24 March 2021

English In China

The English language is a mandatory subject in Chinese schools, although this is controversial. If I recall correctly, it is also mandatory in Japan.

Is English really that important? A Chinese lawmaker at the two sessions has proposed removing English as a core subject for Chinese students receiving compulsory education, triggering heated discussion on Chinese social media.

The proposal was made by Xu Jin, a member of the Central Committee of the Jiusan Society and also a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). It has also been proposed by other lawmakers in previous years.

Some experts said the idea is just narrow-minded populism and is unlikely to be adopted, as China's importance in globalization means that it needs the global language to share views and technology with the outside world. Others said it was reasonable as the majority of Chinese people do not use English in their lives, except during their education.

"In the compulsory education stage, English and other foreign language courses should no longer be set as the main subjects equivalent to Chinese and mathematics, and should be removed as compulsory subjects from the college entrance examination," Xu said.

Xu believes the amount of time spent on English by students will not lead to commensurate results in future employment. English teaching hours account for about 10 percent of students' total class hours, but English is only useful for less than 10 percent of college graduates, he said.

Instead, smart devices offering translation could provide professional, competitive translation services and more problem-solving than English teaching goals that run through the entire compulsory education, Xu said, adding that translation is one of the first occupations that will die out in the era of artificial intelligence….
There's not a snowball's chance in hell that students and their parents will be willing to cut back on English language education. Good English is a ticket for getting into the best schools and universities, and for going abroad. The same situation obtains for plans to deal with myopia among youth, as we have just seen two days ago: "Myopia in the Middle Kingdom" (3/16/18). The demand for English education is ever greater; the strain on students' eyes are ever more demanding.

The craze for English increases every year, and I must say that the level of English ability of students from China in my classes — and I have lots of them — is astonishingly good, and getting better all the time. China is not going to go back behind a bamboo curtain, and even the formidable Great Firewall cannot extinguish the burning desire of Chinese citizens, especially youth, for global information sources. It simply will not happen, because even the children of the highest ranking Party members — together with their parents — are complicit.

Needless to say, the requirement is not reciprocal. No English language speaking country (with the possible exception of Australia) requires instruction in Chinese or Japanese.

Anecdotally, neither the study of English in Chinese K-12 schools, nor the study of foreign languages in U.S. schools, produces functional levels of foreign language fluency in a very significant share of students taking those languages as school subjects.  The quality of English language instruction in China is improving, however, as noted above.

In contrast, European foreign language instruction, anecdotally, at least, seems to be very successful at producing a large percentage of people with functional levels of foreign language fluency in the studied languages (which are usually other European languages).

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