English in China #2

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Whenever there's a major gathering in Beijing, such as the 12th Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress National Committee that has been going on these days, some top figure (politician, educator, or scholar) will be sure to take advantage of the opportunity to lambaste English as a threat to the stability of the People's Republic.  For examples, see here on the dangers of Westernization (mainly English words) and here on language purity and the threat of creeping Romanization.

Now, in an article entitled "English-language studies 'destructive' to China's education, says CPPCC deputy", we read:

The head of a national research institute in China said English-language studies were "destructive" to education, which is facing an "unprecedented crisis".

Schools are placing too much emphasis on English, said Zhang Shuhua, head of the Intelligence Research Academy, adding that language studies should be treated as a means for social reform and development, but, instead, they are seen as an end.

He called it putting the cart before the horse. Zhang made the remarks on Monday at a discussion session during an annual gathering of China's political advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

Zhang said many students with good academic performance have been blocked from universities because of poor English test scores, government news portal China.com.cn reported on Monday.

He added that recent “English enthusiasm” in China has taken up a large chunk of educational resources, at a high cost but with little gains.

Zhang argued it was “absolutely unnecessary” to impose English-language studies on students who pursue professions in Chinese medicine, ancient Chinese language, Chinese history and others that do not require the use of a foreign language.

In China, children start to learn English as early as kindergarten. In middle school, it is seen as the most important subject next to Chinese and mathematics. University students must pass a language test before they can graduate; some also take a more difficult test to pursue post-graduate studies.

Because students devote more effort into passing English tests, they spend less time studying for courses for their major, dealing a "heavy blow" to overall education, Zhang said.

In any case, Zhang continued, despite their efforts, Chinese students may be mastering useless "mute English", referring to poor oral language skills.

The CPPCC deputy cited a 2010 survey by China Youth Daily that showed 80 per cent of people polled agreed that there is a language crisis and that Chinese skills are deteriorating. Of those, more than half blamed the emphasis on foreign language study.

Zhang suggested elementary and middle schools focus on teaching Chinese and maths and reduce other subjects such as biology and chemistry, which should be non-required courses. He urged that English-language programmes be reformed to move away from exams and adopt more applicable lessons.

Founded in 2011 by national think tank Chinese Academy of Science, the Intelligence Research Institute mainly gathers, arranges and reports on domestic and global academic research and theory.

There is little doubt that people believe Chinese language skills are deteriorating, but in what way, and can the deterioration be attributed to the spread of English?  The problem of "character amnesia" is due to Romanized inputting in computers and cell phones, rather than because of learning English.  This phenomenon has been described in detail in numerous articles going back more than a decade (see, for example, here, here, and here).

As for spoken language, there's no evidence that Chinese youths today are any worse at talking intelligibly than they were ten or twenty years ago, before the supposed onslaught of English.  On the other hand, the modes of expression, both in written and spoken Chinese, have changed tremendously, with many new terms and constructions being used.  This has actually, to my mind, made Chinese languages much more lively and interesting than they were before the opening up of China that started after President Nixon's visit in 1972.

[My first post on "English in China" was in 2006 and may be found here]

[Thanks to Gordon Chang, John Rohsenow, Stefan Krasowski, David Moser, and Mark Swofford]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    March 17, 2013 @ 7:25 am

    "English dropped from top Chinese university exams"


    The headline is deceptive, since English is still very much a part of the regular national entrance examinations. At issue are the special exams of their own that the best universities require of students who apply to them.

  2. julie lee said,

    March 17, 2013 @ 12:32 pm

    Zhang Shuhua, head of the Intelligence Research Academy, laments that Chinese language skills are deteriorating in China.

    My late mother (born 1915) lamented in the 1980s that Chinese language skills among the Chinese are deteriorating. She said: "Chinese language skills is deteriorating. I notice that the younger the person, the worse the command of Chinese."

    I think one sense of "deteriorating" they both meant is that the Chinese language is veering away from the old standard, whether "old" means 1900, 1910, 1920, …1970,…and so on. Victor Mair notes that ability to write Chinese characters is deteriorating because of romanized inputting on computers and cell-phone, while spoken Chinese is changing rapidly, becoming more lively and interesting.

  3. joanne salton said,

    March 17, 2013 @ 5:50 pm

    I wonder if anyone has ever heard anyone, anywhere, ever, belonging to the older generation, remark that the (native) language usage of their young people is superior to that of the older generation? (Excepting people who might be described as "linguists" of course!)

    The opposite remark being frequently heard is a given, naturally. (Though this doesn't mean it is necessarily always false).

  4. hanmeng said,

    March 17, 2013 @ 8:16 pm

    Even if one believes the system should encourage foreign language learning, from what he says, English certainly seems to be overly stressed. I certainly see why he's troubled about this:
    In middle school, [English] is seen as the most important subject next to Chinese and mathematics. University students must pass a language test before they can graduate; some also take a more difficult test to pursue post-graduate studies.

    Because students devote more effort into passing English tests, they spend less time studying for courses for their major, dealing a "heavy blow" to overall education, Zhang said.

    In any case, Zhang continued, despite their efforts, Chinese students may be mastering useless "mute English", referring to poor oral language skills..

  5. Ron said,

    March 17, 2013 @ 11:32 pm

    Lots of children in China are already having to learn Standard Mandarin on top of their native dialect– this isn't as big of a leap for some, but it's going to be quite an extreme difference for others, right? From what I understand reading this blog (in entries related to things like character practice), even that is generally hindered by lack of resources.

    Studies I've seen about the California school system seemed to show that young native Spanish speakers learned subjects like math, science and social studies better in their native Spanish (while they receive instruction in English to catch up). English only education for young non-native speakers who had not yet mastered the language seemed to be a hindrance. Wouldn't the same thing happen to a degree with Mandarin only education for a young native speaker of another dialect?

    On top of that, those students are expected to acquire a third language –English– as part of gaining entrance to university. This is going to be tricky even for the students that like language! Adding drill-heavy usage-light practice methods you get from large classes, limited time and limited resources and time on top of that. Is it any surprise that students would have a hard time reaching a high level of usage in situations like this?

    I'm simplifying here, and my understanding of the situation is far from complete as I have only a dilettante's knowledge of Mandarin and my knowledge of the Chinese educational system comes mostly from linguistic and literacy blogs, but it's something I've been wondering for a long time. An I missing something crucial here? It just doesn't seem realistic or efficient.

  6. joanne salton said,

    March 18, 2013 @ 4:40 am

    Ron – I think you make valid points, although the main result is that minority children and their languages suffer, and the government would welcome that to some extent, as they wish to standardise.

    As to evidence for decline, what evidence could there be that would convince anyone?

  7. michael farris said,

    March 18, 2013 @ 5:12 am

    I think there are (at least) three separate issues

    1. Are the literacy skills of young Chinese people suffering?

    2. If yes, are skills in spoken Chinese also being undermined? (though concern with cultivating speech skills has, AFAIK, never been a priority in China)

    3. What role does/should English play in Chinese education (specifically is an overemphasis on english harming students' overall academic skills?)

    The answer to the first seems to be a pretty unambiguous yes. I think character centered writing (for all its undeniable graphic beauty) is pretty cumbersome for lots of things you need to be able to do in the modern world and the time needed to master the system is a pretty large opportunity cost.

    I don't know enough Chinese to answer the second, but if the extra liveliness that is being spoken of is mostly/largely English loans and calques then color me unimpressed – in the current linguistic climate borrowing lots of words and calques from English is surey the most boring thing a language can do.

    I'm not Chinese so I can't answer the third either, I will suggest that the enthusiasm for English (divorced from context or content) displayed in many countries reminds me of the cargo cults – knowledge of English won't bring pesonal betterment on its own and it's not a precondition for personal betterment either. I suspect that overemphasizing English given what's usually described as poor teaching methodolgy (not to mention the signifcant opportunity cost of learning English spelling) could mean that tryng to learn English is siphoning time that could be more productively used in other ways but I'm not there so I'm not sure.

  8. Nanani said,

    March 18, 2013 @ 11:22 pm

    There seems to be no mention of the fact that languages are best learned *young*. Acquiring a second or third language dramatically increases in difficulty after a certain age.
    For that reason alone, having Chinese kids learn English in the early years of their education is surely much more efficient than waiting until they're older?
    Assuming of course that actually becoming fluent is the goal (as opposed to being able to pass a test and then forget the topic, or something like that).

  9. maidhc said,

    March 19, 2013 @ 5:16 am

    Here in California we've adopted quite a few Spanish terms into our vernacular. And historically some Chinese vocabulary has come into English, like "chop suey" and "kowtow". I wonder if, as China becomes more prominent on the world stage, we will start to adopt more Chinese words (most likely poorly pronounced)? The first ones would be for concepts that don't already have an English word.

    Already I think we are learning the terms for different kinds of dim sum.

  10. julie lee said,

    March 19, 2013 @ 11:54 am

    What struck me in the article by Zhang Shuhua, head of the Intelligence Research Academy, quoted in Victor Mair's LL post , is that most of what he says (about the over-emphasis on English in Chinese education) is so not-new, such as: failing scores in English blocking students from university (didn't Mao Zedong fail to enter Peking University because of poor English and math?), "mute English" after years of study (my mom's complaint too, and she went to school in the 1930s), Chinese and other subjects suffering because of time given to English (a natural phenomenon) and so on. The only thing new to me was that English is now required even if your major is a Chinese subject such as Chinese medicine, Chinese literature, Chinese history etc. I think this last requirement is right because Western scholars publishing in English have made many advances in these disciplines. What Zhang calls the recent English enthusiasm is not so recent. It goes back at least 100 years, but has expanded and intensified.
    But the old problem is still unsolved. What worries me is that it's the poorer children who suffer most, just like here in America. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, the best public schools are in the most expensive towns, such as Cupertino, Palo Alto, Atherton. If the Chinese government reduces English classes in schools or English tests, the poorer kids will suffer even more because those with more money can hire private tutors. The "English enthusiasm" or English fever is inexorable. One radical solution which has been suggested is going wholesale to romanization of the "national language", Mandarin, and replacing Chinese characters, which would save children a lot of study-time, but it is unlikely to be adopted at present. Another palliative, which Victor Mair has advocated strenuously, is to print all characters in books together with their romanized spelling. That would also save school-children a tremendous amount of study-time. Many Chinese classics and other texts have been printed with characters-AND-spelling in Taiwan, though in Taiwan they use bopomofo spelling, not romanized spelling. I think this is highly do-able (with pinyin romanization) for China.

  11. michael farris said,

    March 19, 2013 @ 3:29 pm

    "The "English enthusiasm" or English fever is inexorable"

    No it isn't. It depends on people choosing to pursue it. It especially depends on people choosing to pursue it in the absence of any tangible effects.

    I'm not saying English isn't a useful foreign language for many Chinese but that's all it should be and not a cornerstone of the educational system.

  12. joanne salton said,

    March 20, 2013 @ 6:47 am

    Julie – I tend to think rather the opposite. Mastery of a language is 90% determination and self-motivation, more than other subjects, and poor kids have a rare chance to compete against the rich if they really want to. OK, the "determined" are a minority, but they are the ones that tend to get most of my sympathy. I have met some fantastic students (of English) from very humble backgrounds.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    March 20, 2013 @ 8:05 am

    @michael farris

    "No it isn't [inexorable]. It depends on people choosing to pursue it. It especially depends on people choosing to pursue it in the absence of any tangible effects."

    But people ARE choosing to pursue it in massive numbers, and they are choosing it BECAUSE OF the tangible effects (better salaries, better benefits, better careers, better opportunities, etc.).

  14. julie lee said,

    March 20, 2013 @ 11:49 am

    Joanne, I agree with you that mastery of a language is 90% determination and self-motivation. But poor kids are not determination-poor; they are time-poor. They are often put to work very early, including doing house-work (cooking, laundry by hand, child-caring, etc.) . That is why cutting down study-time by going to romanization of characters is so important. If English classes are reduced or eliminated the families with money can always hire private tutors for English but the poor families can't. Even if English classes result in "mute English", they still learn some English. Obviously, one solution to "mute English" is to improve English pedagogy, especially in rural or poorer areas or to make greater use of audio materials, all do-able.

  15. the other Mark P said,

    March 22, 2013 @ 7:07 pm

    knowledge of English won't bring personal betterment on its own and it's not a precondition for personal betterment either.

    Of course it is. It's a precondition for being able to operate in most high level technical, business and science fields.

    Without English you can't read most of the world's technical literature, publish outside your own country (or even inside it, in many cases) and can't be promoted to a position involving meeting foreigners. Lack of English greatly reduces which universities you can go to as well.

    Most of the world knows this to be true. Which is why worldwide most serious students make sure they can at least read English.

    The bit CPPCC deputy is wrong about needing to master spoken English though. For most technical purposes being able to read English is primary, because that opens the technical literature. Being able to understand spoken language usually comes with reading it. You can always get help writing it (for papers, etc). But learning to speak a language is much, much harder and for most is not required.

  16. Mal in China said,

    March 25, 2013 @ 7:38 am

    "Intelligence Research Academy"… seems to be an oxymoron if it relates to the political posturing of Mr Zhang at the meeting. Sure, it will fill column inches in Chinese newspapers and in Chinese blogs and some respondents and nationalists will get anxious or irritated about the demands of some English language curricula in China.

    I work in one of the BIT universities mentioned in the People’s Daily news piece with a link provided in one of the posts above. Most of my work is high-content-based instruction in English but I do have a few speaking and listening classes for non-English Majors. These students are from a variety of disciplines – management, oceanography, IT and Chinese language and literature to name a few. Chinese language is one of the topics mentioned by Zhang and yet many of these particular students want to be translators. So what will happen to them if the few English lessons they have now with a native speaker are reduced or scrapped?

    Zhang “… added that recent “English enthusiasm” in China has taken up a large chunk of educational resources, at a high cost but with little gains.” Where does this ‘large chunk’ come from? More Chinese government cash goes into universities than either primary or secondary schools and into urban rather than rural schools. Add to this the cash-cows of private language schools – some so rich that they are quoted on the stock exchange – and there does seem to be a demand for English language instruction.

    Mr Zhang and his Academy would have been better employed looking at the College English Test (CET 4 and 6) to ascertain if that examination is fit for purpose and the cash-cows that are private language schools.

    If specific universities want to modify their entrance or English requirements, then that is their choice. One obvious example is that university students that get a sports scholarship can show limited ability in English and still get through because for them the bar is set lower (pass grade is 45% rather than 60%).

  17. Peter said,

    March 26, 2013 @ 7:57 pm

    I think a few of the people here reading this article are missing the point. English, as Mr. Zhang is saying, is given too much emphasis.

    For instance, the "Gaokao" includes English as one of the most important subjects to pass, and a lack of knowledge in English will severely limit a student's ability to get into a decent or better college.

    This means that students in poor and rural areas, who are face with a severe lack of quality English teachers, are not on an even playing field with their more affluent and urban cousins.

    What is worse is the English that Chinese students learn won't even give them a modicum of fluency. Not only is this a waste of time, resource, and effort for Chinese students, but there is nothing to gain from this because a lack of the language usage means their English skills will just degenerate over time.

    English or any other foreign languages for that matter, should be an optional subject of study to pursue. This will allow the students a choice to dedicate their time in pursuit of a language or dedicate it to other subjects.

  18. Learn English on Skype said,

    August 10, 2014 @ 7:11 am

    English is taught in many countries as a mandatory subject in school, I do not think it is completely bad, but it definitely is very basic.

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