Visitors to China need not be worried about language problem
As of now, China has concluded mutual visa exemption agreements covering with 157 countries and simplified visa procedures or arrangements with 44 countries. Comprehensive mutual visa exemption has been achieved with 23 countries, including Thailand, Singapore, the Maldives, and the United Arab Emirates.
China has also decided to extend the unilateral visa exemptions, as a trail, to seven European countries, namely France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and Ireland, for holders of ordinary passports. The unilateral visa-free entry is being widely regarded as China's move toward further opening-up and attracting more overseas tourists. There is reason to believe that many more people in these countries are either working out their travel plans or packing to travel to China, a country known for its beautiful landscapes, unique culture, friendly people and outstanding security.
Those who prefer traveling on their own instead of joining tour groups may be worried about language problems in China. As a lifelong self-guided
who has visited a few dozen countries, I know very well that poor communication can ruin a visit to an alien country. But such people should not worry if they can communicate in English.
Foreign language education used to be a privilege of the rich in China before 1949. After the founding of the People's Republic, when China was on good terms with the Soviet Union, the Russian language was taught as a high school subject in the 1950s and 1960s.
Following the launch and reform and opening-up in the late 1970s, English became a major subject, first in junior high school and then in primary school. At present, English is taught even in some kindergartens. Now that China has a literacy rate of more than 97 percent, with many having received at least nine-year compulsory education, it is safe to conclude that about 1 billion people in China have studied English in school.
Ministry of Education data show that at present, more than 293 million students are studying in nearly 520,000 educational institutions. Since foreign language is a compulsory subject starting from the first year of primary school, we can safely say that nearly 300 million students have learned or are learning at least one foreign language in China. If we include those who have graduated from high school in the past decades but are trying to improve their language skills by attending after-school training institutes, the number can be close to 400 million.
By the time a student graduates from college, he or she should have learned at least one foreign language, in most cases English, for 16 years and passed the English Test Band 4, a national English eligibility test. They can thus communicate in English, or at least understand the language.
For the past few years, about 11 million students have been graduating from universities every year and the country has more than 200 million people who have received higher education, so it is fair to say that about 100 million Chinese can communicate in English.
Chinese students, like their counterparts in other countries, have to spend long hours learning a foreign language. Many have raised concerns whether learning a foreign language is worth the time and effort, with some suggesting that English be removed as a compulsory subject. I don't think such suggestions are likely to be implemented by the education authorities at a time when China is advocating building a community with a shared future for mankind and when English has become one of the most important mediums of communication globally.
So if you have any difficulty while traveling around China, just stop at a street corner, looking puzzled, preferably with a city tourist map in hand, and within minutes, if not seconds, someone will come and say, "Hello, can I help you?", in English.
If that someone happens to be a retired man like me, he could also invite you to a nearby teahouse for a cup of Longjing tea or to a pub for a Martini.
The author is former deputy editor-in-chief of China Daily.