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English education in China: An evolutionary perspective

By Li Zhenyu (People's Daily Online)    17:11, April 27, 2020

In today's globalised world, English has become the language of international communication, and has played an increasingly important role in driving China's economic growth and social development. For emerging economies like China, which is playing a growing role in world affairs, the English language is of special significance. Good English proficiency opens doors to greater opportunities and strengthens China's overall international competitiveness.

"Foreign language learning is not simply about learning a second language," said Shi Minghui, a former staff member at the Consulate-General of the People's Republic of China in Toronto and part of China's first generation of English learners after its reform and opening up.

"Ultimately, it is also about learning a fresh pattern of thinking. It is a way for you to discover an entirely new world. You can get a deeper understanding of the nation, the culture and the people by learning the language. English is a powerful tool for you to connect to the outside world."

China and its people understand the critical role the English language plays in being competitive on the global stage, as well as on a personal level.

Coming a long way

English language education in China has come a long way over the past four decades.

1978 was a historic year for the field, as it was made one of the test subjects in China's national college entrance exam. The language has become increasingly important ever since.

In the late 1980s, the College English Test Band 4 and Band 6 were initiated, while the 1990s saw a large number of Chinese students flocking to take tests such as the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) as well as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).

During the 2000s, private language education brand New Oriental became an industry giant, indicating the growing popularity of English and the massive market for English language education in China.

"China has the biggest English education market in the world," said Zou Yimin, a former staff member at China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and founding editor of China's English newspaper China Daily, who became engaged in English language education after retirement.

"Although Chinese people are proud of their own culture and language, they are generally willing to learn about Western cultures and languages."

Starting young

English is a compulsory subject in China's standard national curriculum. Many Chinese students begin learning English at an early age, some even in kindergarten. In general, they receive their first English lessons in the third grade in primary school.

There are estimated to be around 400 million Chinese people learning English, larger than the entire population of the United States. In 2018, the number of TOEFL test takers reached 300,000, ranking first in the world, according to a China.org.cn article on December 28, 2019.

"Chinese students are getting younger, and preschoolers are one of the biggest submarkets for English language education," said Zou.

Many English education chain brands are designed specifically to cater to Chinese children.

While adults find it hard to see clear progress in a short period of time and are often too tired to learn English after work, children do not have these problems. Furthermore, parents are willing to invest a great deal in their offspring's language education and also to supervise them along the way. Chinese parents are willing to pay twice the price for a foreign face to teach their kids than for a seasoned Chinese teacher.

There has also been a clear increase in China's public school international programs that offer English-language AP, IB, and A-Level tracks for Chinese students hoping for overseas education, making TOEFL, IELTS, SAT, GRE and ACT a big submarket.

"A large number of quality native-speaking English teachers are needed in China," said Zou.

Due to this trend, many expats in China are shifting to language tutoring positions, and thousands of foreigners have left their home countries to come to China in search of career opportunities.

With a huge population base, enthusiasm for the English language and decent economic growth, China's English education market will remain the largest in the world and continue to expand.

China's vast English language education market is also a positive contributor to the global economy, creating more job opportunities for people in the English-speaking world while promoting mutual understanding, friendship and cultural exchanges between the Chinese people and those in the English-speaking community.

Remaining problems

Although English language education in China has developed considerably and a large number of Chinese people's English proficiency has improved greatly over the past decades, the English language education industry in China still faces some challenges.

For example, as the market grows and the number of native-speaking English tutors increases, it is getting harder to monitor their quality. Tutors vary in their capabilities and experience. The good and the bad are intermingled. A standard qualification or requirement for English tutors is lacking.

Moreover, as there are many different English testing systems in China, the syllabus is not consistent. Major English testing systems in China include the Public English Test System, College English Test, Test for English Majors, Business English Certificate and English exam for promotion. There is no national benchmark to evaluate the test takers' performance against uniform standards.

Meanwhile, Chinese policymakers have taken measures to address some of the thorny issues plaguing the English language education industry.

For instance, in December 2019, China's Standards of English Language Ability (CSE) was successfully linked to the TOEFL iBT. This arrangement indicates China's ambition to innovate its English language education system, and is designed to enhance the opening and development of English language education in China.

English proficiency has improved substantially in China since the country’s reform and opening up over 40 years ago, but more efforts are still needed in the field if China expects to keep pace with the international community, thus creating more opportunities for native-speaking English tutors.

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Hongyu, Bianji)

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