“China’s political and cultural influence is increasing,” Anna Neuman, political advisor to Education Minister Jan Björklund, told The Local.
In unveiling the plan, which tasks the National Education Agency (Skolverket) with developing a curriculum plan for teaching Mandarin, Björklund called Sweden’s current focus on teaching European languages “outdated”.
The agency is expected to deliver its proposed curriculum for both compulsory and high school students in 2013, in time for it to come into effect for the 2014/15 academic year.
“Because Mandarin uses symbols, we cannot expect students to advance as quickly in their studies as they do in for example French or German,” Neuman said to explain the need for a new curriculum.
But it will likely be several more years before Mandarin is as common in Swedish schools as other foreign languages.
“Mandarin won’t be available to Swedish students as widely as French, German and Spanish for about 10 to 15 years,” Neuman explained.
Neuman added that more teachers will also have to be educated in order to meet future demand.
At present, Swedish sixth graders who chose a third language in addition to compulsory studies in English and Swedish get to chose from French, German or Spanish.
Spanish was introduced about 40 years ago.
The singular focus on Mandarin, rather than languages spoken in other emerging economies like Brazil or India, doesn’t worry members of Björklund’s staff.
“There are many other languages that one could take into consideration but China is the world’s biggest country and the world’s second-largest economy. It might soon be the largest economy,” Neuman said.
At present, very few Swedish students have access to Mandarin studies, but teachers in the field report of an attitude change towards the language.
“From 2007 all the way up to 2009, parents would call me and say their kids couldn’t take Mandarin because it was too hard,” Meisang Fredmark, a consultant to principals who want to introduce Mandarin in their schools, told The Local.
“But nowadays, if a student wants to drop out, their parents instead call me to say they have convinced their child to continue.”
“It’s a clear attitude shift for the parents.”
Fredmark was pleased with the government’s announcement this week.
“It was expected and welcome. I’m glad they are intending to give Mandarin the same status as other languages,” she said.
In addition to consulting, Fredmark also teaches Mandarin to children as young as three.
She explained the youngsters often have “well-educated” parents who work for multi-national companies and are keen to introduce their kids to Mandarin at a young age.
She added, however, that her teenage pupils are motivated to learn Mandarin for other reasons.
“For the high school students, the motivation is more that they have to make career choices and they understand that knowing Mandarin will make them unique,” Fredmark told The Local.