China Considers Dropping English as Core Subject, Again

By Joshua Cawthorpe, March 10, 2021

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A proposal at the Two Sessions to remove English as a compulsory subject for primary and middle school students has resulted in a fierce online debate on the value of the language in today’s China. 

National Committee member, Xu Jin, made the proposal on March 4 on the basis that less than 10% of university graduates use English for work, according to China Daily.

READ MORE: Just What Exactly Are the 'Two Sessions'?

Xu suggested that more emphasis should be put on physical education, music and art. Additionally, he argued that technology like AI real-time translation software will eliminate the language barrier and translators will be a profession that is soon eliminated.

Netizens and experts against the proposal contest that learning English helps students develop critical thinking and cultural awareness. Authorities in China have maintained their position towards openness on the global stage, and many critics see the removal of English as a step backward in this pursuit.

Removing it as a compulsory subject would also require the gaokao, the national standardized university entrance exam, to be revised. The gaokao was previously separated into four parts: Chinese language, Math, English and a choice between either Science or Humanities. Reforms to the gaokao resulted in more flexibility with elective subjects and specialized sciences, but the core three remain the same, according to World Education Services (WES).

The gaokao, which takes place over three days in June, is already a source of controversy as the pressure to achieve a high score is enforced from a young age and gaokao-related suicides have made headlines in recent years. Students who do not get high gaokao scores and cannot obtain a university degree are often trapped in low-paying jobs with little opportunity for upward social mobility.

A crowd waits outside for students to finish a portion of the ‘gaokao.’ Image via Wikimedia

As of press time, the hashtag related to Xu’s proposal had been viewed more than 140 million times on Weibo. A poll conducted by China Youth Daily found that 43% of respondents supported its removal while 48% believe English is crucial to globalization. Many Weibo users pointed out that scientific papers were largely published in English.

According to Statista, English is the most spoken language worldwide with just under 1.35 billion speakers, while Mandarin Chinese ranks second with 1.12 billion.

One Weibo user said that learning English was more beneficial for finding work than studying calculus or classical Chinese poetry. However, many netizens lamented the focus on test-taking English and grammar, suggesting that it should become more focused on oral communication with a lower level of difficulty.

A common theme in the comments section of a China Newsweek Weibo post was the concern that ‘elite families’ who could afford extra-curricular English classes would gain another unfair advantage in the highly competitive education system.

After a 12-year hiatus due to the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping brought back the gaokao in 1977. As part of the ‘Reform and Opening Up,’ Deng’s first rendition of the gaokao included an English exam, according to BBC. The English language then became a compulsory subject for schools in 2001 — the same year that China joined the World Trade Organization. 

Since then, proposals to scale back its importance have been common.

During the Two Sessions in 2014, Chinese officials proposed to lower the portion of the total gaokao score or remove English from the exam altogether. Instead of removing the foreign language, the Ministry of Education allowed the English portion to be taken twice during the year, with the higher score submitted to help relieve pressure from students come June.

Then again in 2017, a Chinese lawmaker and director of Yuhua Education Group (a publicly traded company valued at just under HKD3 billion) called for English to become one of the elective subjects on the gaokao, Global Times reported.

The English requirements, which can affect admission to notable middle and high schools, have led to a booming for-profit English education industry. Among countries worldwide, Chinese students attend university overseas by a massive margin. According to UNESCO, China sent just under one million students to study abroad in 2018, while North America and Western Europe combined sent 766,383 students abroad.

english-teacher-disney.jpgAn English teacher at now-defunct Disney English. Image via @五彩猫儿Jenny/Weibo

A report on the English Language Training market in China speculates a compound annual growth rate of USD69.5 billion from 2020-2024. 

In December 2019, WES reported that some 400,000 English teachers were employed in China, some working illegally despite government efforts to lift and enforce standards. These numbers have most likely decreased since the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

READ MORE: China Proposes Stricter Guidelines for Foreign Teachers

[Cover image via @薛小姑凉哎/Weibo]

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