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

Many Chinese parents want to send their children abroad for a better education and English is a key factor to this dream.

In a survey by one of China's biggest websites,, 86 percent of parents said they wanted to send their children overseas. More than 51 percent of Chinese parents favored the United States, followed by the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada.

Only 7 percent of parents wanted to send their children to Japan, Italy, France or other countries to study.

For young urban Chinese, topping up their English skills has become a priority.

Popular website Tencent recently conducted a survey among 3,000 young people and discovered that males learning English believed they could boost their salaries by 30 percent while females believed that speaking English made them appear more fashionable.

There is also the desire for China, which only opened its doors to the West about 30 years ago, to better communicate with the world. English is the official language in 63 countries and is used every day by more than one-third of the world's population.

During President Hu Jintao's recent visit to the US, the Chinese government paid for a promotional movie to run in Times Square, New York, informing telling Americans more about China. It featured many famous Chinese, such as Jackie Chan and Yao Ming, and all were speaking in English.

The demand for English has created major business opportunities and in 2010, the National Education Development Statistical Bulletin and the English-training market reached 30 billion yuan (3.3 billion euros).

Analysts are predicting annual growth across the private English school sector in China of between 12 percent and 15 percent as urban incomes rise.

The sector is made up of schools and institutes affiliated with universities, foreign-funded groups, domestic private organizations, and countless small- and medium-sized private schools.

China's largest private education provider is New Oriental with 324 learning centers and schools. Since its 2006 debut on the New York stock exchange, its shares have more than quadrupled in value. Investment bank Goldman Sachs, in a recent analyst note, said the group's enrolments continue to rise, ahead of expectations.

Despite the rapid growth in colleges there still is no official data on the overall number of English-training institutes and schools in China, but some put the figure at 30,000 schools teaching English.

Tiger Tao, senior director of United English college in Beijing, estimates there are between 2,000 and 3,000 English-language schools operating in Beijing alone, reflecting the demand for training.

"But some are very small with one teacher, one classroom - they rent a classroom - and just one foreign face," he says, adding more than 10,000 students have passed through his school since it started in 2000.

Tao says 50 percent of his students are aged between 20-30, and most have an English language background.

"About 50 percent having a higher than basic language level, and about 30 percent just a basic level," he says.

"For students who start from the very basic level it takes about five hours a week of lessons for two years to become very proficient, but that's also requires a lot of practice outside the class."


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