Chinese becomes Leaving Cert subject: a fad or the future?

As trade and cultural links grow, schools are broadening language class offerings

When asked what motivated them to study Chinese for the Leaving Cert, students at Our Lady's Grove Secondary School in Dublin's Clonskeagh give varied answers.

“It’s just so different,” says sixth year Carla Quinlan. “I wouldn’t consider myself the best at languages, but I’m loving Chinese. I love the foundation of the characters, when you see one matches up with the other . . . ”

For Sanda Sanduta, also a sixth-year student, it has been about getting a window into Chinese culture.

“I was watching Chinese TV shows and dramas, even before I started to learn Chinese,” she says. “I just had never had the opportunity until I came to school; it’s one of the reasons I chose to come here.”


As for principal Colm Dooley, the decision to offer the subject made sense for many reasons.

"There are great opportunities for the girls. China is a huge training partner. And it's going to be for their generation; we're educating for tomorrow, not for today," he says. "We're a State school surrounded by private schools and affluence; here is something which we feel is niche and will give them another feather in their cap."

Students at Our Lady’s Grove are among an estimated 100 nationally due to sit the first ever Mandarin Chinese exam on the Leaving Cert curriculum this summer.

Like traditional foreign languages on the curriculum such as French and German, there will be oral and aural elements, along with a written exam at higher and ordinary level.

Unlike other languages, however, it is aimed at students with no prior knowledge of Chinese. Yet, on the face of it, the sample paper – which requires candidates to read and write using Chinese script – looks fiendishly difficult.

Prior knowledge

Students point out that the language has relatively simple grammar. For example, there is no verb conjugation (so, no need to memorise verb tenses) or gender and number distinctions. In theory, a student taking up the subject in fifth year should be able to complete the exam and get a good grade.

The availability of Chinese on the Leaving Cert is part of a wider strategy launched several years ago under then minister for education Richard Bruton to expand the choice of foreign languages in schools at a time when trade links are growing in emerging countries.

While Chinese is the most eye-catching new addition to the Leaving Cert, students this year will also be sitting the first exams in Polish, Lithuanian and Portuguese as curricular languages – three languages that, due to immigration, are now widely spoken in Ireland (indeed, Polish is more widely spoken in Ireland than Irish).

It is estimated that about 1,500 students will sit exams in these new language exams this summer.

But is it a fad or the future?

After all, there is a small pool of teachers able to teach Chinese and other minority languages.

Some also wonder whether the rise of Chinese language learning is too closely linked to its economic success – with the risk that it could fade if growth in China were to flag.

Karen Ruddock, director of Post Primary Languages Ireland, says there is potential to grow the numbers studying foreign languages for the Leaving Cert.

Her organisation is helping to make teachers available to schools – in person or remotely – and facilitating access to weekend classes if languages are not available locally.

More generally, she says the global dominance of English has given rise to the mistaken belief that “English is enough”.

This, she said, can result in complacency and a lack of motivation to learn other languages.

Teacher shortage

“Learning a foreign language will create more work opportunities, more chances to make friends and have great life experiences,” she said.

A major obstacle, however, is teacher supply. Even among the most common foreign languages such as French and German, there is a shortage of qualified teachers.

The Chinese government in recent years has stepped up the activities of the Confucius Institutes – a network of cultural diplomacy bodies tasked with increasing China’s “soft power” around the globe – to help boost teacher supply.

The government funds visiting teachers in about 10 schools in Ireland and has subsidised cultural trips to China.

While Confucius Institutes are often likened to the Alliance Française, critics say they are aggressive in pushing Beijing’s world view and shutting down discussion of any topics regarded as politically sensitive such as China’s human rights record.

Indeed, links with the Chinese government in the rollout of the new Leaving Cert course have been at the centre of controversy.

Last year, it emerged that an adviser paid by the Chinese government is to have an "oversight" role in the subject as part of an agreement between the Department of Education and its counterpart in Beijing.

Ruddock, however, says the adviser will have “zero oversight” in the design of the curriculum; their role will be limited to supporting teachers with continuous professional development or initial teacher education.

“This is happening very much under our direction; we have oversight and have our own Chinese language adviser . . . it is literally a supporting role. If we’re offered additional expertise at no cost, we’ll say yes – but it’s very much under our direction . . . The idea that somehow the Chinese government will come and do whatever they like is nonsense.”

The department’s decision to use only a simplified script in the new Leaving Cert exam in Mandarin Chinese has also sparked anger among some campaigners.

Traditional or heritage Chinese script is used by most people from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other mostly non-mainland-China locations.

Ruddock says this approach was agreed following an extensive consultation process with the education sector.

‘Beautiful language’

“If we used the traditional script, the local supply [of teachers] would never be enough. We would have to rely wholly on visiting teachers, which isn’t sustainable,” Ruddock says.

Our Lady’s Grove has had visiting Chinese teachers in the past, but it recently hired Irish teacher Niamh McNally – a “brilliant addition”, says principal Colm Dooley.

There can sometimes be cultural barriers in teaching methods with visiting teachers, he says, with a bigger emphasis in China on teachers being a "sage on the stage" compared to the more student-focused approach in Irish schools. McNally completed Chinese and business studies as part of an arts degree at Maynooth University, before living and working in China for three years.

She says while many students are intimidated by the Chinese script, it is eminently possible to learn the language.

“It is a beautiful language and the grammar is nothing in comparison to what we’re used to with our European languages. There are no conjugations at all. It’s wonderful,” she says.

“The Leaving Cert course is designed so that when you enter fifth year, if you have no language background, you are well capable of taking the course in two years and achieving a good grade . . .”

As for her students, they’re hopeful they will flourish in their new subject.

“I think any language is useful and I’m very glad I’ve chosen to study it for the Leaving; it should be a bonus wherever I go,” says Sanduta. “I’m excited to be one of the first students to sit the new exam,” adds Quinlan. “I’m not sure what I want to do, but I know I’d love to take a trip over there one day.”

Going global: new Leaving Cert languages for 2022

Mandarin Chinese

* Senior cycle students can study the curriculum with no prior knowledge of Mandarin Chinese

* First exam in 2022 with the option of ordinary and higher level

* Saturday classes available in Dublin and Cork for students who do not have access to a teacher.


* Expected standard similar to current Leaving Cert languages of French, German, Spanish and Italian

* Aimed at – but not limited to – learners from heritage language backgrounds

* First exam in 2022 ( higher or ordinary level) and includes oral and listening skills.


* Standard similar to current Leaving Cert languages of French, German, Spanish and Italian

* Specification designed to be inclusive of all varieties of Portuguese

* First exam in 2022 ( higher or ordinary level) and includes oral and listening skills.


* Standard similar to current Leaving Cert languages of French, German, Spanish and Italian

* First exam in 2022 ( higher or ordinary level) and includes oral and listening skills.