Monday, March 19, 2012

Is learning English overstressed in China? Often the answer is "Yes."

This ran in a recent issue of China Daily. My comments are below the text of the article.  

English overstressed in Gaoku: Yu 

 Updated: 2012-03-08 21:19


By Yan Weijue (



The founder and CEO of New Oriental Education and Technology Group, the largest English training agency in China, said the share of English scores in the college entrance exam, orgaokao, should be lowered, otherwise it will cause unfairness among students.
"The students spend too much time on English studies. But I guess no more than 20 percent of them will need to use it in their lives," he said. "What's more, due to disparities on the levels of teachers and educational facilities, urban students usually have better scores than their rural pals, averaging 20-30 points more in the gaokao, a decisive margin that could have a big impact on their choice of universities."
"Lowering the status of English studies won't affect those who want to be international. Because if they really long for overseas studies, they will definitely learn English."
Yu also suggest that colleges in China not consider passing marks from the College English Test (CET) – 4 and CET-6 as requirement for graduation.
"People may ask whether my proposal could affect New Oriental's business, but actually it doesn't," he said with a smile.

Someone asked me what I thought about it. 
Speaking as an English teacher / professor in China, what he said, basically was two things and I'm inclined to agree with both of them. The first is that English Tests play too much of a part in college entrance exams in China. He did not say the English language was unimportant in itself. The second is that although English is useful for many in China (he estimates 20%), most people in China do not have a need to learn English. They simply don't use it nor are they likely to.    
First, most of my graduate students have studied English for ten years with an emphasis on passing tests such as their college entrance exams. These tests, however, seem to be at least as much of a hindrance to learning to communicate in English properly as a help. They are stupid tests that do not measure a person's ability to actually use English in any sort of real world setting or application. 

Secondly, he said that the students who actually need English will learn it but that most Chinese do not need to know English. I agree. Now, to put this in context, today by contrast most Chinese study English AND most do not learn it.Why? Because their goal is not to learn the language. Their goal is to pass these stupid tests and get in to a good college. 

Since I teach at what is considered a high ranking Chinese university, I know many students who do well on these tests but can not speak or write good English. Much of my time is spent "unteaching" them the bad habits they learned earlier in their educational careers. 

As for do they need English? Since most of international business is done in English, and most international science research is published in English, most educated Chinese will benefit from learning English. My students,being graduate students at a prominent university in China, will find a knowledge of English useful in their careers. But do most Chinese need English? No.
To put his statements in context, according to: 
(and I've seen it elsewhere) the city of Beijing recently announced its plans for:

"- Toddlers will begin learning the language in kindergarten, to better prepare them for more advanced classes in later grades. 
* Every public servant under the age of 40 with a college degree must learn 1000 English sentences.

* By 2015, all government employees must learn at least 100 English sentences, whether they have a college degree or not.

* 60% of service employees, like waiters and hairdressers, must pass English tests covering vocabulary related to their jobs.

* By 2015, a certain number of guides in each museum in the city must be proficient in English as well."

Notice 1) the emphasis on rote memorization of sentences 
and 2) the insistence that EVERYONE will do this. 
and 3) the absence of market pressure or other means to allow citizens to make a choice as to whether or not they wish to learn English.

It's important to remember that having people learn a huge number of sentences through rote memorization is not a good way to learn to communicate in a language. Therefore most of these people who are learning English are not learning how to communicate effectively in English. And since few of them need to communicate in English, the system of teaching is not likely to change soon.

If learning English is truly valuable (and I think it is) then it seems quite strange that the Chinese government is not allowing people to choose to learn the language based on such things as free market pressures or a desire to share in foreign media and literature without an interpreter. I've joked with my graduate students that I think the whole thing is part of a Communist party secret plan to make the young people of China hate America because that's the only benefit I can see to come out of things like this.
Let me also say that MANY Chinese should learn English. MANY Chinese wish to learn English. Many Chinese are actually quite good with their English and communicate in it quite well. And many of these do wish to learn it for a specific purpose or to use it in a specific context. And that's the way it should be. 

My point is that by creating situations where a "non-communicative knowledge of English" ~(i.e. memorizing 100 sentences without learning possible responses) is a requirement for a situation where knowledge of English is not required (i.e. to keep a civil service job that has nothing to do with using English or to get into a college program where the medium of instruction is Chinese) just horribly muddles the situation for English learners and teachers in China. 

If there is a real benefit to studying "non-communicative English" then students will learn "non-communicative English."
Clearly it's kind of a confused situation. When I began teaching ESL here I tried to apply some of the principles I'd been taught. i.e. get the students to teach each other through using English to give presentations to one another. I soon ran into problems because not only were students not listening to each other's presentations, the presenter had often memorized a presentation that they themselves did not understand. (i.e. they were reciting words and sentences without understanding their own speech.) Once the students understood they were supposed to communicate with each other, and explain to each other new words that they felt they should use, things got much better. And, I think the classes got more fun and useful for the students, too. One thing Chinese graduate students tell me they like about their required ESL classes is that it gives them a rare chance to interact and meet students from outside their major, so when someone stands up and says "Hi, my name is Wang Min and I study microbiology and come Shaanxi province," they perk up and listen.

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