Chenglish: Downgrading English in college entrance exams is a costly move

Cheng_Profile_PhMainland China is probably an ideal place to learn anything but English. Okay, those who strongly oppose my hypothesis would cite the sprawling multi-billion-dollar revenue generated by the country's emerging industry of English tutoring, or mention the burgeoning role of the English department at almost every university in the country. Extremists might even argue that mainland schools teach their students nothing more than propaganda. Well, according to an October report released by China's state-run news agency Xinhua, mainlanders who are fluent in one foreign language — that is English or any language other than Mandarin — accounted for less than five per cent of the total population.

If the survey is credible, this would be an amazing achievement of mainland's English education, a compulsory subject from kindergarten to university. The 1.3 billion people are not stupid though, if you also take their mastery of another mandatory subject into consideration. Chinese teenagers triumphing in the International Mathematical Olympiad have brought home 129 gold medals in the past three decades, ranking the first and far-outperforming its closest competitor the United States.

Cheng's Column - Photo Courtesy of Coco Zheng

However, the deficiency, if not a total failure, of English language teaching has not raised alarm with policymakers. In fact, education authorities in places like Shanghai, Shandong, Jiangsu and Beijing – where students outperform their peers in interior provinces – planned last year to reduce the importance of English language teaching in pre-university education. Consultations have been in the first three places over whether to include English scores in the make-or-break Joint College Entrance Examination, colloquially known as Gaokao. More concrete efforts to reform Gaokao have been made in Beijing, where the total English score has been downgraded from 150 to 100, breaking the balance among Chinese, English and mathematics that used to enjoy the same grading scale in the past.

Moreover, the prospects of English education were further clouded after former spokesman for the Education Ministry Mr Wang Xuming posted on Weibo in September last year calling for "saving our mother tongue," as he felt alarmed by children's declining command of and interest in Chinese as a result of their devotion to English. I had no objection towards his self-claimed mission, because it made perfect sense to provide more nutrition to a malnourished kid, namely Chinese. His solution, however, was to cancel English classes in primary schools, grabbing the last bowl of rice from the least healthy child in a family while leaving the overweight brother of sciences with abundance of delicacies.

The paradox is, even though no one in China dares to question the importance of English as a lingua franca, in practice most people never bother to learn the language well. Leading British newspaper The Guardian, whose journalistic professionalism deserves my great respect, has termed the attitude among mainlanders in recent years towards English an "obsession," an expression I certainly cannot agree with because it has never been the case. When my parents went to secondary school in the late 1970s, they both heard this quote from their teachers: "One will encounter no problem in the world after having mastered mathematics, physics and chemistry." Thirty years later, my teachers repeated the same idea to me, clearly demonstrating the societal stubbornness towards the conviction that "sciences and technologies constitute the primary productivity" as articulated by China's paramount leader Mr Deng Xiaoping.

Guided by such science-exclusive education mentality, language teaching has become far less significant as people cannot apply it to practice, say, in the construction of high-speed railways and space shuttles, or to cultivation of crops to feed the giant population. Thus it is scientific knowledge rather than anything else that is regarded as practical skill, profit-making craftsmanship and the most tangible asset that one should acquire from Chinese education system. A politically incorrect pun I once heard went that the best professionals in English could only serve as interpreters in China's Foreign Ministry whereas technocrats could rule the country.

From a practical perspective, the golden rule I observed in my high school was that each time in the monthly mock exam in the run-up to Gaokao, all those top 20 students owed their success to outstanding performance in science subjects. The master linguist who scored the highest in either Chinese or English never managed to break the rule even for a single time, although these two subjects contributed to 40 per cent of the overall score of 750. Such unexplainable phenomenon in the exam-dictated education system further confined students to exam papers filled with bizarre math puzzles, and diluted their motivation to learn English.

If the worrying situation persists, the price China has to pay will be too high. In the short term, downgrading English means that other Gaokao subjects will be given greater priority, leading to more pressure on students. The only merit of English education in mainland China is the unbelievable easiness of passing the exam. I failed the Baptist University admission interview because I literally could not speak English three years ago, but my English grade was only two per cent lower than my classmate who scored nearly full marks on the TOEFL test. In terms of education fairness, students from underprivileged background can only rely on their English grade to narrow their gap with elite students whose competitive edge lies mainly in science-based subjects. Even though the grassroots high-school graduates do not enjoy plenty of opportunities to go on exchange or obtain a decent job, as their English can never reach the standard of Harvard graduate Mr Bo Guagua, it is good enough for them as long as they can get into college and earn a bachelor's degree.

The worst scenario would be the shutdown of English classes in primary schools, which would shatter the fate-changing illusions of those who cannot afford to pay for private language tutoring.

If history is any indication, the lack of willingness to learn a foreign language will eventually lead to egocentrism, complacence and ignorance towards others in the long run. In the late Qing dynasty, or mid 19th century, one of the famous slogans popular in the corrupt empire was to "conquer the barbarians by learning their expertise." The Mandarins never respected the "barbarians"- a derogatory reference to Western people – at least they set up schools, sent groups of students overseas for further studies in hopes that they would on day transform the country. Two of these schools later evolved into two of China's most prestigious universities: Peking University and Tsinghua University. That said, the Chinese government is now sending waves of talents abroad who choose not to return.

As I was concluding this column, my friend on Weibo sent me an update of the famous quote that has stayed unchanged for three decades: "Having mastered mathematics, physics and chemistry is inferior to having a good father." Fair enough, I do not mean to blame my father, but fortunately or not, I do not need to worry about traffic congestion on the road of English learning.


Written by Song Cheng 


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