The equilibrium between English and Chinese may eventually be lost in scholastic admission tests, as Beijing redistributes subject scores.
Currently, the two languages, along with math, have the same weighting. Beijing education authority wants to raise the value of Chinese by shifting points from English to Chinese in college and senior high school entrance exams from 2016, and started soliciting public opinion on the proposal on Monday .
The scheme would also allow high school students to take English exams more than once in pursuit of the best score for college admission.
Currently, Beijing students start English on the first day of primary school, but in the near future, English will not begin before third grade, according to sources with the Beijing Municipal Commission of Education.
WHY THE CHANGE
"The change highlights the fundamental importance of mother tongue in the curriculum,"said Li Yi, of Beijing Municipal Commission of Education.
Li added that the teaching of Chinese will focus more on its relation with other subjects and traditional Chinese culture and legacies.
Though the move is no more than a minor tweak, analysts say it takes a swing at a system that evaluates students by a rigid test system without giving full play to students' unique strengths.
Since early August, a national dictation contest requiring contestants to write Chinese characters upon hearing the words has brought out a strong nostalgia for traditional Chinese culture. The contest was broadcast on national TV and topped the ratings. The Chinese version of the spelling bee is a wake-up call for parents and kids to brush up their mother tongue.
Sang Jinlong, deputy head of Beijing Academy of Educational Sciences, said "the general public are dissatisfied with a school system that gives emphasis to English over Chinese," adding that the change will mean students devoting more time and effort to Chinese.
It was reported earlier that the eastern province of Jiangsu was considering removing English from college entrance exams and classifying English levels with letter grades rather than percentile marks. Shanghai and Shandong are considering similar moves.
English is more than just a school subject in the world's No.2 economy. Placing English at every juncture of education and career development created a huge demand for English tutoring. The language figures prominently in the career of many and has spawned a booming industry teaching students tricks to pass the tests.
The importance of English is self-evident as the economy opens wider to the outside world and is a compulsory subject from primary school to college. This translates into a lucrative industry of test-prep schools and English training programs, which profit from a rising middle class willing to send their children to overseas universities. English is also considered a career plus with government and enterprises.
Passing a national english test is a prerequisite to obtaining a diploma and admission to graduate school. Students take TOEFL, IELTS and other standardized tests to prove their language proficiency.
The Ministry of Education says that there are 50,000 companies specializing in English training, with the value of the market estimated at 30 billion yuan (almost 5 billion U.S. dollars).
Among them is New Oriental Education and Technology Group, China's largest education service provider. The company went public on the New York Stock Exchange in 2006, and has a current market capitalization of 4.15 billion U.S. dollars.
On learning of Beijing's reform scheme, a member of staff at Hampson English, a language training school, said it was unlikely to lead the end of English in a future education system.
"If the points for English are reduced, the exam will test students' ability to think in English and their comprehensive English skills instead," he said.
TEST OR ABILITY ORIENTED
The change in scores will help relieve students from heavy academic burdens and reorient an educational system that has put undue emphasis on test results over acquiring and applying knowledge.
Beijing's educational authority said the change would tackle an entrenched problem in English language learning, namely that students are taught to nail high scores in tests rather than master the language.
English teachers responded to the change with circumspection, saying the weight of English in the total score does not matter as much as reforming English education to help students use the language in real life.
"From primary school to college, it took 20 percent of all my study time to crack English. I also signed up for crammers twice in college to pass an English test required to graduate," said Jiang Bo, an office clerk in Beijing.
"Although I put a lot of time and effort into English, I still have trouble communicating with foreigners, because smooth communication requires understanding of foreign culture and jargon -- things I didn't learn at school."