Written by Shuai Zhao.

It is possible that 2013 will be remembered as the beginning of a fundamental shift in the way China views the English language. The decision, publicized in October, by Beijing’s education authorities to reduce the weighting of English in the annual college admissions test, the gaokao, provoked a predictably fierce debate over its implications for the English language learning ability of China’s brightest students.

According to Beijing’s reform plan, the scores for English will fall from 150 points to 100 points, although the maximum score for listening ability will rise to 30 points. For Chinese language ability, the total scores will increase from 150 to 180 points. In fact, education authorities in provinces such as Shandong and Jiangsu are reportedly considering scrapping English altogether.

Earlier in the year, some elite Chinese universities removed the English test requirements from its entrance examinations for science subjects. And in November, the Communist Party’s Central Committee called for the separation of the college recruitment process from the testing system in a move away from the inflexible, test-oriented approach that has long ruled Chinese education.

The changes mark a positive step forward for China. As someone who researched a PhD in second language acquisition, focusing on the academic writing of Chinese postgraduates in the UK, I have long argued the need for a different approach.

The reduction in weighting of English in the gaokao does not reflect the diminishing importance of the language in China. Rather it signals an assertive move to change the way it is taught and, crucially, learnt.

With English a key component of the ultra-competitive gaokao, a booming market has sprung up around English education in which students are taught the tricks of the trade to pass the tests. This lucrative industry of test-prep schools and English training programs profits from a rising middle class desperate to send their children to overseas universities.

Passing a national English test is a prerequisite to obtaining a diploma and admission to universities abroad, and students take TOEFL, IELTS and other standardized tests to prove their language proficiency.

According to the Ministry of Education in China, there are 50,000 companies specializing in English training, with the value of the market estimated at 30 billion yuan ($4.9 billion, 3.6 billion euros). China’s largest education service provider, the New Oriental Education and Technology Group, went public on the New York Stock Exchange in 2006 and enjoys a current market capitalization of $4.15 billion.

Parents and students have poured vast amounts of time and money into studying English. Yet, with such an emphasis placed on rote grammar learning, students in China continue to struggle to communicate with native English speakers. This is hardly surprising since smooth communication requires an understanding of foreign cultural references, jargon and mannerisms, skills that are not factored into the English syllabus in China.

As the Chinese tabloid daily Global Times said in an editorial, learning English has become “too much of a good thing”. It continued: “English education and training has become institutionalized, forcing Chinese people to learn by rote for the sole purpose of passing various exams. Its constructive significance of enlightening and activating the minds of Chinese people has been largely ignored.”

These shortcomings are often exposed when Chinese students continue their education overseas, particularly for those taking humanities subjects where greater emphasis is placed on essay writing. From personal experience, many also struggle to understand lectures and participate in group discussions.

Only a few Chinese postgraduates come to the UK without first taking private English classes at a cost of around 2,000 or 3,000 euros. But these courses have their limitations, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that some students buy certificates on the black market.

The amendments to the gaokao will not serve to devalue the language in China. This is not the beginning of the end of English in China’s future education system. Chinese students who wish to study and travel will still focus on learning English but, free from the burden of rigid testing, they will be able to concentrate on improving their oral and listening skills, developing their critical thinking in English and reading books.

Indeed, the proposal by the Beijing education authorities to raise the emphasis on listening to 30 percent of the overall English gaokao mark displays welcome foresight. It could be higher still though, with greater emphasis placed on speaking ability.

The gaokao decision will reorient an educational system that has put undue emphasis on test results over acquiring and applying knowledge. High school students have been spending too much time studying English to pass exams, even though only a minority will actually move to study or work abroad, or use English in their jobs.

While a drop in the English-study workload is good news for students, the change will also benefit English teachers, who have come under extreme pressure to ensure their students achieve the best possible examination results.

When it comes to Chinese students’ English ability, it is not all doom and gloom of course. An increasing number of native English-speaking teachers coming to China to work are helping Chinese improve their communication skills in English.

Furthermore, only 35 years have elapsed since the reform and opening-up period ushered in by Deng Xiaoping. China has a lot of catching up to do with some of its Asian neighbors.

English is not regarded as a second language in China; it is a foreign language. In contrast, English in Malaysia, Singapore and, of course, Hong Kong is an integral part of society and young people grow up with its influence on their culture.

A recent study by global education company EF Education First showed that China had recorded a 3.2 percent increase in English proficiency over the past six years, although its rate of progress is lower than Indonesia and Vietnam. Perhaps this should be expected given the sheer size of China’s population. However, in Asia only the EF English Proficiency Index of Thailand and Kazakhstan is lower than that of China.

Some may argue that China’s education system has nothing to fear. After all, the results of international tests in maths, reading and science run by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development put Shanghai top of the global list.

The Pisa tests, which are taken every three years by half a million 15-year-old pupils in 65 countries and local administrations, show Shanghai comfortably outperformed the rest of the world in all three subjects.

But taken at face value, these results overlook the weaknesses in China’s education system, which threaten to hinder the country’s drive towards a truly innovative, knowledge-based economy. Indeed, they arguably bolster the idea that memorization and the ability to perform well in a test environment are valued more than the ability to think or question.

So while the world admires China’s, or at least Shanghai’s, exam prowess, China’s policymakers continue to debate how to move away from a test-heavy system. A shift in the way foreign languages are taught is a welcome start.

Shuai Zhao is a Mandarin teaching fellow in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham. A version of this post appeared in China Daily Africa on Dec 20.


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