As he left the exam hall after sitting the first ever Leaving Cert Chinese exam on Monday afternoon, Jake Murray McGuirk was in an upbeat mood.
“It was definitely easier than Irish, for me anyway,” he said. “I was worried about how difficult the writing section would be. It went better than expected. I feel quite good about it.”
The 17-year-old from Tallaght was one of about 290 students who sat the Mandarin Chinese exam. On the face of it, the exam paper – which requires candidates to read and write using the Chinese script – looks fiendishly difficult.
Students, however, say the language has relatively simple grammar: there is no verb conjugation, so there’s no need to memorise verb tenses or gender and number distinctions.
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The move to introduce Mandarin Chinese to the Leaving Cert is part of a wider strategy that began several years ago to expand the choice of foreign languages in schools at a time when trade links are growing.
At Kishogue Community College in Lucan, where nine students sat the exam, the mood was generally positive too.
“Speaking it isn’t that hard,” said Masen Ali (18) from Lucan. “Learning the characters is the challenging part. I still have a bit of trouble remembering them, but it went well today.”
“I was nervous,” said Ellie McLoughlin (18) from Clondalkin, “but I think I did well is the oral and aural [worth 60 per cent], which took off some of the pressure”.
Kishoge Community College’s principal Niall Hare said he was delighted that the school has had the opportunity to broaden students’ horizons.
“We feel it really benefits students to have the chance to learn a big, global language. I think we were one of the first schools to provide it as a fully integrated subject in the curriculum when we opened in 2014,” he said.
“There has been interest in it all the way along . . . some of our students went to China on scholarships and are now studying Chinese at university.”
The expansion of Chinese in Irish schools has been partly helped by the Chinese government, which funds visiting teachers in about 10 schools in the State and has subsidised cultural trips to China. Some critics say the education system should not accept funding from foreign governments, especially those with controversial human rights records.
Education authorities in Ireland, however, have rejected claims that the Chinese government has any oversight of the curriculum and say the only role of Chinese officials is limited to supporting teachers with continuous professional development.
For the students, their focus has been on doing the best in the exams and looking forward to their careers.
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Jake, who wants to study computing, is hopeful the language will come in handy, while Masen plans to continue studying the language if he gets accepted to an arts course at Maynooth University.
For Ellie, it’s already proving dividends.
“It’s great being able to recognise words on branding or menus, or to recognise words your hear,” she said. “It’s one of the most spoken languages in the world. It makes sense to learn it, and it’s fun.”