According to official statistics (which means they are full of problems) there are roughly 300,000,000 English learners in China. This statistic is being bandied about to show how quickly China is changing, and how the West needs to do more to learn Chinese (which is a point for another day). Yet from the moment you step off the plane, you start to question whether or not 25% of the population really learned anything more than “Hallloow,” “A-What-a is-a your name-a?” and “I’m fine, thank you and you? (with a rapidly rising pitch to indicate the question mark)” and “Chinglish” signs abound as online translators (like Google translate) seem to be the only authority on language.
The number 300 million comes from the total number of students who have completed their compulsory education, which includes more than 6 years of English classes. To me it seems that the gov’t has received a very poor return on the investment.
The problem is that many of these students are studying under substandard teachers, who have only been hired because of the gov’t mandate for every school to have English courses. This is despite the fact that colleges and universities in China are educating an abundance of English majors (with dubious levels of proficiency), “rural English teacher” isn’t what these students hope to become. Due to this lack of proper staffing, rural teachers rely heavily on reading from outdated textbooks.
This recent English campaign seems to suffer from the same deficiencies as the literacy drives of the 50’s and 60’s. At that time a major push was made to teach farmers to recognize 1,500 characters (somewhere between 2,500-3,000 are needed, but that is arguable). The volunteers for this campaign found the rural residents eager learners, and they quickly mastered the material needed for the test. Today the literacy rate is officially ~95%.
However when the volunteers returned to the countryside, they realized that many of the farmers had stopped reading, and had lost virtually all of their character recognition. The problem was that there was little of interest to read. Fei Xiaotong, a Chinese sociologist, argued that these efforts were frivolous when he wrote “From the Soil” in the 1940’s. His reason was that farmers have little need to write and read when practically all of their transactions are in person, and with close acquaintances. He argued that efforts to teach rural peasants was a waste of time because it was not a practical skill.
In some ways, they are both correct. Illiteracy in rural China is still common, as a friend working in Kunming recently told me. She was shocked to see the large number of people unable to understand even a simple survey written in the most basic Chinese.
So why are we surprised to see that English is so quickly forgotten? CCTV offers virtually nothing of interest in English, foreign films are usually dubbed in Chinese, and the censors limit the kinds of English books that reach the mainland. On top of that China’s foreign population is still relatively tiny. Even Shanghai, considered to be one of China’s most international cities, has only 152,000 foreign residents in an area with roughly 23 million Chinese (~.6%). As a result students see English as something only necessary for passing the college entrance exam (高考 gaokao), and not as a tool for moving up in society (this attitude is especially prevalent in the countryside).
For these reasons it can feel that teaching English is a monumental waste of time for the teachers, the students, and the gov’t. Yet this single fact, that English is on the exam, means that experienced Chinese teachers and foreign teachers are desperately needed in China’s interior, otherwise rural students will continue to be excluded from China’s top universities. In Ningxia province the average English score on the exam is 50/120 points, nowhere near the 100 points needed to get into a top school.
I even asked education officials why English is required at all for college entrance, they didn’t seem to grasp the issue. “English is an important language,” they said.
“But only a few people need English for their work, wouldn’t it be better to offer optional classes, instead of forcing millions of students learn a language they’ll never use?”
They stared back blankly, as if I was questioning a sacred law. For the time being, English seems to be a permanent fixture on the entrance exam, but fortunately even the gaokao will someday fade away (or replaced by colleges creating their own exams). Until then, China’s rural poor will rely on substandard teachers, unless you’re willing to help.