Mastering English an uphill struggle
Language proficiency in China remains at a low level, despite record investment in school programs
Liu Jian started learning English while in middle school at age 13. It was a compulsory subject, and he took classes in it every day.
He continued to learn the language in high school and college, until he began a master’s degree program in 2009.
Now, at age 30, he says he is still not confident in his English ability.
“To be honest, I worked very hard when learning the language at school and got satisfactory test scores,” said Liu, who works at a State-owned petroleum company.
“But I still need to look up words in dictionaries when I read English books. I can’t speak fluently and confidently when I have to talk with a native English speaker. And what’s more, I sometimes can’t understand the English news on TV.”
Liu’s feelings are typical for people his age. In the sixth English Proficiency Index, recently published by Swedish education company Education First, China ranked 39th out of 72 countries and regions.
The level of English proficiency among Chinese remains at a low level globally and lags behind a number of other Asian countries such as South Korea and Japan, according to the report.
Younger starting age
Despite China’s low ranking in the Education First report, Chinese have historically spent a lot of time and money on learning English.
A report by Shenzhen-based consultancy CIConsulting showed that with almost onefourth of its population learning the language, China is the world’s largest market for English education.
The report said Chinese people spent 30 billion yuan ($4.3 billion) on learning English in 2013, a figure it projected would increase by 15 percent each year.
A series of regulations released in 2001 by the Education Ministry called on the nation’s primary schools to start teaching English in the third grade. That is earlier than Liu and his peers began learning, but in reality, many schools in first-tier cities such as Beijing begin English courses even earlier, from the first grade.
Parents are also keen on having their children learn beginning at younger ages.
A survey by First Leap, an English-language education institute for Chinese children aged 2 to 15, showed 88 percent of parents choose to send their children to study English before age 5, because of the belief that children are better at picking up languages between 3 and 5 years old.
Why, then, has China had such seemingly low returns on its investments? It is a question Chinese educators have pondered for years.
Han Baocheng, an English professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, who is also deputy director of the National Research Center for Foreign Language Education, has called for a closer look at the textbooks and teaching materials used in schools.
He said most textbooks teach only “survival English”, such as introductions, shopping and asking for directions, which are useful for studying abroad.
But for students in China who seldom have the opportunity to practice such English in their daily life, this content is impractical, according to Han.
Learning from others
Christopher McCormick, senior vice-president for academic affairs at Education First, said a dominant test-oriented learning approach, in which both teachers and students pay more attention to memorizing vocabulary and grammar, may have undermined English learning among Chinese.
He compared the situation in China with Sweden, which has consistently placed highly in Education First’s annual rankings. Although the official language of Sweden is Swedish, many residents can also speak English fluently, McCormick said.
Sebastian Magnusson, an information officer at the Swedish embassy in Beijing, said the high English proficiency of Swedes might be the result of an immersion approach to learning the language.
The 31-year-old started learning English when he was 10, and now he can speak fluent English and has also mastered Chinese.
“In Sweden, people learn English not only with textbooks or courses at school but in daily life, such as through TV programs, computer games and movies imported directly from English-speaking countries like the United States, without the help of Swedish subtitles or translations,” said Magnusson, speaking in Chinese.
Such an approach might likewise help Chinese learners to improve their level of English, he added.
To help achieve better teaching and learning of English in China, a series of reforms have been drafted and carried out in recent years, including a reform of the English test in the national college entrance exams, reform of the college English curriculum and tests and a reform to establish a unified national English proficiency testing and rating system.
As it’s still early for such reforms, the effects remain to be seen. But McCormick is positive about developments in Chinese people’s English proficiency.
“It takes a long time to make a difference in education and see the results,” he said, adding he finds the progress being made by younger people, particularly those aged 18 to 25, encouraging.
“Things are heading in the right direction and the youth of China are speaking better than ever before.”
Important moments for English learning in China over the past four decades:
1978: English became one of the subjects tested in the the national college entrance exam, which resumed in 1977. English learning has gained in importance ever since.
1982: a television program made by the BBC that provided a crash course in English learning, was broadcast on China Central Television and attracted large audiences. Viewers learned by following conversations and imitating pronunciation.
1987: College English Test Band 4 was launched in China’s institutions of higher education. Two years later, College English Test Band 6 was also introduced. To encourage language learning, some colleges and universities
Students at the No 4 Primary School in Changxing county, Zhejiang province, perform during the school’s English drama festival.