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June 7, 2014

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Tongue-twisting debate over English study

THE glory days of English are fading in China. Debate still rages over the value of studying English even after the Ministry of Education recently denied English would be removed from the gaokao, the national college entrance examination, which starts today.

Those in favor of its removal say English study should be optional to ease the burden on students while opponents insist it is a necessary ability for Chinese to understand the world.

The debate started in October when Beijing announced a plan to reduce the value of English by shifting points to Chinese in college and senior high school entrance exams beginning in 2016. Other provinces decided English would be offered to students above third grade (aged 9-10) instead of from day one in primary school.

The teaching of English has long reflected changes in China’s attitudes to the outside world, starting in 1862 when the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) government established the first Imperial College of Translators.

When the Opium Wars broke out, with Western powers led by Britain invading China, the Qing government realized English was fundamental to understanding the outside world.

In 1902, it demanded Chinese students learn English. Even the emperor took lessons.

During the semi-colonial period, English study developed into cultural imitation. Mission schools in Shanghai required all courses to be taught in English. People imitated Westerners in dress, speech and behavior. Chinese men, still wearing long pigtails, donned suits and spectacles.

Chinese students of English also mastered advanced technologies and ideas of democracy and freedom.

Niu Daosheng, author of “The Historic Influence of English on China,” wrote that English as a language had successfully brought Western culture and modern civilization to China.

The first decline of English came in the 1950s, when the language was painted with political colors.

After New China was founded in 1949, the government established a close relationship with the Soviet Union and China was isolated by Western powers. The high status of English was overturned as schools only taught one foreign language: Russian.

In 1956, Premier Zhou Enlai called for the strengthening of translations of foreign books to help China’s science development. More people were recruited to learn English, French and German. By the end of that year, 23 universities across China offered English as a major.

A decade later, the number was 74. Moreover, English was officially confirmed as the priority foreign language by the national educational authority in 1964. However, the education system was destroyed during the “cultural revolution (1966-76),” when English textbooks were full of translations of Chairman Mao’s quotations.

English benefited in the reform and opening-up policy from 1978. Chinese were encouraged to go abroad to study and come back to contribute to the country’s modernization.

Overseas returnees who could speak English fluently and see what was going on outside the long-closed country were viewed as “gilt-edged,” drawing wealth and admiration. They were highly sought after in the job market and had influence in all walks of life.

In 1984, English was listed as a priority test subject in the gaokao.

“On one hand, English was needed to cultivate talents with international vision and promote China’s openness,” says Xiong Bingqi, an education scholar. “On the other hand, English had become a test for selecting talents.”

English testing still continues after the school years. Adults also have to pass various English tests at work to earn promotions, further qualifications and higher salaries.

Grammar stressed

As a result, English has become a utilitarian exercise. Private training companies, which teach students tricks to pass tests, have sprung up.

The Ministry of Education says 50,000 companies specialize in English training, with the value of the market estimated at 30 billion yuan (US$4.8 billion).

English classes in school have been criticized for stressing grammar and vocabulary over listening and speaking. Students are taught to score well on tests rather than master communication.

A survey by Shanghai International Studies University revealed that fewer than 5 percent of Chinese who have learned English can communicate smoothly in the language without stumbling.

Chu Chaohui, a researcher with the National Institute of Education Sciences, says English has long been regarded in the education system as “knowledge” rather than a “language,” which undermines principles of language acquisition.

English also stands accused of harming the purity of Chinese language, with terms such as “bye-bye” now part of daily speech.

Two years ago, a group of linguists petitioned for the removal of English words from an authoritative Chinese dictionary and inclusion of the Chinese equivalents.

The People’s Daily, the flagship newspaper of the Communist Party of China, has said in an editorial this month that the influx of imported words was harming the purity and health of the Chinese language.

Last year, Beijing decided to cut the value of English by shifting points to Chinese in college and senior high school entrance exams from 2016, sparking concerns among English teachers.

“For some of my students, the enthusiasm to learn English is higher than learning Chinese,” says Wu Bo, professor of translation with China Foreign Affairs University, “and they think very shortsightedly that it is no more important to learn Chinese.”

Xu Hong, a middle school English teacher, says the change means students will treat English as a secondary subject.

“They will give it less attention and add to the difficulty of our work as the demands of English teaching have not changed,” Xu adds.

But others are less pessimistic. Any reform will detract little from the importance people attach to English, said Chen Huiwen, vice president of Beijing No. 2 Middle School.

“We will think of making some changes in class, such as focusing more on comprehensive English skills, rather than test results.”

A Ministry of Education spokesman has said the plan to change the English test in the gaokao is still under consideration, but it will not downplay English education.


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