Politics and languages

Too Much English? Beijing Reconsiders School Tests

Corte di giustizia dell'Unione europea (Lussemburgo)

Too Much English? Beijing Reconsiders School Tests

Could fear of losing touch with Chinese mean a backlash for English in China?

On Friday, Chinese television audiences watched the final of a national spelling bee competition that has both enthralled the nation and revved up cultural purists worried about the declining ability of many Chinese to write their own language. Now, officials in the Chinese capital are mulling a plan to elevate the position of Chinese in school curriculum at the expense of English.

Starting 2016, the Beijing government is planning to reduce the weighting of English in college and senior high school entrance exams, according to a report from Xinhua. English, Chinese and math currently have the same weighting. Public consultation on the proposal started Monday, said the report.

Sources with the Beijing Municipal Commission of Education said students in Beijing will only start to learn English in third grade, instead of starting English on the first day of elementary school, according to the report. Students can also sit their English exams more than once until they get the best score for college admissions.

The move comes amid a surge in interest in Chinese as the CCTV show “Chinese Characters Dictation Competition” has taken the country by storm since it started in August. As part of its stated mission, the show says it is hoping to reinvigorate interest in Chinese, in part because it sees writing skills deteriorating as young people increasingly communicate by smartphones with Western keyboards.

“The change highlights the fundamental importance of [the] mother tongue in the curriculum,” Li Yi of the Beijing Municipal Commission of Education was quoted by Xinhua as saying.

Jiangsu and Shandong provinces as well as Shanghai are also mulling similar moves to lessen the importance of English in college entrance exams, the report added.

One of the most extreme proponents of the move to deemphasize English in Chinese schools is Wang Xuming, a former spokesman for the Ministry of Education. On his Weibo account, he has been repeatedly calling for English lessons to be dropped in primary schools.

“Save the children, save the Chinese language, save our culture!” he tweets frequently on his account, which has about 1.8 million followers.

“I rarely give recognition to Beijing, but this is not just recognition, this is heartfelt praise,” Mr. Wang said on Tuesday in an interview with state media.

Xinhua was careful, however, not to trivialize the importance of English, which it said is important as China “opens wider to the outside world.” It says that the new measures will simply shift the way English is taught, from a narrow focus on achieving high scores in tests to help students apply what they learn in real life.

But any government-led attempts to play down the importance of English may not make much of an impact in China. It is, after all, a country where the thirst to learn English has spawned companies such as U.S.-listed New Oriental Education & Technology Group, which inspired the hit movie “American Dreams in China”. Xinhua puts the value of China’s English-learning industry at about 30 billion yuan ($5 billion).

“I have a friend who is the same year as me, who went to work for Standard Chartered after graduating because his/her English is good…during the 2008 financial crisis my friend ‘only’ got a bonus of 500,000 yuan. I don’t think there is any subject that is more important than English,” Zheng Chu, a columnist for China’s Time Weekly magazine, wrote on the Twitter-like Sina Weibo microblogging service.

Those who share a similar view to Mr. Zheng’s may take comfort in the result of “Chinese Characters Dictation Competition,” where the winner and the runner-up were two 14 year-old girls from the Hangzhou Foreign Languages School, which has a heavy emphasis on teaching English.

Isabella Steger, October 22, 2013