English in the school system
The majority of children in China begin compulsory English classes in primary school from 6 years of age, although private English lessons in kindergarten are also popular. Tests are particularly central to the Chinese education system and play a large role in shaping the curriculum and teaching methods. The Zhong Kao exam, taken at 15 years old, determines a child’s school fees in senior secondary school. English is a key subject tested on this exam. The competition for scarce slots at leading schools results in intense pressure on children, young adults, and parents to invest their energy in education. In rural areas approximately 40% of children do not complete junior secondary school.
Students who continue to senior secondary school take 3 hours of English classes per week with the objective of passing the Gao Kao, the University entrance exam. 25% of the grade in the Gao Kao is determined by test sections on English grammar, reading comprehension, translation skills, and vocabulary. Preparation for the English section of the Gao Kao begins during junior secondary school with rote memorization, descriptive grammar teaching and word-for-word translations.
At all levels very little class time is spent on everyday applications of English and conversation practice is rare. The result is students with a deep knowledge of grammatical rules who struggle to communicate orally.
In higher education, English is treated as a basic course and represents at least 10% of all degree credits regardless of subject area specialty. All university students have to pass CET-4 (College English Test Band 4) for graduation, with higher requirements for students who major in English.
English at work
In 2009, China passed Germany to become the largest export economy in the world. It is largely due to the importance of exports for the continued growth of China’s economy that English is being promoted so heavily in the education system. The Chinese government is also implementing extensive retraining programs for public servants, delivering English courses to police officers for example, in hopes of growing the fledgling tourism industry.
In 2010 the private English training market in China was estimated to exceed 3 billion dollars. Over 100,000 native English speaking teachers are currently teaching English in China. The ability to communicate in English has become synonymous with better professional opportunities and higher income levels. English is regarded as a key criterion in white collar job hunting. Many companies require candidates to pass CET-4 or CET-6 to receive an interview. Some international companies also demand a higher level of English proficiency proven by TOEIC or BEC scores. However, a large portion of China’s workforce is employed in agriculture and manufacturing and in these jobs no English is required.
Culture and Attitudes towards English
The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games increased the emphasis on English conversation skills for the general public. The government established local offices to help adults learn to speak English during the months leading up to the games. Because hospitality is so highly valued in China, citizens showed great enthusiasm in improving their skills to become better hosts. China seems having stepped into an ‘everyone learns English’ era since then.
English learning materials including English magazines, newspapers, DVDs and TV programs are omnipresent nationwide. Increasing access to the Internet has made English learning more accessible and affordable in the past decade.
However, there are large regional variations in English competency and demand in China. Due to the economic imbalance between regions, the demand for proficiency in English varies greatly from north to south; coastal areas to inland; city to countryside. Urban areas are more open and welcoming towards English. These areas regard English as a key to economic development and a crucial skill for all workers. In contrast, less developed areas do not see an immediate need for English and place less emphasis on acquiring English skills.
Meanwhile, some believe China’s appetite for English is going too far. Every student is forced to study English and has to pass English exams to enter high school and university. Students who have talents in other subjects but struggle in English are refused admittance to higher education. There is also some concern that the emphasis on English could undermine the study of other subjects such as Chinese language and history.
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