As the emphasis on learning English across many of China’s schools is decreasing, some experts are beginning to question why and how Chinese people are actually learning the language.
Some 300 million people are studying or have studied English in China, according to estimates by China Daily, as a heavy emphasis has always been placed on learning the language for students passing exams and graduates seeking high-paying jobs.
Yet, as the country’s economy shifts, many Chinese people are finding new job opportunities that don’t require English, according to the Wall Street Journal, and some experts are blaming an overemphasis on English in Chinese schools for contributing to “an erosion of Chinese skills in young people”.
“We may be on the brink of a change of status in relation to English in China,” David Graddol, a Hong Kong education consultant and author of a recent book on English in China, was quoted as saying in WSJ. “In the past, the main driver of English has been the need to pass national exams. In the future this may decline,” he said.
Recently, in fact, the former spokesman with the Ministry of Education posted comments on Weibo calling for English classes in elementary schools to be canceled so that there could be more time for Chinese lessons.
“These years, so many people are learning English but our Chinese language proficiency is degrading quickly,” one netizen said in response to the post.
Recently, the Beijing Education Examinations Authority also announced that less weight would be placed on English scores in the notoriously tough gaokao college entrance exams starting in 2016.
Schools in provinces like Shandong and Jiangsu are considering similar test changes as well.
However, with the shift of learning English in schools becoming less test-oriented, overall communication may actually improve, as less pressure to teach for exams will “free up” teachers.
“They will get better at setting up classes that promote English classes centered on communication not examinations,” Linqi Tang, a director at the Beijing office of the British Council, was quoted as saying in WSJ.
The market for English-language training was worth at least 46.3 billion yuan (7.5 billion USD) in 2011, according to research by the Beijing Zhongzhilin Information Technology Ltd, and while private English schools and private tuition companies might be at stake, not all all worried:
In a recent conference call with investors, New Oriental [Education & Technology Group] president Louis Hsieh said the reallocation of gaokao points to Chinese and mathematics away from English was “obviously not a positive development for New Oriental.” But he said the changes wouldn’t affect the company “too much” because English enhances employment chances. “… how are these people going to find jobs if they don’t speak English?” asked Mr. Hsieh.