ME SPEAK PRETTY ONE DAY: ENGLISH AND THE GAOKAO
By Victor (Yifan) Ye
As of this writing, a nation-wide trend to deemphasize English in the Chinese education system has ignited fierce debates among teachers and the Internet community.
In November 2013, Beijing education authorities announced that the Chinese language section of the Beijing gaokao will be boosted from 150 points to 180 points. Conversely, the English language section will be decreased from 150 to 100 points by 2016. Two weeks after this move, the Ministry of Education released their own draft reform plan for the gaokao, making it clear that English language will not be a part of future exams. Some officials have claimed that the reform is meant to reflect national pride; others say that the current education system wastes resources on an inefficient English sector. However, each of the arguments levied against maintaining the English subject exam in the gaokao rests on flawed assumptions.
Before I discuss these arguments, the proposed change’s full impact on English education in China must be noted. The importance of the gaokao in the average Chinese’s life cannot be overstated – it is the only route to college education in China. Gaokao subject scores determines which field Chinese students study in college. If English is removed as a formal gaokao subject, Chinese students will almost certainly not study English at the current intensity that they do now. Of course, students who hope to study abroad will continue to pursue a higher level of English comprehension. Still, the general English ability of average Chinese students will significantly drop in the following years to the detriment of Chinese students and academics.
The Practicality Argument
The gaokao reform draft has triggered a debate about what other subjects should be eliminated from the exam: math and “politics,” often based on state ideology, are among top candidates. One of the prevailing arguments supporting the reform is a claim that English education is “useless” for most Chinese and therefore should not be included in the gaokao. This idea is not new; similar arguments have long been applied to various other English requirements in China such as the general Masters program application English test and college-level standardized exams (the so-called Level IV and VI).
Admittedly, English may not be the most practical thing a Chinese high school student can learn. The overwhelming majority of high school students will never speak or write English again after graduation. Does this mean that English deserves to be under-emphasized? Certainly not. The exact same claim can be made for calculus or introductory physics – an art or literature student in an American university may never again need to do math at a SAT level, but no reasonable person would want math to be omitted from the SAT. Subjects such as math and physics are taught at an elementary level not because they are immediately useful to every student, but because they may be highly beneficial to certain careers that any student may choose. English is similar, if not more important to a larger subset of students, in this regard. As long as someone in China wants to become a working professional, academic, or spend time abroad at all, learning English would be in his or her interest.
Moreover, the vast majority of scholarly articles in any field are still written in English. Comparing two candidates of equal excellence in all other regards, an admissions officer at a foreign institution would select the one more proficient in English. The other person may never be able to realize their potential, because he cannot understand the latest publication or research. English requirements for such programs are therefore quite necessary.
The "Dumb & Deaf" Argument
This is a subtler version of the first argument often seen in education circles in China. English education in China is useless, so some teachers and education officials will say, because it does not deliver results that match up to the resources spent. Supporters of this argument often use the term “dumb and deaf” to describe people who fail to speak fluently or understand spoken English after years of taking standardized English tests. They point to embarrassing miscommunications caused by Chinese tourists in Europe and the US and poorly-worded presentations made by Chinese professors and scientists abroad. Why should an English education system that fails to reach such basic goals be supported?
My response to this argument is twofold. Firstly, the importance of being able to understand spoken English versus actually speaking it is severely overstated. Apart from those who must study abroad or interact with native English speakers on a daily basis, very few Chinese require such speaking skills. On the other hand, the ability to read and write in English is important for any Chinese person who wants to communicate with international circles. How could a skilled worker operate imported machinery without the ability to read English manuals? How could a salesperson unable to read and reply to emails in English deal with international customers? Almost all science and engineering research requires the ability to read English papers and reports. Even among Chinese research institutes there is much work being published in English. In general, there is no doubt which should be a priority: listening and speaking skills simply are not as crucial as writing and reading skills.
To further illustrate my point, consider the following scenarios. You are studying in college but must choose between being strong in only speaking and understanding English or reading and writing English. In the first case, you’ll be hard pressed to learn anything. Knowledge gaining is limited to what the professor says in class, which is also difficult to grasp when you cannot fully understand the assigned readings or problems. Getting past writing and research requirement classes becomes essentially impossible – and don’t even think about majoring in a social science or language. On the other hand, while socializing becomes rather difficult and participation grades might be low, a student can conceivably pull through Duke’s graduation requirements without having to understand a single spoken word. In fact, I know many foreign students at Duke with relatively poor skills in understanding spoken English yet who excel in their respective departments, achieve good grades and participate in campus affairs. It is certainly much worse to be completely illiterate in English than to be “dumb and deaf,” and one should not judge the success or failure of the English education system in China by students’ weak listening and speaking skills.
Second, an argument can be made that the Chinese English language education system, viewed with a longer timeframe, is nonetheless rather successful. Currently, over 1.4 million Chinese students study abroad, and that number is growing by over 20% per year. Chinese students attending prestigious institutions abroad are vastly beneficial for China’s future development, even if only a small percentage choose to return to Mainland China. I can hardly imagine this trend to be possible without the majority of Chinese students being exposed to English at a very early age. The current gaokao changes overlook the great number of students that have benefitted from English education at all levels of schooling.
That said, I do wholeheartedly support any reform that introduces a greater amount of rigor into the current English curriculum in Chinese schools. My estimate is that a very good grasp of gaokao-level English knowledge roughly translates into a TOEFL score of about 80-90, or alternately, a SAT reading score of about 450-550. There is a definite gap between such a level of proficiency and what would be considered as “understanding” a language. On all four aspects of English learning – speaking, reading, writing and vocal comprehension – the bar ought to be raised for Chinese high school students. Moreover, I would like to see an emphasize on not only writing in English but also writing critically. Students should be taught to carefully analyze written English works and write informed, well-reasoned responses instead of simply asked to read stories and regurgitate short, simple essays.
The Culture & Tradition Argument
This argument claims that English education is harmful because it erodes the fundamentals of Chinese culture. Some have identified English education as the culprit. People cannot write well in Chinese or understand fine Chinese literature, they say, because too much English is being taught. They question the effect of English education in China, claiming that English education has caused students to lose their roots in rich Chinese tradition.
As I see it, this argument boils down to two assumptions: that English is the reason of the decline of Chinese education and that a loss of interest in Chinese culture is necessarily a bad thing. Are these assumptions true? Not really. Chinese education has been declining for much longer than English has been taught in China. Very few people alive today can write articles in Chinese as brilliant as those of scholars in the early 20th century, and before the 1978 Opening and Reform, Russian was the official second language taught in China. The three decades when English was actually taught in China is relatively short when compared to the century-long decline in the quality of Chinese education. One can easily imagine how momentous events such as the Cultural Revolution and Sino-Japanese War could have damaged Chinese culture and education quality more.
However, there is a more important question; even if English education had in some way caused a decline in Chinese culture, is this a problem at all? The answer can be found by looking back to the early 20th century, before China was liberated from dynastic rule. In the late 1800s, Chinese culture as we know it was alive and prosperous. Most educated individuals could write sophisticated prose; the only subject of the nation-wide Keju test was Chinese writing. People had great respect for their language and yearned to learn it well, for the Keju was the only path towards a change in social status. Yet China as a nation in 1910 was a complete mess. The government was corrupt, mass starvation happened frequently and local militia groups were constantly at war. Virtually all of the ideas and technologies that made China the relatively prosperous nation it is today – railways, industrialized production, general education, women’s rights and the free market – are of foreign origin. These ideas were introduced by people who studied abroad or understood foreign languages, and at the inevitable expense of losing some aspects of Chinese culture.
In retrospect, however, foreign ideas introduced in the past century have not failed to destroyed Chinese culture but rather made it more popular than ever before by extending China’s economic and political influence. Foreign language education – English included – effectively removed the unnecessary, restrictive parts of Chinese culture that made China poor and chaotic in 1910 and promoted other parts such as Chinese food, Tai Chi and calligraphy. The current English education system extends such an effect, accelerating the process at which traditional Chinese ideas merge and compete with foreign ideas. The claim that English education harms Chinese culture can therefore be debunked.
The Irregularly Developed Student Argument
The term techangsheng is usually used to describe a student that is highly gifted in one subject. Some have argued that such students are disadvantaged by English education, since learning English takes away time that could be used to develop his or her talent. English requirements – especially those of the gaokao and graduate level – will supposedly bar such a student from received a proper college education that may fully develop her gift. In the interest of promoting young talent, it is best to simply remove such requirements.
First, I would like to point out that talent as a grade school or even high school student isn’t equal to excellence as a scientist or academic. Subjects like math and physics are so drastically different across levels of intellectual depth, being “gifted” at one level can mean nothing for another. Many a student have breezed through calculus and even linear algebra during high school, only to find college courses such as complex analysis and topology completely beyond their understanding. It is therefore perhaps best to not read too deeply into the so-called “giftedness” of relatively young students.
Even if the student is actually gifted, perhaps the next Albert Einstein or John Keynes, does she really need special attention in the form of relaxed English requirements? The development of knowledge is a life-long process, of which both high school and college are no more than short intervals. If she will eventually learn everything needed to become a researcher in the years to come, why teach her advanced physics or economics at the expense of other subjects? There is no reason to overlook her English education simply because she “could be learning what she’s good at.” A much more reasonable claim should be, “since she’s good at physics, she should spend more time on English.”
Also, there are practical barriers to the academic world associated with a lack of English skills. Imagine if Einstein could not understand English. His ideas would still be brilliant, but his communication with other physicists would be seriously hampered. Much of his work would collaboration, much of which would not be possible without understanding a foreign language. The same goes for almost all fields of research; the overwhelming majority of scholarly articles are published in English. Therefore, giving the student leniency in English may in fact do more harm than good to her future.
Perhaps there are other, more sensible motives behind the Ministry of Education's decision to decrease the Gaokao English subject score. These four trending arguments, however, fail to justify the reform plan. Whether China's education planners like it or not, English is still the most important language today. Much of China's future economic success hinges on its people's ability to communicate internationally, an ability that is made possible only with general English education. Downplaying English as a subject is tantamount to pushing people away from the rest of the world, a dangerous trend when China's need for economic integration and diplomatic ties is perhaps greater than ever. Without being exposed to English at an early age and required to study it for the all-important gaokao, will as many Chinese students be able to study abroad or participate in international organizations?
In fact, we should increase the significance of English in the gaokao. Emphasize speaking and listening skills as well as the ability to read and write. First, increase the depth and scope of the English curriculum for all levels of schooling. Second, aim at teaching students both to write critically and communicate effectively; writing a ten-page essay and responding to an important e-mail can require very different types of written proficiency. Finally, expose young children to English at an earlier age; perhaps even create public bilingual programs for primary schools. What I see now are attempts to suppress the popularity of English learning in China. People respond to incentives, and nothing can be popular without good cause.
About the author
Victor Ye is an Economics and Philosophy double major at Duke University. Born in Beijing, he is a co-founder of the ATP education program and currently works on housing policy research. He is also a photojournalist for the Duke Chronicle.