Language barrier

New signs that English has hit its peak in China?


The city is de-emphasising English

Children at schools across China will be pleased that policymakers are asking head teachers to cut back on their homework. Mandatory study of ‘Xi Jinping Thought’, starting in primary school, might be less cause for celebration. But the government is clearly concerned about the academic pressures on students – hence its campaign against the private schools that offer extra tutoring (see WiC551). The aim is twofold: reduce some of the workload stresses for kids, as well as reinforce the primacy of the state as a provider of education.

Against this backdrop there is the question of where the teaching of English is going to fit in – a subject that many students find frustrating and which, by its very nature, is viewed as potentially ‘pro-foreign’ in every sense.

One possibility is that the teaching of English will be downgraded in importance. This month the education authorities in Shanghai announced they were dropping it from the list of examinations in the final two years of primary school, leaving only Chinese and mathematics. “It is necessary to integrate Chinese traditional culture, revolutionary culture and advanced socialist culture into elementary and middle school education,” the government’s notice said by way of explanation.

Some parents were happy with the announcement because they want more emphasis on Chinese and maths. But others questioned the wisdom of the move, especially as pupils are expected to be examined on their English capability at the end of middle and high school.

“This move is fine if you also cancel English as a gaokao subject as well,” one parent warned.

China reduced some of the importance of English in the gaokao (the national set of college entrance exams) in 2013 but a suggestion by a legislator that it be removed completely was met with pushback by state media earlier this year.

“Learning English is not ‘self-belittling’,” the China Youth Daily remonstrated, picking up on the legislator’s own dismissive terminology. “English is the universal key that helps China and the Chinese go out into the world. And no matter how excellent our own cultural treasures are, we must also establish good channels and platforms for our exports,” it said.

At the same time it is undoubtedly true that many Chinese are reevaluating the need to excel in English – after years of what academics have dubbed ‘English Fever’.

Twenty years ago it seemed everyone wanted to learn the language: children of all ages (hoping to go to university abroad); adults who hadn’t been given the chance to study it themselves at school; and even pensioners who wanted to pass the time acquiring a new skill.

When Beijing was granted the 2008 Olympics there was an additional spur to take to the textbooks – even the capital city’s notoriously earthy taxi drivers were sent on courses to learn a few English pleasantries with which to greet tourists.

However, in signs of a reversal of some of that enthusiasm this month, newspapers reported the closure of the Wall Street English chain. The company came to China in 2000, just as English learning was exploding, and it grew its network across eleven major cities. Despite high fees, it dominated the market, along with EF English, Web International English and Meten English. Of the four educators, only EF English remains – and its situation is reportedly precarious as well.

The four faced the same challenges as many of the online education platforms ­– having recently been blocked from selling courses to younger people. Traditionally, however, the four English language tutoring schools had focused more of their offering on adults. Here they faced more of a structural shrinking of demand. Unlike two decades ago many adults had already learned some English at school. Others have come to realise just how hard it is to learn a new language later in life and now balk at investing money and time in English courses. Wall Street English was founded by Luigi Tiziano Peccenini in 1972. It opened branches in almost 30 countries around the world before the Italian sold them all to concentrate on the brand in China. In 2005 he sold that business too and it changed hands several times before returning to Peccenini earlier this year at a “deep discount”. It is unclear what plans, if any, the 80 year-old now has for the brand.

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