You are here:   Home/ Development News/ Education

How do we say "Bye bye" to English

Xinhua, May 27, 2014 Adjust font size:

The glory days of English are fading in China.

Debate still rages over the value of studying English even after the Ministry of Education denied last week that English would be removed from the "gaokao", the national college entrance examination.

Those in favor of its removal say English study should be optional to ease the burden of students, while opponents insist it is a necessary ability for Chinese to understand the world.

The debate started in October last year when Beijing announced a plan to reduce the value of English by shifting points to Chinese in college and senior high school entrance exams from 2016. Other provinces decided that English would be offered to students above third grade (age 9-10) instead of from day one in primary school.

The teaching of English has long reflected changes in China's attitudes to the outside world, starting in 1862 when the Qing government established the first Imperial College of Translators.


When the Opium Wars broke out, with Western powers led by Britain invading China, the Qing government realized that English was fundamental to understanding the outside world.

In 1902, it demanded Chinese students learn English. Even the Emperor took lessons.

During the semi-colonial period, English study developed into cultural imitation. Mission schools in Shanghai required all courses to be taught in English. People imitated Westerners in dress, speech and behavior. Chinese men, still wearing long pigtails, donned suits and spectacles.

Chinese students of English also mastered advanced technologies and ideas of democracy and freedom. Niu Daosheng, author of "The Historic Influence of English on China", wrote that English as a language had successfully brought Western culture and modern civilization to China.


The first decline of English in China came in the 1950s, when the language was painted with political colors.

After the New China was founded in 1949, the government established a close relationship with the Soviet Union and China was isolated by Western powers. The high status of English was overturned as schools only taught one foreign language: Russian.

In 1956, Premier Zhou Enlai called for the strengthening of translations of foreign books to help China's science development. More people were recruited to learn English, French and German. By the end of that year, 23 universities across China offered English as a major.

A decade later, the number was 74. Moreover, English was officially confirmed as the priority foreign language in a plan of the national educational authority in 1964.

However, the education system was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, when English textbooks were full of translations of Chairman Mao's Quotations.


English benefited in the reform and opening-up policy from 1978. Chinese were encouraged to go abroad to study and come back to contribute the country's modernization.

Overseas returnees, who could speak English fluently and see what was going on outside the long-closed country, were viewed as "gilt-edged", drawing wealth and admiration. They were highly sought after in the job market and had influence in all walks of life.

In 1984, English was listed as a priority test subject in the gaokao.

"On the one hand, English was needed to cultivate talents with international vision, and promote China' s openness," said Xiong Bingqi, an education scholar. "On the other hand, English had become a test for selecting talents."

English testing still continues after the school years. Adults also have to pass various English tests at work to win promotions, further qualifications and higher salaries.

As a result, English has become a utilitarian exercise. Private training companies, which teach students tricks to pass tests, have sprung up.

The Ministry of Education says 50,000 companies specialize in English training, with the value of the market estimated at 30 billion yuan (almost 5 billion U.S. dollars).

English classes in school have been criticized for stressing grammar and vocabulary over listening and speaking. Students are taught to score well in tests rather than master communication.

A survey by Shanghai International Studies University revealed that fewer than 5 percent of Chinese who had learned English could communicate smoothly in English without stumbling.

Chu Chaohui, a researcher with the National Institute of Education Sciences, points out that English was long regarded in China's education system as "knowledge", rather than a "language", which undermines principles of language acquisition.


English also stands accused of harming the purity of Chinese language, with terms such as "bye bye" now part of daily speech.

Two years ago, a group of linguists petitioned for the removal of English words from an authoritative Chinese dictionary and inclusion of the Chinese equivalents instead.

The People's Daily, the flagship newspaper of the Communist Party of China, said in an editorial this month that the influx of imported words was harming the purity and health of the Chinese language.

Last year, Beijing decided to cut the value of English by shifting points to Chinese in college and senior high school entrance exams from 2016, sparking concerns among English teachers.

"For some of my students, the enthusiasm of learning English is higher than learning Chinese," said Wu Bo, professor of translation with China Foreign Affairs University," and they think very shortsightedly that it is no more important to learn Chinese."

"Students will treat English as a secondary subject," said Xu Hong, a middle school English teacher. "They will give it less attention and add to the difficulty of our work as the demands of English teaching have not changed."

But others are less pessimistic. Any reform will detract little from the importance people attach to English, said Chen Huiwen, vice president of Beijing No.2 Middle School.

"We will think of making some changes in class, such as focusing more on comprehensive English skills, rather than test results."

A Ministry of Education spokesman said last week that the plan to change the English test in the gaokao is still under consideration, but it will not downplay English education.

Bookmark and Share

Related News & Photos