GUANGZHOU, May 20 -- For the second time, Beijing citizen Jiang Hai took her 4-year-old son to the annual Beijing Foreign Language Festival, hoping the environment get her son interested in the language.
"When he grows up, he will definitely have to communicate with foreigners. I hope he learns English as early as possible," Jiang told Xinhua during the festival last weekend.
The festival, which started in 2002, emphasizes communication, interactivity and the practical use of foreign languages.
To try to teach the little boy English, Jiang tells him stories in English and teaches him English words at any time and any place.
For many years, English has been considered one of the three most important subjects in Chinese school, along with Chinese and Math. Most provinces and cities offer English classes from elementary school, but the tradition of emphasizing English appears to be on the wane.
In Beijing, the value of English will be reduced to 100 points from the current 150 in the college entrance exam in 2016. Provinces like Jiangsu and Shandong are also reported to be downplaying English's role. Despite this, more and more parents like Jiang are urging their kids to start learning at an early age.
Wang Xue, event director of an English school for learners as young as 4 years old, said the company has been expanding due to the strong demand from parents, as some parents believed English should be taught as early as possible.
"More and more parents were born in the late 1970s or 1980s. Compared to their parents, they knew English and some have studied abroad, so they attach more importance to children's English learning," Wang said.
The cost, however, is high. A survey late last year by Beijing Foreign Language University showed that in 2012, Chinese parents spent 14 billion yuan (about 2 billion U.S. dollars) on their kids' early English education.
According to Wang, the fee for one hour of native speaker's class is around 130 yuan, adding up to about 20,000 yuan for a one-year program. Some schools even offer program worth 40,000 yuan, in which kids are taught one to one by an English native speaker.
Li Wei has had his 7-year-old son in such English programs for four years. In Beijing where the average annual disposable income is 40,000 yuan, he said the money is well spent.
"All my friends are sending their kids to English training centers, so I don't want my son to lag behind. Besides, English is a useful tool that he will use when studying abroad," Li said.
For native English speakers in China, Chinese parents' passion means more opportunities. Jasmine Briggs, who is from England and began teaching English in China in February, said she was impressed by Chinese parents.
"I have read about Chinese parents' passion about their kids' English learning before I came here, now I find it's definitely true," she said. "The parents are eager to get suggestions. They ask me questions like how to raise kids' confidence in speaking English, or how to improve the English after class."
"I know that they have to spend a lot of money on this, but I think it's worth it, because what they will get is a lifelong skill for kids," she added.