Ditch English to save Chinese?

A fierce debate about English education has been raging across China, after a former spokesman for the Ministry of Education called for the teaching of the foreign language in primary schools to be scrapped to make way for Chinese courses.

“Free the children and save the Chinese language,” said Mr Wang Xuming, now president of Language and Culture Press, on Sept 10. “Can learning English enable Chinese people to inherit their country’s culture when they’re poor in mother tongue?”

Mr Wang, who boasts more than 1.8 million followers on his Twitter-like Weibo account, also put the blame on the quality of Chinese textbooks and teachers for the deterioration of students’ proficiency in Chinese.

To reverse the decline in their skills, he suggested abolishing English classes in pre-school education and junior years of primary school, so pupils could spend more time learning traditional Chinese culture, reported the Beijing News on Sept 12.

“Learning English has become a fad in the nation, but many kids find the language useless after graduation,” he said.

His suggestion came as Taiwan was mulling over stricter regulations on teaching English to children under the age of six in cram schools.

Public opinion is split over Mr Wang’s proposal. The majority of Internet users in at least two online polls support it.

In a survey carried out by the popular news portal Sina, more than 80 per cent of the 82,103 votes were in favour of dropping English classes.

“It’s the best time for an eight-year-old pupil to learn his mother tongue. How come English has become a main subject?” Mr Xiao Hui, a radio host in Jiangxi province, said on Sept 14. “Only with its own culture will a nation be respected.”

More than 1,200 people took part in another poll by state broadcaster CCTV. Almost seven in 10 of the participants nodded their support for Mr Wang.

English has become a compulsory subject since 2002 when China ordered primary schools across the country to teach the language, from age nine in the third grade. But it is common for first-graders to have English classes, said the South China Morning Post.

Analysts believed the difficulties in acquiring English skills and the perception that the language becomes “useless” after graduation contributed to Internet users’ massive support for Mr Wang.

But Chinese media are more critical of his suggestion, questioning if cancelling English classes can help enhance pupils’ Chinese skills.

“It’s a piece of cake to find a scapegoat for the crisis threatening Chinese language,” said Mr Xian Jiaoping, a commentator from Beijing Education Media Group. “But what if Chinese is not revived even after you blame its decline on another language?”

A poll conducted last year revealed that more than 83 per cent of Chinese people acknowledged skill deterioration in using Chinese characters. Most of the 1,770 respondents pointed the finger at the nation’s over-reliance on computers, obsession with Internet slang and over-emphasis on foreign language studies.

“Whenever there is a call for saving Chinese language, English would inevitably be faulted... It appears the two languages have become enemies,” said a commentary published by state Xinhua News Agency on Wednesday (Sept 11). “But English culture is a global culture recognised by the international community. It’s our window to the world.”

“Learning Chinese doesn’t clash with learning English,” said Ms Pu Xiaohua, a Chinese teacher in a primary school in Hangzhou city. “Our school has allocated time for pupils to read Chinese classics. The kids love English classes, in which they learn the language by playing games.”

However, with inadequate exposure to English in daily life and a test-oriented education system, many university students in China still shy away from speaking English after more than 10 years of learning, making younger learners lose their motivation, said analysts.

“Some middle school students, who have learned English for a while, could be quite fluent in speaking,” said Prof Song Ying from the Shanghai-based Tongji University. “But after they enter high school preparing for the college entrance exam, speaking practice is getting few and far between.”

More than 80 per cent of Chinese undergraduates said their motivation for learning English comes from passing tests and getting certificates, reported Wen Wei Po in March, citing a survey polling 875 students from seven universities.

Ms Liu Jingyao, a Beijing-based journalist, said: “Whether children could be freed doesn't hinge on what they learn, but how they learn and why they learn. If education is simply for scores, whatever the kids learn becomes shackles and burdens.”jihongou@sph.com.sg