandarin, which is non-alphabetic.”

In response, a UCL Academy spokesman said: “We do not comment on individual cases publicly. However, The UCL Academy has a robust formal complaints procedure, which parents are encouraged to follow.”

William Dean, headteacher of Highgate Primary School in Highgate, where Mandarin is taught from the age of six, does not differentiate lessons for dyslexic pupils because the children are not required to read or write in the language.

However, he said that support might have to be put in place at secondary level, when students have to pass exams in writing and reading.

He said: “We are not finding that children who you might expect to struggle with learning Mandarin are struggling.”

The leader of the Storey Road school added that the pictorial nature of Mandarin can, in fact, make it easier to learn for dyslexic pupils than phonetic languages, such as French or Spanish.