Why is the Chinese government discouraging learning our language?by Helen Gao / June 19, 2014 / Leave a comment
“Stopping English lessons is the same as building the Great Fire Wall for our internet… It’s a step backward, motivated by political conservatism.” © Rex Pe
In April, I started a job teaching English to two Chinese employees at the Beijing branch of a multinational company. I imagined my students would be recent graduates, around my age, and eager to learn how to actually speak the language they have spent their life studying. It turned out, however, that Ken and Margaret are both in their 40s, hold senior positions at the company, and speak confident English, if slightly accented.
With a firm handshake, Ken, a new hire at the firm, told me he wanted to improve his English pronunciation so that his European colleagues would not “mistaken me as a junior-level employee.” Margaret explained that before “selling my company to international clients, I would like to sell myself.” Both Ken and Margaret stay in the office after 10pm on weekdays to take lessons with me.
Although western culture is still viewed with some suspicion, learning English has long been a national obsession. In wealthy middle-class families, toddlers who have only just begun to babble in Chinese are soon sat down in front of Disney movies and enrolled in bilingual kindergartens. At school, English is taught from a young age and is a required subject on the university entrance exam. Diligent learners like Margaret and Ken continue to pursue English long after school, hoping it will give them an edge in the workplace.
Recently, however, a backlash against English learning has developed. Late last year, education authorities in Beijing said they would downgrade the weight of English in the college admissions process, with the purpose of “reducing academic pressure for high school students.” The announcement was met with many cheers online: some, championing the value of traditional Chinese culture, believe subjects such as classical Chinese and calligraphy deserve more attention than English. Others argue that English proves useful for only a small fraction of Chinese students after university, too few to justify its mandatory status.
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