An English Dilemma

Just how useful are English skills in the local market?


Approach a Chinese teenager today in any of the country’s big cities and the chances are they will be able to have a simple conversation in English. With the language now being compulsory to students in primary and middle schools and colleges, English education has become an important part of China’s educational system.

It is said that a total of 30 million people are taking various forms of English courses nationwide, with a staggering 4.15 million attending the latest College English Test (CET) held last winter.

While the desire to learn English, fast becoming the lingua franca of Asia, stems in the majority from students who wish to improve their career prospects, the government has also added to the English fever sweeping the country, by calling for all citizens to learn English ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2010 Shanghai World Expo.

Recently, Professor Xie Kechang, of Taiyuan University of Technology (TUT) in Shanxi Province and an academician at the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE), queried the current English learning campaign, saying related education departments pay too much attention to English education. Various English tests have impeded a lot of qualified personnel from advancing, only because they failed to possess sufficient proficiency in English. More importantly, said Xie, the financial budgets for English education is more than is necessary, resulting in already limited education funds in China becoming imbalanced. Based on these observations Xie suggested a reform of the English testing system. He insists that English education should be promoted according to the individual demand of people, rather than being a compulsory condition for future education and promotion opportunities.

Professor Xie’s opinions have sparked lively debates among all social sectors. Some people agree that China’s current foreign language educational system needs the kind of change proposed by Xie. In their eyes, a lot of people spent time, energy and money studying English, which subsequently became unnecessary in their daily life. Others oppose Xie’s ideas, saying English is an internationally used language and mastering it will provide an international competitive mindset. They say studying English is an effective way to increase the overall quality of all citizens and related compulsory English tests will give impetus to English studying nationwide.

We Don’t Need English

Xie Kechang (a CAE member and TUT professor, also member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Confe-rence): Under the current situation limited education resources fail to be rationally allocated, and the high expenditure on English education has affected subjects like science and technology, social sciences and culture.

There is no doubting the importance of English. The key is how to study it and how many people should be included in English studies. Only speaking good English is far from being the only requisite to successfully hosting the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

In current college entrance examinations, three tests including Chinese, Math and English are compulsory to examinees. In order to acquire academic degrees, college students should pass CET-band 4 or 6 according to different requirements. In many cases, English scores play a decisive role in graduate recruitment, causing many employees to give up their professional study to concentrate on English. Often they never use the language, and it becomes a tool for promotion only.

The importance of English education in work and study has created a boom in related businesses, such as the establishment of various kinds of training schools and classes, holding various tests for specific purposes, and providing English studying materials and facilities, including textbooks, reference books and dictionaries. Statistics shows that English education-related businesses have become a big industry in China. Its annual output value totaled tens of billions of yuan, equaling the annual output value of a medium-sized modern city in China.

China’s industrial bases, both old and new, lack qualified workers, to say nothing of experienced technicians. That is because on the one hand, the number of technical schools is decreasing, while on the other hand, tests-oriented English training schools are blossoming countrywide.

People’s ability should be judged on their actual contribution to society and not their English levels. Hence, we should make it clear that English education is only one part of our overall national education. In addition, we should carry out English education according to market and social demand. Meanwhile, the current situation where English tests are compulsorily in all entrance examinations should be changed, allowing students to make their own choices.

Chen Guanguang (Deputy Director of Shenzhen Municipal Education Bureau): The government should not blindly advocate English education to all citizens. It can be promoted in areas with strong economic strength, such as Shenzhen and Shanghai, based on the actual requirement and situation. But there is no need to do so in economically underdeveloped areas. In addition, I feel that scores of English tests should not be overstressed.

In my opinion, the current CET-band 4 or 6 compels students to learn English by rote, ignoring its role as a communication tool. It has been proved that this method of learning needs to be improved, and the practice of students failing to pass CET not being awarded their academic degrees should be abandoned. I suggest that basic English study should be finished in senior middle school, and college students should pay more attention to the use of English.

Yang Hua (junior in Beijing Institute of Graphic Communication): It is very common that a lot of students can’t speak fluent English even though they have passed CET. The vocabulary required by CET is three times more than that for daily communication. To remember so many English words is a time-consuming task, which adds a burden to college students. The CET, a typical compulsory English test in China, should be adjusted.

Yuan Jiewei (a reader): I agree with Professor Xie. After graduating from college, I attended postgraduate entrance examinations for eight consecutive years, but each time I failed, as I could not pass the English test. Many people have the same experience. We all know that English scores are crucial when applying for graduate education.

Currently, even some primary schools in rural areas are required to teach English. In some big cities, children start to learn English when they are in kindergarten. A person’s English level is now the most important criterion to judge their overall education.

I feel that the nationwide English “fever’’ is a waste of people’s money and energy, preventing those with professional knowledge from further development. It is an improper state of affairs that needs to be changed.

We Need English

Jia Qingguo (Associate Dean in School of International Studies of Peking University): The government shouldn’t change its policy on English education. To me, stressing English scores in qualification tests is necessary. That is because we live in a world where English is a globally used language. Since China opened its doors to the outside world, the achievements in its international exchange, foreign trade and economic cooperation are partly due to the efforts of excellent personnel who possess sufficient knowledge of foreign languages. Hence, paying attention to English education is quite necessary. It is improper teaching methods and the test-oriented education that led to current problems in China’s English education.

Some people complained that Chinese students have so many English classes that they have no time to study their mother tongue. Such an opinion is irrational. Studying different languages will not cause any conflict. In fact, a good mastery of English will help students to better understand and study Chinese. English should be included in various qualification tests and used as a basic language tool.

Wang Ouni (student in Beijing No. 5 Middle School): Everyday we have a 40-minute English class. I don’t think it costs me too much time. On the contrary, I believe that I should spend more time studying English because China now has more contacts with foreign countries. Our teachers, who study abroad to improve their education, are also required to study English.

Chen Ning (Principal of Taoran Kindergarten in Xuanwu District, Beijing): In many developed countries, students are required to learn two or even three foreign languages. Today’s kindergarten children will grow up in a fiercely competitive world. Hence, having a broad base of skills, including English, from a young age, will be conducive to their future development.

Cui Hong (English teacher in Beijing No.166 Middle School): English study is necessary for students who want to continue their studies either at home or abroad, and those who want to seek jobs. Now that less attention is being paid to the role of English as a communication tool. This is a problem that needs to be resolved in English education.