Mas­ter­ing English an up­hill strug­gle

Lan­guage pro­fi­ciency in China re­mains at a low level, de­spite record in­vest­ment in school pro­grams

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CHINA - By ZHAO XINYING zhaoxiny­ing@chi­

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.

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