By Emma Lupano
"I grew up during the Cultural Revolution. At that time, it was not possible to study that much. However, my classmates and I were lucky to have a teacher of English coming from Shanghai. Through her lessons and through the stories she told in class, she disclosed a whole new world to us."
Even though English is the centre (and the title) of Wang Gang's best seller and an important part of his childhood, the author from Urumqi spoke Chinese in front of foreign listeners at the Bookworm Festival in Beijing on March 17.
When asked by the audience why, he joked: "Learning English is a life-long experience. I will continue to study it, unless there is another Cultural Revolution. I do not speak it that much, but there is a sentence I learnt very well at school: ‘Long live Chairman Mao'."
In his book, Wang Gang explains how to study a foreign language is a means to understand another culture. "Studying English I did not just learn a language. I learnt about a whole civilization."
His comments came almost two weeks after Wang Xinlu, president of the Shandong University of Chinese medicine and member of the standing committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Committee, tried for the third time to give English language a less important status in education in China.
On March 4, during 两会, the annual session of the National Political Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Committee, Wang Xinlu proposed to erase English from the batch of subjects to be tested with高考, the college entrance examination. Other 30 members of the committee signed the draft.
"Let's completely unleash the exam – Wang Xinlu said to journalists to explain the meaning of his proposal -. To test for a foreign language is fine, to test for ancient Chinese is fine too, but let's encourage students to freely choose which skills to develop. To improve the human kind and to upgrade society we need to promote a diversification of skills."
According to Wang, "in universities, especially in those courses that focus on Chinese traditional culture, a great amount of time is wasted into studying foreign languages. After one or two years, are even 10 percent of those graduates using foreign languages?"
Wang's suggestion, instead of falling on deaf ears as a minor concern compared to issues related to the economic crisis, provoked a wave of favorable comments from the public.
"Unless it is useful for one's profession, generally speaking there is actually no lively environment to practice English here," is the comment a Chinese professor of English called Xiaomei posted on a BBS.
"To see our students putting so much effort into studying English makes even us teacher upset. I really hope that, after the National Political Congress, English will become a secondary subject, to relieve the pressure on our students and to relieve the burden on teachers too," she added.
In a way, the anti-English vague could be a reaction to the "English fever" that heated up China before the Olympic Games and that created a rush to learn the language of Shakespeare in any possible way.
In the last few years, kindergartens in Shanghai and Beijing have started to offer "classes" with English native speakers, while "English corners" have popped up in university campuses as a way to meet 老外, foreigners, and to chat in English with them.
The government took direct measures too. To welcome tourists and journalists coming from all over the world in 2008, new rules required professionals, students, volunteers, sales attendants, taxi drivers and cops to brush up their English – or, more often, to learn its basics at least.
Policemen were sent to study abroad. Sales attendants were given 100 sentences to learn by heart. And taxi drivers were provided with cassettes to listen to in order to exercise while driving in the traffic of the capital.
Unfortunately, efforts don't seem to have paid off that much. And that is not because policemen, sales attendants and taxi drivers are particularly untalented when it comes to foreign languages. As many Chinese people explain it, to study English is just too hard for them. Besides, they say, it is simply pointless.
"My son has poor English. I often tell him that he has to study hard, but then he answers: ‘If I don't go out of China, what do I need English for?'", a 网友 netizen nicknamed E Xin Xiang commented on a BBS.
"I don't know how many people were ruined by the English college examination - a young blogger nicknamed Yang Guang Pu Zhao pointed out on Sina.com -. After studying it for ten years, many people still don't know what they have learnt. Even their pronunciation is bad."
However, despite learning English being considered a very hard task, Chinese explain that a good level of English is necessary to advance in their education system, to enter China's best universities and to secure the best jobs - even if one's profession has nothing to do with foreign languages.
Public disappointment on this matter is so widespread that everybody wants to have their say. The web is full of articles, forums and blogs discussing the issue and quoting one another.
Comments posted on her blog by a fourth-grade female student from the German language department of 北京外国语大学, the Beijing University of Foreign Languages, appeared as a hot topic on many websites around mid March and the student's page recorded more than ten thousands clicks in just one day.
"We don't oppose studying – the girl, nicknamed Xiang Nai Er, wrote-. Studying is a good thing and studying foreign languages and connecting with the rest of the world is an even better thing. But can't we have our own plan and make our own choice?"
"This cannot be a choice made at national level. No other country in the world carries on a system of compulsory courses of foreign languages. This way, the Chinese Ministry of education is behaving like a despot," she added.
But the debate is open.
"If we are able to speak more languages, we can better get along with other peoples – is the opinion of blogger and commentator Hei Xuanfeng -. If we stop studying English, this would take to catastrophic results. China would fall back 100 years."
Li Yang, the creator of "Crazy English", an unorthodox method of teaching the language, shocked many readers with a sarcastic article posted on his blog on Sina.com.
"In spite of the fact that I am a teacher of English, I raise both hands to support the idea to erase English from the college examination. I know it may sound a little crazy, but please listen to my explanation."
"For most Chinese people, studying English is a worthless accomplishment - he wrote -. Erasing this language from the college entrance examination, we would eventually crack down on the threat of English and make everyone go back to reasonable thinking."
Therefore, Li urged, "we must stop teaching English in kindergartens, stop the mythology of English! Everybody resume Chinese language, resume reading, resume math!"
"Even though the entire population does not study English – he argued - our society can still develop and international exchanges can still improve, because who ought, who wishes and who likes to study English can still do it. These talented people will become translators and that will be enough."
"To erase English from the college examination is an action of great historical significance. I firmly support it, Li concluded.
Surprisingly, many of the commentators who quoted his post took it extremely seriously. Perhaps, if their English was better, they would be better trained to catch the subtle British humor hiding underneath Li's words.