Bradford’s youngsters are being urged to learn Mandarin so they can grow up to do business with the world’s next superpower.

The British Council yesterday said the number of schools offering the language was “far too small”, and there was a real risk that the UK economy would fall behind as a result.

But in Bradford, savvy parents are beginning to send their children to weekend classes, hoping to give their offspring a foot up in the workplace.

Bradford Chinese School was originally set up in 2011 for British-born children of Chinese immigrants, but is now seeing more and more pupils from other backgrounds signing up for lessons.

The school, which this week moved into new premises at Bradford Grammar School, is run by volunteers who teach Mandarin and Chinese art classes to about 40 children each weekend.

Anita Zhang, a volunteer teacher, said about 15 per cent of their pupils were now from non-Chinese families.

She said: “Their parents may have previously been teaching in China or doing business with Chinese companies and some of them will have stayed in China for a number of years.

“They want their children to know Chinese as well and maybe they can follow in their parents’ footsteps. I think it is to give them something which will help them compete with the world.”

Miss Zhang, who was born in China and first came to the UK about ten years ago, admitted Mandarin wasn’t an easy language for English speakers to master, especially as it had a completely different alphabet.

Bradford-based logistics company Advanced Supply Chain has strong links with China and hopes to start a major new export project there in 2014.

Chief executive Mike Danby said learning Chinese would become essential in the coming years.

He said: “In years to come understanding Chinese will become essential and I’d wholeheartedly encourage the next generation to welcome any opportunities to learn. This will ensure that British businesses remain competitive and are well-positioned for future growth.”

Stephen Wright, president of the Bradford Chamber of Commerce, said more and more local businesses were tapping into the Chinese market and that learning foreign languages was a key skill for business people.

He said: “We shouldn’t be reliant on getting others to adapt to our language and culture.”

But adding Chinese to the curriculum isn’t as easy as it sounds, according to the National Union of Teachers.

Its Bradford spokesman, Ian Murch, said two major impediments were a lack of qualified Chinese teachers in the UK and a difficulty in fitting Mandarin into curriculums when European languages remained so popular.