Cover Story

Lingua franca

Updated: 2011-02-25 10:14

By Patrick Whiteley and Xiao Xiangyi (China Daily European Weekly)

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Lingua franca

Chinese are learning English on a scale never seen before and the business of teaching is booming

In just a few years, it is theoretically possible that the number of English-speaking Chinese will outnumber the populations of all English-speaking countries in the world, combined. More than 300 million Chinese are studying English, accounting for about a quarter of China's population, according to English First (EF), one of the world's biggest language training institutions.

In the next five years, all State employees younger than 40 will be required to master at least 1,000 English phrases, and all schools will begin teaching English in kindergartens.

The government is also funding extensive teacher training programs to find new models for language learning and develop new textbooks.

Parents with the means are sending their children - some as young as 2-year-olds - to private language schools that are popping up all over the country. By the time they are 10, the parents hope their children will be fluent.

But despite the major language-learning push, many question whether China's plan to build a massive force of proficient English speakers will come to fruition. According to critics, backward teaching methods, a lack of good English teachers and China's test-orientated education system are to blame.

Yang Luxin, professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University and researcher at China's Foreign Languages Research Center, says the quality of teaching is a major problem.

"Despite 300 million Chinese studying English, only a minority can speak English very well," she says. "Chinese students spend a lot of time studying - not just a few hours a week, but a lot more, but the problem is the teaching methods of the teachers and their proficiency in English.

"There is a need for the development of English teacher qualifications so more students will experience interesting and efficient English language learning rather than just for the sake of passing English language examinations."

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