As Confucius said: "The people may be made to follow a course of action, but they may not be made to understand it." It was but one of his many pearls of wisdom, but as unease grows about the number of Confucius Classrooms that have proliferated in secondary schools in recent years, it is particularly apt.

The announcement that the teachers' union, the EIS, is to investigate the implications of these classes will be greeted by some with relief, and others as touching only the tip of the iceberg.

Confucius Classrooms are funded by the Chinese Communist government. They allow pupils to learn Chinese, though not to Higher level, and Scotland has the highest per capita ratio of such classes in the world. Their adoption has been encouraged by successive first ministers, who have seen this as a way of deepening our relationship with one of the fastest-growing economies and political powers in the world. Unlike the Edinburgh pandas, however, the benefits of this cross-cultural gesture are far less visible or quantifiable, and a great deal more complicated.

Detractors worried about China's repressive regime see such instruction as an insidious way of promoting politically contentious views. Critics interested in preserving the quality of language teaching in Scotland, meanwhile, are simply sceptical about the value of such basic teaching, especially of a notoriously difficult language like Mandarin, and suspect that those councils that embrace these free classes hope to mask the lack of funding for more mainstream languages such as French, Spanish and German.

In a global economy no-one can deny the importance of language teaching, not just for business but for diplomatic and cultural relations. For millennia we have been famously international in the breadth of our connections, and we can see the attraction of including a hitherto neglected culture and language in our educational system. That said, its adoption, and at a sub-curricular level, must not be allowed to interfere with the learning of languages already vitally important to our national interests. In particular, if teaching to Higher level of German, Spanish or French is to suffer because of a commitment to beginner's Mandarin, the situation should be urgently reassessed. We understand the government's desire to put the country on a better footing with an undisputed superpower but, when school resources are finite, a reliance on classes paid for by a hardline regime sometimes wildly at odds with our values could be seen as at best misguided and at worst sinister.

When much of our trade is with Europe, it is already a source of shame that Russian has been dropped from the Higher curriculum; so, too, the declining uptake of other European languages at this level. The Government would be well advised to follow the EIS in exploring the implications of Confucius classes. However, this should be conducted as part of a more searching inquiry into the provision and promotion of languages in our schools in general, regardless of Chinese. In so doing it should ascertain whether we are in danger of shrinking our linguistic capability at the very time when, as we seek to nurture our continental ties, we need more European linguists than ever.