- By Liz CarterLiz Carter is assistant editor at Foreign Policy's Tea Leaf Nation. She lived for several years in Beijing, China, where she wrote and translated three Chinese-English textbooks and studied contemporary Chinese literature at Peking University. Since returning to the United States, she has co-authored a book on subversive linguistic trends on the Chinese Internet and been interviewed about developments in China by the Christian Science Monitor, Forbes, the Washington Post's WorldViews, and PRI's The World.
Interest in learning Chinese may be growing in the United States, but English-language studies in China could very well be on the wane.
On Oct. 21, the Beijing Municipal Education Commission, the organization that decides what students in the city study, proposed a series of reforms to the gaokao, China’s all-important national higher education entrance examination, which would reduce the weight the test places on English-language ability. The state-run Xinhua news agency confirmed that other potential changes included postponing English-language education until the third grade (Beijing students currently begin studying English as soon as they enter primary school). Initially, these reforms would target the Beijing version of the test. But what happens in Beijing is often a bellwether for the rest of China.
Beijing’s gaokao currently allocates 150 out of 750 points to English-language ability, putting it on par with Chinese and mathematics, regardless of whether a student plans on using English in the future. Perhaps that’s why a survey conducted by Sina, one of China’s largest online news portals, found that 72 percent of approximately 35,000 respondents supported the contemplated changes to the gaokao. Many simply found English useless in day-to-day life. "It should have been changed long ago," wrote @MsVeggie, a user of Weibo, China’s Twitter. "We’ve studied English for so many years, but how often do we really use it?"
Others thought that deemphasizing English education was a bad idea. "My English isn’t great, but I still don’t think they should make these changes," wrote one Weibo user. "It’s good they’re placing an emphasis on Chinese language and literature, but China’s development is dependent on working with other countries and studying advanced concepts from the West. If you are going for your master’s or Ph.D., you have to be able to read English texts, and you need English for international communication."
As China continues to promote Chinese studies abroad by offering scholarships and establishing Confucius Institutes at foreign universities, some of China’s provinces have moved to deemphasize English education; northeastern Shandong province, for example, will eliminate English listening comprehension from its version of the gaokao starting in 2014. Reacting to the news, one Weibo user mused, "Is this a sign of the rise of the East and the decline of the British and American empires?"
Given that English education is still compulsory for Chinese public school students, it’s premature to see the fall of Western civilization in a few proposed tweaks to China’s education system. But Americans and Brits may at least want to start perfecting their ni hao‘s.