Decision on Mandarin Leaving Cert exam ‘outrages’ Chinese communities

Exam subject that students can sit from 2022 will only allow for simplified Chinese script

Chinese communities in Ireland are “outraged” by the decision of the Department of Education to use only a simplified script in the new Leaving Certificate exam in Mandarin Chinese, according to a group set up to campaign on the issue.

The new exam subject, which students can sit from 2022, will not allow for the use of the traditional or heritage Chinese script, which is used by most people from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other, mostly non-mainland-China locations.

The decision by the department is a "discrimination against the heritage Chinese learners in Ireland," according to Isabella Jackson, an assistant professor of Chinese history in Trinity College, Dublin, who is a member of the Leaving Cert Mandarin Chinese Group.

“It is wrong for our Irish Government to deny children of a Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau background the right to sit an examination using the Chinese script that is part of their heritage.”


The simplified script was introduced in mainland China in the 1950s, but even there works of art, calligraphy and religious texts are still widely written in the traditional script, she said.

Fangzhe Qiu, assistant professor at UCD's School of Irish, Celtic Studies and Folklore, who was consulted by the group, said the difference between the two scripts is that there are generally fewer strokes in the simplified Chinese characters. "It does not necessarily mean that traditional Chinese is more difficult to learn for beginners," he said.


The group said the two types of script are used in exams in the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada. An online petition set up by the group and calling for the use of both types of script had been signed by 950 people by the weekend.

A request for a comment from the department on the issue was unavailable.

However, in response to a question about the matter on July 8th from People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith, Minister for Education Norma Foley said subject specifications for the Leaving Cert are developed by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and involve extensive consultation.

She said the new Mandarin exam was designed “as an ab initio course” with the targeted students being Irish or international students who had no previous knowledge of the language.

“While heritage speakers are certainly allowed to study the course and sit the exam, the specification is not designed for them,” she said in her written reply.

“The inclusion of traditional characters is not suitable for a specification pitched at ab initio level.”

The decision not to include traditional characters was a considered one, and to do so would have had implications for “vocabulary, syntax, language use and potentially culture as well,” the Minister said.

An EU project called the European Benchmarking Chinese Language does not incorporate traditional characters, she said, adding that she had no plans to ask the State Examinations Commission to review the requirement that simplified characters be used in the exam.

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent