English literacy rising as gateway to good jobs in global economy

Updated: 2013-11-06 23:42

By WANG HONGYI in Shanghai and JIN ZHU in Beijing (China Daily)

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English literacy in the Chinese mainland is expanding as people view mastery of the language as an invaluable bargaining tool for jobs. But the country still ranks low globally, a recent report shows.

The mainland climbed two notches from 36th place last year to 34th on an annual list showing the English proficiency of adults in 60 countries and territories. The report was released on Wednesday by EF Education First, a global language training company.

"Almost everyone in China seems to have understood that in the environment of a global economy, mastering English is inextricably linked to their personal career advancement," said Christopher McCormick, head of the company's language research and training arm.

This year's list is based on test results of nearly five million adults over a six-year period beginning in 2007.

China's improvement in the rankings reflects the fact that university graduates want to find satisfying non-factory jobs, and English is increasingly seen as essential to that quest. Also, Chinese companies with international operations want to sharpen the language skills of their workforces, McCormick said.

There are at least 50,000 registered English-language institutes across the country, with expenditures on learning by Chinese people reaching into the billions of dollars, the report said.

Government campaigns add another dimension, with Beijing and Xi'an, Shaanxi province, now demanding that their civil servants have command of between 300 to 1,000 English phrases by 2015. Shanghai launched a similar program earlier.

Hong Kong now ranks 22nd, with the fourth-highest rate in Asia, although its position has worsened from previous years as more schools have switched to the use of Mandarin in class.

One reason for the improvement in English proficiency is China's growing wealth and middle class. More parents can afford to send their offspring to overseas colleges or provide them with extra-curricular English lessons.

Zhao Xingli, a 36-year-old Beijing resident, said her family has spent a total of 33,000 yuan ($5,410) on additional English tuition for her 9-year-old daughter over the past 18 months.

"The class focused more on improving her practical speaking ability as she got to talk and play with her foreign teacher, and she really started to get interested in it," said Zhao. "So I've decided to keep her signed up despite the high cost. Having a good grasp of English will be very useful even if she decides to stay and work in China."

Another factor sparking interest in English is booming outbound tourism. Plus, fluency is now seen as an essential part of personal development and social status, McCormick said.