The Growing Role of English in Chinese Education

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Under the title "English without Chinese at exams 'traitorious,'" China Daily ("China's Global [English] Newspaper") presents an article by Wu Yiyao describing the uproar over the decision by four Shanghai universities to include an English test as part of their independent admission examinations, but not to include a corresponding examination for Chinese language. The controversy swiftly spilled over into other media reports, with strong opinions on both sides.

While one can understand how patriots might be offended at the requirement for testing English and the absence of a requirement for testing Chinese, the examinees and their parents were strongly in favor of the new arrangement. First of all, one less exam to take means that much less stress in an already highly competitive atmosphere. Second, one must factor in the cost of preparation, since nearly all Chinese students attend cram schools for the exams that are required. Third, there is the sheer fact of economic value attributed to advanced English ability by students and their parents.

Furthermore, many courses — especially in the sciences, medicine, and business — are actually taught in English, and even in the social sciences and in the humanities, courses are sometimes offered in English. In fact, it is not uncommon for Chinese universities to offer (or, perhaps more accurately, allege to offer) entire English curricula, especially to attract students from overseas. I have met students from Sri Lanka, India, African nations, and elsewhere who applied for graduate school in China in response to advertisements promising them instruction in English. Upon arrival (not knowing a word of Chinese), however, they all too often discover that the actual available offerings are rather meager, or that the English spoken by their instructors is barely intelligible to them.

Incidentally, it is interesting that the People's Daily Online, which reprints the China Daily article here, has an audio feature at the top of the page which seems to be able to convert the printed text into spoken English. In contrast, when I visited the Russian, Arabic, French, Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese versions of People's Daily Online, I did not notice a similar feature for these languages (I wonder if they exist).  One thing that perplexes me in the spoken version of the article is how poorly the machine does with pinyin.  I listened to the recording many times, and it sounded to me as though it pronounced Qin more like a typical American than like a speaker of Mandarin.  She (it's a female voice) almost chokes on the name "Hu Guang."  It is also very bad about consistently providing appropriate pauses between sentences and paragraphs (it tends to be better with commas).

However, it is curious that, even if the text-to-speech conversion software was acquired from abroad, it seems to have been at least partially adapted for home-grown purposes. In this recent article about President Obama's energy initiatives, his name comes out sounding like "Aubama," which resembles the pronunciation of his name in Mandarin (AO1BA1MA3 奧巴馬) more than it does the way it is pronounced in American English.  On the other hand, the machine voice here is not saying "Aulympics."

But then why did the synthesizer (if that's what it is) do such a poor job with the pinyin in the article about English only testing (and not Chinese) on entrance exams?

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18 Comments »

  1. Kylopod said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 7:59 pm

    Last year, Kindle's text-to-speech software was saying "oh-bam-uh" (rhyming with "Alabama" rather than "oh mama").

  2. John Cowan said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 8:15 pm

    It's probably a trivial customization of the software to adjust the pronunciation of particular words. Recognizing pinyin (especially tone-free pinyin) embedded in English and substituting a separate set of pronunciation rules, though not intrinsically difficult, is almost certainly beyond what off-the-shelf talk-to-speech software can be made to do.

  3. NW said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 10:46 pm

    Interesting problem: anything beginning with a capital Q not Qu, or X, could trigger it. In fact, as there is a fairly short finite list of pinyin syllables, relatively few of which are English words, you could even attempt to list them en bloc.

  4. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 9:44 am

    Have there been any written accounts of the Sri Lankans etc. complaining about the unintelligibility of their Chinese instructors' English? Can't see any from a quick Google search…

  5. daoshan said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 10:06 am

    Geez.. what ISN'T "traitorous" these days?

  6. SD said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

    Well, this sucks. When your language is dying out and getting dominated by another language, you are obviously going to be dissatisfied. One or two people labeling this practice with the word with propagandic-connotations "traitorous" does not make this concern less legitimate.

    Maybe the reason why the pronounciation is more American toned is because the only people possibly using it is English speaking people. It's much easy to pronounce using a version close to your own pronounciation, then it is to genuinely pronounce it. Also, perhap people can remember it easier with it is a sound that they recognize rather than a sound that they can't even imitate. Lots of possible reasons. Cut them some slack. There is no argument-crippling irony here.

  7. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 5:19 pm

    "Traitorous" seems like pretty mild invective when considered in context. The China Daily is a mouthpiece for the ruling Party, an organization with a longstanding tradition of vituperative rhetoric (at least as it comes across in English) that is truly awe-inspiring when considered simply as a linguistic phenomenon. "Running dogs of imperialism" may no longer be in heavy rotation, but as recently as the runup to the 2008 Olympics you could find striking phrases out there (not necessarily in the China Daily as such, but in other channels of communication under common control with it) like "totally smash the splittist schemes of the Dalai clique."

  8. JC said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 6:55 pm

    "Well, this sucks. When your language is dying out and getting dominated by another language, you are obviously going to be dissatisfied. One or two people labeling this practice with the word with propagandic-connotations "traitorous" does not make this concern less legitimate."

    How is Chinese a language that is dying out or 'getting dominated'?

  9. Wordoch said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 7:25 pm

    "When your language is dying out and getting dominated by another language, you are obviously going to be dissatisfied."

    Mandarin has 800-900 million native speakers. Although English is on the rise in China I don't think we'll be seeing the death of Chinese any time soon, not least because of the difficulties Chinese people have with learning English.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RAdNvnpKARE

  10. SD said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 9:03 pm

    Maybe not dying out in the strictest sense, as in nobody is speaking it, but Chinese is becoming more and more merely English translation with more and more exact one to one matching of words and concepts with English. Lots of words that people are speaking nowadays are imported from English and Chinese fails at generating new words. Beyond the most colloquial sentences, most sentences that people write in literature just sounds like translations, as in I can think of the exact English word and sentence for translation whenever I read this sentence. This is happening because so many literature and academic writings are only in English, and so many ideas came only from the outside and not generated from within.

    Just my observations. I am not saying this is anyone's fault. I am just saying to preserve culture, something should be done to reverse this trend. Certainly testing only English would not help.

  11. michael farris said,

    February 9, 2010 @ 3:35 am

    "the sheer fact of economic value attributed to advanced English ability by students and their parents"

    I often think of the naive belief in the economic power of knowing English as a second language as a 21st century version of a cargo cult. It doesn't stand up to much scrutiny but strangely enough, most linguists don't want to go into the bother of exposing the lunacy.

    "Chinese is becoming more and more merely English translation with more and more exact one to one matching of words and concepts with English."

    This is going on in Europe too and is probably mostly translation pressure as overworked and/or underpaid (or just plain lazy) translators seek to streamline their work by using as many calques as possible. Who cares if it makes sense? The cumulative effect is for the calques to become common place.

  12. daoshan said,

    February 9, 2010 @ 4:31 am

    SD, what in the heck are you talking about? "Dying out?" "Dominated"? Are you Chinese? I think you've mistaken Chinese with Ainu or something.

    Compared to just about EVERY other language, Japanese, Korean, European languages, it borrows VERY little vocabulary from English.

    "most sentences that people write in literature just sounds like translations"
    If you consider academic papers literature, sure. Otherwise modern Chinese lit reads nothing like an English book

  13. Franz Bebop said,

    February 9, 2010 @ 9:05 am

    It's worth pointing out that the new policy has been adopted by universities in Shanghai, where Mandarin is not a native language. As far as the Shanghainese are concerned, Mandarin and English are both foreign languages. A requirement to learn Mandarin might also be considered "traitorous" towards Shanghai, inasmuch as it neglects the local Shanghainese language.

    I suspect what's really at issue here is not Mandarin vs. Shanghainese, but the mastery of more obscure and technical Chinese characters. The two articles gloss over the distinction of written characters vs. spoken language.

    But even in the case of written characters, it's really the same issue, again — a person can only view this as "traitorous" if their national identity is tied into a particular writing system. If the Chinese would abandon the system of characters and adopt simpler writing systems, it would make life easier on everyone, and would promote the use of both Mandarin and Shanghainese in their own country.

    The real story here is not the flight towards English, it's the flight towards a language with a sane alphabet.

  14. Franz Bebop said,

    February 9, 2010 @ 9:18 am

    Lovely quote from the second article:

    "'The Chinese language and its grammar are unique, and China has 5,000 years of history, which foreigners will never be able to understand,' says Yi Pian Bai Yun from Baoji. 'Giving up Chinese exams means giving up our national roots.'"

    Ah, good old fashioned racism. We foreigners can just never understand anything, can we. Silly foreigners.

  15. JC said,

    February 9, 2010 @ 12:06 pm

    I don't know where SD is getting his opinions from, but I've taught English in China for six years, and I read/speak Mandarin, and it's clear to me Chinese is alive and well and will begin its real florescence in the 21st century. Mandarin is changing among the generations with more loan words; so what? The younger generation seems to prefer avoiding older forms, such as 成语 cheng1yu3, but this might not be a new development.

    If anything, English-speaking Chinese might begin to affect our English in North America…

    See you in the verse!

  16. Wordoch said,

    February 9, 2010 @ 4:14 pm

    @JC

    You good, how appears?

  17. Jim said,

    February 9, 2010 @ 4:16 pm

    "most sentences that people write in literature just sounds like translations"
    If you consider academic papers literature, sure. "

    And ironically enough, a lot of academic English in America sounds like a translation from German, and there's a good historical reason for that.

  18. John Cowan said,

    February 10, 2010 @ 5:40 pm

    Beginning with the word foreword, which looks much more English than the Latin-derived preface. But in fact preface has been used in English since the revival of learning, whereas foreword is a 19th-century innovation calqued from German Vorwort.

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