Languages - The full English is no longer required in Chinese exams

1st November 2013 at 00:00
Nation seeks to quash `mania' for language as Japan goes other way

No one doubts the now unassailable position of English as the global means of communication. But two great East Asian powers are travelling in very different directions as they decide just how prominently the language should feature in their schools.

Authorities in China have revealed their desire to curb what is being described as a "nationwide mania for English" and to instead place more emphasis on the mother tongue. There are plans to reduce or even remove the subject from the gaokao, the Chinese university entrance test, in several parts of the country.

Separate proposals would also see Beijing authorities delay English lessons from the existing starting age of 6 - when children first attend primary school - to the third grade, when they are 8 or 9.

"Learning English has already become `too much of a good thing'," a recent editorial in the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party-run newspaper, stated. "It is time that we pour some cold water on the mania, reversing the tendency of excessive emphasis on English education and learning at an increasingly young age."

But in Japan, the government is doing the opposite. At the moment, children in the country are not taught any English until the age of 10. Even then, it amounts to no more than an hour a week of singing or games, often with form tutors rather than trained English teachers.

Last week, Japan's chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, told journalists that children should be given more English lessons at an earlier age. The education ministry plans the introduction of three hours a week of fully fledged English lessons for all children from the age of 8.

Japanese and Chinese authorities are agreed on the importance of English as it becomes the international language of business, academia, science and trade. But the regional rivals are coming from very different starting points.

In China, the gaokao - the world's biggest exam, with more than 9 million candidates a year - is all-important in deciding young people's life chances. Since its post-Cultural Revolution reintroduction in 1977, English has featured prominently, enjoying equal status with maths and Chinese in the ultra high-stakes test.

There was a need back then, the Global Times said in its editorial, for China to "strike in full force to improve its English education at the beginning of reform and opening-up because of the dire shortage of English-language talents".

The influence of the gaokao led in turn to a huge emphasis being placed on English at all stages of education, with many students learning the language from kindergarten.

"English is more than just a school subject in the world's number-two economy," according to Xinhua, China's official news agency. It said that the subject had now been placed "at every juncture of education and career development", creating a huge demand for English tutoring.

According to the ministry of education, 50,000 companies specialise in English training, with the value of the market estimated at 30 billion yuan, or more than pound;3 billion.

But now some believe enough is enough. Last week, Beijing's education authority revealed plans to reduce the points allocated to the English section of the gaokao from 150, out of a total of 750, to 100. Points for the Chinese section would rise from 150 to 180.

Xinhua presented the scheme as "no more than a minor tweak". But it revealed that Shanghai and the provinces of Jiangsu and Shandong were also considering reducing the emphasis on English in the gaokao, or even removing it altogether in favour of separate tests.

China Youth Daily, the Communist Youth League's newspaper, suggested that policymakers would "walk a road of gradual weakening, perhaps continually reducing its score value and, after conditions are ripe, eliminate English from the gaokao".

It highlighted concerns that, despite the vast amounts of time, money and energy put into learning English, few students end up able to speak the language well. "The point of studying English is to communicate, not to take a test," the newspaper said.

But in a country where a TV dictation contest requiring participants to write Chinese characters has been topping the ratings, the change is also tapping into a popular revival of traditional Chinese culture.

"The general public are dissatisfied with a school system that gives emphasis to English over Chinese," said Sang Jinlong, deputy head of the Beijing Academy of Educational Sciences.

But Michael O'Sullivan, chief executive of Cambridge International Exams, which offers A-level qualifications to a rapidly expanding sector of Chinese students opting out of the gaokao, issues a note of caution.

"The more sceptical in the education world in China say, `Well, we've heard this before. There will be a lot of blue-sky thinking, but then people will step from the brink of real change because it will be too controversial,' " Mr O'Sullivan, who worked for the British Council in China for seven years, told TES. "Gaokao reform has been under discussion for more than a decade, and so far the changes have been modest."

In Japan, there are also concerns that English lessons are not producing fluent speakers. In 2010, Japanese students finished 27th out of 30 Asian countries in English-proficiency university admission tests. But here, unlike China, there is still plenty of scope for increasing the weight given to the subject in schools, in an often insular country.

The Japanese education ministry is taking its inspiration from Taiwan and South Korea, where students begin English classes in the third year of primary school. But there are already concerns about finding the huge number of extra English teachers needed to implement the plan from 2020.

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