How to solve the Chinese headache of learning English

Wu Guo asserts that the current piecemeal way of learning English, focusing on exam questions and answers, will not help the Chinese get very far in mastering the English language. Will they be willing to take the longer but likely more rewarding path of appreciating the language in its entirety?
The current issue regarding the learning of English in mainland China is not whether to remove English as a core subject. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)
The current issue regarding the learning of English in mainland China is not whether to remove English as a core subject. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Recently, there is once again widespread reflection about the learning and teaching of English in mainland China. The discussion has centred on whether English should be removed as a compulsory subject in schools and whether English (or foreign languages) should be made a non-compulsory subject in the college entrance exam.

For many years, due to his book Xu Guozhang English (《许国璋英语》), the learning of English has been synonymous with Professor Xu Guozhang, a linguist and English-language educator, although he was widely criticised in the Cultural Revolution. In the years that followed, Li Yang, an English educator who started “Crazy English” (an unconventional teaching method that emphasises the oral practice of English through shouting and hand movements) became popular. Today, tens of billions of renminbi are poured annually into English tutoring at an increasingly young age.

The contrast between the persistence in learning English and the actual standard of English has become a curse in modern China. According to an English proficiency index report cited in a New Weekly magazine article, although the Chinese commit a lot of money and energy into learning English, they rank seventh from the bottom in English proficiency among 46 countries and regions around the world where the native language is not English.

As an undergraduate who majored in English and a bilingual scholar in mainland China in the last century, I have always been concerned about the teaching of English and English proficiency in China. Contracted for ten years for the English translation of Chinese academic papers for the academic journal of the Institute of Modern History, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, I have constantly learned, consolidated and reflected upon the various phrasing, expressions and conversion techniques in Chinese-English translation.

...the biggest problem, is that the teaching and learning of English is exam-centric. They are misguidedly divided into the knowledge of grammar and various “questions”, and are further marred by the “standard exams”.

Limited opportunities to practice English

Existing within two languages and cultures, coupled with long-term observations and personal experience of mainland China’s education and culture, I think the reasons for the unsatisfactory teaching and learning of English in mainland China are as follows:

First, there are few direct opportunities to use English in Chinese society. The concepts behind many imported Western goods and brands must be converted into Chinese names to enhance acceptance by Chinese consumers. However, this hinders English learners’ direct access to live examples of English in daily life, consequently limiting their knowledge of English to the content found within books. This particular feature of the modern Chinese language is different from the direct transliteration and borrowing of English vocabulary in the Japanese and Korean languages, resulting in the reduced presence and usage of English vocabulary in daily life in mainland China.

Pedestrians wearing protective masks walk past a Gap Inc. store in Shanghai, China, on 9 March 2021. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)
Pedestrians going past shop windows in China on 9 March 2021. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)

Second, which I consider to be the biggest problem, is that the teaching and learning of English is exam-centric. They are misguidedly divided into the knowledge of grammar and various “questions”, and are further marred by the “standard exams”. The teaching and learning of English in mainland China are basically focused on exams, including semester exams, entrance exams, promotion exams, postgraduate exams and the necessary exams for going overseas. In this exam culture, students subconsciously equate learning English with English exams, where mastery means good scores. This acutely deviates from the purpose and nature of the learning of a language.

I once came across a publication on preparation for postgraduate English exams, which was filled with many abstract English grammar terms expressed in Chinese. It constantly requires learners to remember these terms, fill in the blanks and make choices, with the aim of getting the “correct” answers. Although grammar constitutes the basics of foreign language teaching and learning, this training method has robbed language of its true purpose of communication, relegating it to a boring, technical concept and a series of fragmented “questions”.

Taking time to appreciate a language in its entirety

The biggest issues are the disregard for language as a communication tool and making it impossible for learners to truly experience the meaning and spirit of the written text in its entirety. Even if the learner could read the entire article with the purpose of rapidly seeking the correct answers for questions related to reading and comprehension, the process is hardly one that brings a sense of relaxation and joy.

People chat as they have lunch at a food court in Wuhan on 13 January 2021. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP)
Having a conversation is the tip of the iceberg of communication in learning a language. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP)

I have found in historical material that some Chinese scholars in the 1930s were able to translate and have their translated works published even though they had not studied in the West. Upon being tutored in the English language in evening schools, they learned by reading complete English novels, newspapers and works on social sciences. They understood the meaning of the text through complete, voluminous readings, through which they improved their overall English comprehension before gaining insights and proceeding to the practice of English-Chinese translation.

In my opinion, it is precisely because their learning of English was not dominated or controlled by the fragmented “questions” and exams, dictated by achieving high scores or manipulated by the need to advance to the next higher grade, that they mastered the English language.

Likewise, some of the Western sinologists who understand the Chinese language may have engaged excellent Chinese scholars as private tutors or have local sinologists to help to analyse the features of the Chinese language based on their own cultures. Other Western sinologists may have Chinese spouses or have experienced living in China for a long time. However, none have mastered the Chinese language by dissecting the language into “questions” and answering them.

Language is spoken, not only written

Third, although China's English-teaching philosophy acknowledges the importance of communication in the learning of the language, and not just that of exams and answering questions, communication is sometimes too narrowly understood as conversation. Some parents seem to think that it would suffice for their children to have a few daily conversations with foreigners. This misconstrues communication as merely chatting or regurgitating greetings, when it entails complex expressions of thought and written communication.

Today, written communication includes composing a proper email and writing a personal statement in a résumé, and oral communication includes reporting verbally and conducting effective classroom discussions. Some Chinese students in the US are still not adept at effectively communicating in English with their departments or professors. This is the consequence of the disregard for communication.

People walk along a street in Shanghai on 5 March 2021. (Hector Retamal/AFP)
According to an English proficiency index report, the Chinese commit a lot of money and energy into learning English but do not get commensurate results. (Hector Retamal/AFP)

Those who emphasise the superiority of artificial intelligence and translation software may have overlooked something. In 2018, when I attended the World Congress of Philosophy at the China National Convention Centre in Beijing, I witnessed a dispute between a Western scholar and the dining facility’s service staff arising out of a sandwich purchase. It was embarrassing as the service staff was totally unable to communicate. I acted as an interpreter, to the rescue of the service staff. I felt then that the level of proficiency of common English usage in China was extremely low, to the extent that dining service staff who could speak simple English was unavailable when the China National Convention Centre was hosting a large-scale international conference.

Instead, the issue is whether to shift away from the utilitarian and fragmented answering of questions and sitting for exams, and to go back to focusing on the full meaning and appeal of the language itself, in order to truly and proficiently communicate.

It may have been better if university students who have learned English volunteered to be service staff. However, with the current perfunctory method of learning English through answering questions, filling in the blanks and making selections in multiple-choice questions, I remain doubtful that a university student could effectively clarify in English in an actual dispute.

The current issue regarding the learning of English in mainland China is not whether to remove English as a core subject. Instead, the issue is whether to shift away from the utilitarian and fragmented answering of questions and sitting for exams, and to go back to focusing on the full meaning and appeal of the language itself, in order to truly and proficiently communicate.

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