28 October 2016
A holistic language learning process is dismantled into a number of isolated courses, namely listening, reading, writing and grammar. Photo: Internet
A holistic language learning process is dismantled into a number of isolated courses, namely listening, reading, writing and grammar. Photo: Internet

English learning with Chinese characteristics

If you are admitted to a university in China, regardless of whatever discipline you choose as your major, there’s one compulsory course that you can’t avoid: English.

The fact is that you can probably play hooky when other courses are taught, but you’d better take English seriously. The reason: If you fail in the national College English Test, you may not be able to secure your Bachelor’s degree, even if you do well in your own major.

By the time young freshmen start their college life, they may probably have spent 12 years learning English already: six years in primary school and then the same amount of years in high school.

Each student is mandated to learn a foreign language, and mostly English, from day one of their compulsory education at the average age of eight. Such policy has been in place since the nation’s reform and opening up in the early 1980s.

China’s total number of English language students and graduates over the years can be equivalent to the entire population of Australia, thanks to ten national-level collegiate foreign language teaching institutes, of which the foremost are Shanghai International Studies University and Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Also, almost all large-scale research universities across the country have their own faculties of foreign languages.

Part of the reason why foreign language studies have become such a fashion is because of Beijing’s paradigm shift in politics and diplomacy.

As China was keen to draw in investments from the Western World following economic liberalization moves since the 1980s, grooming of English graduates has been given more significance. In the earlier era, Russian was the most popular foreign language at tertiary institutions due to Beijing’s old alliance with Moscow.

With a changed focus, Communist cadres developed genuine fascination with English as they saw the language as a sign of sophistication and international status. They wanted every public sign to be bilingual and they also like to have an English name for everything, be it an official personal title or an international name for a key vanity project.

This helped English language classes take off in China.

Now, given the new thrust, one would assume that the younger generations born after the 1970s would have a fairly decent working knowledge of English.

But as anyone who has ever traveled in the mainland knows, that is not the case. Most people still give blank looks when asked a question in English.

Meanwhile, we also see the outright murder of the English language in things such as public signages, government gazettes or restaurant menus.

So, what went wrong with China’s state push of foreign language education, in particular, English?

To know the answer, you need to take a look at the syllabuses for English majors, where you’ll realize that the holistic language learning process has been broken into many isolated courses.

Students still need to take a compulsory English listening course six to ten hours per week when they already have adequate access to audio and video learning resources themselves. In this situation, many students simply give up practicing listening outside the classroom.

Similar is the case with a separate reading course, which should have been incorporated into writing classes.

Also, excessive emphasis is put on grammar in preparation for the mandatory Test for English Majors, a graduation prerequisite. Yet the standardized test does not have any assessment on verbal expression. Ergo, undergraduate students generally fail to receive any systematic training in oral and conversational English skills until the last two years in their study.

“Just like how other subjects are taught, the only goal is to score high marks in tests and exams and so learning English in this country is a thing with Chinese characteristics,” said a PhD candidate in English at the Shanghai International Studies University.

Students may not be able to allocate more time for English in their senior years either, as they are required, on a compulsory basis, to learn another foreign language, usually French, German, Japanese or Korean, and it is also a degree prerequisite.

One wonders how an English language student, already grappling with graduation dissertation and job-hunting, will have any energy left to learn another entirely new language from scratch within a period of just one to two years.

The only outcome, as we have seen in the case of numerous graduates, is that the students master neither English nor a second foreign language.

It’s a shame that long years of language classes and countless official funding initiatives have failed to yield the desired result. If one needs to point fingers, it’s mostly the rigid government mindset.  

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Virtually all students in China are taught English for more than ten years by the time they leave high school, but the results are far from satisfactory. Photo: Internet

Beijing Foreign Studies University, one of the most prestigious foreign language education institutes in China. Photo: BFSU

EJ Insight writer

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