Dec 31, 2013

China - English fever cools in post-Olympic China

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After an enthusiastic bid to learn English in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games, China's ardour for the language, it seems, has cooled considerably.

The Beijing municipality said it might downgrade English for the city's key college entrance exam - or gaokao - in 2016. Meanwhile, the education ministry is suggesting removing it entirely from the gaokao by 2017.

The changes reflect concerns that while Chinese students invest huge amounts of time and effort in studying English, few are able to use it well.

They also show a rising confidence in the currency of Chinese as an global language, after the country's three decades of rapid economic growth.

While some parents are worried this might hurt their children's proficiency in English, Qin Ping, whose 16-year-old son is taking the exam in two years, said she welcomes the move.

"His English grades are above average but they are not top of the class so he can spend more time on subjects he is better at," said Qin, a 40-year-old who works in the clothing industry.

In October, Beijing, for instance, said it plans to make the English test in the Chinese capital's gaokao easier, while reducing its weightage and raising the importance of Chinese instead. Earlier this month, the education ministry also said English will be removed from the gaokao in 2017.

China's experience mirrors that of Singapore, where parents have called for the mother tongue to be given less weight, or to be made optional in computing the Primary School Leaving Examination score.

Many Singaporean children are strong in other subjects but weak in mother tongue, and find the subject highly stressful. But Singapore's education ministry has rejected the idea on the grounds that making it optional will lead to pupils not taking it seriously.

Chinese observers and parents alike are split in their view of this policy shift. Some worry that a reduced emphasis will result in poor English proficiency and hurt the ability of young Chinese to interact with the rest of the world. But others note that with China's economy booming, English might not be crucial to the careers of many students.

Education scholar Cheng Fangping of Renmin University told The Straits Times the changes do not mean the government is attaching lesser importance to English. Rather, he said, it is improving its assessment methods and bringing them line with global standards.

"It's rare for a foreign language to be given equal weight as the native language in an exam so the emphasis on English has become burdensome," he explained.

Under Beijing's plan, the English section of the exam, which now counts for 150 points out of a total of 750, would be reduced to 100 points. The Chinese section would be raised from 150 to 180.

Cheng said he doubted that changing the weightage of English would compromise English standards in China in the long run.

"There are still many tests that assess a student's English skills. And even though English is in the gaokao now, many still can't use it well. Part of the problem is the way it is taught by rote," he said.

The People's Daily, mouthpiece of the Communist Party, said on its Twitter-like Weibo account in October that Beijing's gaokao reform plans are a sign that "a rising China should treat English reasonably and be confident about its own language".

Some parents share the view that English has enjoyed inordinate emphasis at the expense of Chinese.

"Many young people born after the 1990s can't even write Chinese characters well," said Li Yangcun, 43, an employee of a Beijing technology firm whose son will take the gaokaonext year. "It's better to work on that first before venturing to English."

But while parents cheered the prospect of less exam stress for their children, many want English to stay part of the curriculum.

"China's importance is growing but English is an international language and important if you want it for communicating with the world," Qin said.

Esther Teo

The Straits Times

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