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Lingua franca

By Patrick Whiteley and Xiao Xiangyi | China Daily European Weekly | Updated: 2011-02-25 14:09

Chinese are learning English on a scale never seen before and the business of teaching is booming

In just a few years, it is theoretically possible that the number of English-speaking Chinese will outnumber the populations of all English-speaking countries in the world, combined. More than 300 million Chinese are studying English, accounting for about a quarter of China's population, according to English First (EF), one of the world's biggest language training institutions.


Lingua franca

In the next five years, all State employees younger than 40 will be required to master at least 1,000 English phrases, and all schools will begin teaching English in kindergartens.

The government is also funding extensive teacher training programs to find new models for language learning and develop new textbooks.

Parents with the means are sending their children - some as young as 2-year-olds - to private language schools that are popping up all over the country. By the time they are 10, the parents hope their children will be fluent.

But despite the major language-learning push, many question whether China's plan to build a massive force of proficient English speakers will come to fruition. According to critics, backward teaching methods, a lack of good English teachers and China's test-orientated education system are to blame.

 Lingua franca

 A United English class in Beijing. More than 10,000 students have passed through the school. Zhang Wei / China Daily

Yang Luxin, professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University and researcher at China's Foreign Languages Research Center, says the quality of teaching is a major problem.

"Despite 300 million Chinese studying English, only a minority can speak English very well," she says. "Chinese students spend a lot of time studying - not just a few hours a week, but a lot more, but the problem is the teaching methods of the teachers and their proficiency in English.

"There is a need for the development of English teacher qualifications so more students will experience interesting and efficient English language learning rather than just for the sake of passing English language examinations."

The quality of English-language teachers is a concern shared by Cleve McKenzie, 36, who arrived in China from Jamaica eight years ago. Like many expats, he scored a job teaching English.

McKenzie was previously a hotel manager, and had no teaching experience, but later discovered a passion for the work. He has since gone through tertiary studies and is now a qualified teacher and operates his own school in Beijing.

"But I don't think you need to be a qualified teacher to teach English. You need passion and dedication," he says. "Unfortunately, a lot of foreign English teachers in China are here for an adventure or are just traveling through on a holiday and don't take the job seriously."

McKenzie says many English language schools just "use foreign faces to make money" and do not train their teachers well.

"Millions of Chinese have the potential to become proficient in English but students must take studying English more seriously than they do," he says.

"It all depends on the way students study. Right now when they study English they are not learning it for real-life situations and using it in daily life."

Joe Christian, who has been teaching English in China for six years, sees major problems in the test-orientated education system.

"The biggest problem for me as a teacher is how I deal with students who for most of their lives have memorized a language for a test rather than actually trying to use that language to communicate," says the American, who teaches at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

"The common thought is English can help you to get ahead in life, but the way in which they are going about learning English does little to help them beyond the test that helps them get ahead.

"That's why you have incredibly smart PhD level people that have studied English for years, have passed high level English tests and can read Shakespeare but can't hold a discussion about it."

Li Yang, founder of Crazy English, which is one of the best-known English language institutes in China, calls for major educational reforms.

"School education in China is examination-orientated and students lack creativity and this is very pitiful," he says. "Most students spend over a decade of learning English and yet they still cannot speak it out, so we need education reforms."

Mary Clark, a qualified high school teacher from Scotland who now teaches at Beanstalk International School in Beijing, says Chinese children are also under huge pressure from their parents.

"The students are forced to put in huge hours. Even their weekends are filled with extra homework and classes," she says. "I've had students who are so tired that they regularly fall asleep with their heads on the desk."

Many Chinese parents want to send their children abroad for a better education and English is a key factor to this dream.

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