It’s the Wei of the future: BBC launches cartoon Mandarin lessons to prepare children for a Chinese-dominated global economy

By Lyle Brennan
PUBLISHED: 10:15, 12 March 2012 | UPDATED: 12:40, 12 March 2012

Repeat after me: Wei, who will teach basic Mandarin to viewers aged four to six when The Lingo Show airs on CBeebies today

Children as young as four will learn to speak Mandarin thanks to a BBC series that starts today.

An animated bug called Wei, who wears rollerskates and a crash helmet, will teach young viewers basic vocabulary such as the words for ‘hello’, ‘thank you’, the names of colours and numbers up to 10.

It has been suggested that the decision to include Mandarin alongside the two other ‘priority’ languages – French and Spanish – was driven by calls for children to be prepared for a global economy dominated by China.

Makers of the show, which will be broadcast on CBeebies, promise to expand youngsters’ horizons, ‘extending their cultural knowledge and understanding of the world around them’.

Other languages featured in the 11-minute episodes include Polish, Urdu, Punjabi and Somali, as well as Welsh.

Investment bank Goldman Sachs has long predicted that China will overtake the U.S. as the world’s most powerful economy by 2027, making fluent Mandarin a highly desirable skill for British workers.

Last month, foreign minister Jeremy Browne warned that Britain must adapt if it is to compete in a world dominated by the yuan.

A growing number of schools have extended the curriculum beyond traditional subjects such as French, German and Spanish, with many now offering a GCSE in Mandarin.

The subject has seen a steady rise in popularity and during a Beijing trade mission in November 2010, David Cameron pledged 1,000 extra Mandarin teachers would be trained for English schools.

Dr Frances Weightman, senior lecturer in Chinese studies at the University of Leeds, told the Daily Telegraph Mandarin would not be a difficult language for children to learn.

‘It’s tonal, so it lends itself very well to imitation and nursery rhymes, singing, that kind of thing,’ she said.

‘People talk a lot about the Chinese education system and rote memorisation, but for younger children repetition works quite well.’

She added that, while teaching Western European languages such as French, German and Spanish remains useful for travel, these subjects are losing their worth in terms of business and will eventually be overtaken in by Mandarin.

The Lingo Show began as a feature on the CBeebies website and proved so popular that commissioners ordered a 15-part series, aimed at children aged between four and six.

Each of the short episodes focuses on one language, with the family of bugs voiced by native speakers teaching youngsters six key words.


The Chinese language has more native speakers than any other.

And now Mandarin, the umbrella term for dialects spoken in the north and south-west of the country, is well on its way to becoming the language of commerce.

With the nation’s economy fast catching up on that of the U.S., traditional centres of industry in the West are now looking at a future in which the ability to speak Mandarin could be a crucial.

An education and skills survey held by the CBI last year found that only 27 per cent of employers did not consider foreign language skills necessary. Among those who did desire these abilities, 23 per cent listed Mandarin as key to building business relationships overseas.

More than 300 Confucius Institutes have been opened in 94 countries since 2005, with these non-profit centres working alongside the Chinese government to promote the country’s language and culture abroad.

And though Mandarin’s popularity among higher education students remains modest in the UK, these institutes say they are struggling to cope with more than 200,000 enrollments.


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