Cover Story

Lingua franca

Updated: 2011-02-25 10:14

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

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"Language acquisition is a process of learning language and using the language," Tao says. "Unfortunately, a lot of English language teaching in China is not very efficient because students don't get the chance to use it.

"So we encourage students to use the language outside the classroom at our centers. All our employees speak English so even students who don't take the classes can talk with our employees in their spare time."

Tao says the expansion of foreign companies presents special opportunities for Chinese workers with high English language proficiency.

More than 240 of the Fortune 500 companies have set up offices in Beijing and almost all have a presence in China.

"The government is also encouraging big State-owned enterprises, such as energy, oil and metal companies, to expand overseas and as a result, more Chinese staff need English training," he says.

"One energy company has approached us because they are going to start a joint venture with a Middle Eastern company. They would like to train 200 and these employees have to go overseas," Tao says.

"Another company is Huawei, one of the biggest telecommunications equipment producers in China. It has expanded a lot of overseas so suddenly they need a large group of staff who can speak English."

The cost for two years' tuition at United English is about 25,000 yuan (2,800 euros), Tao says.

"Extravagant" is the adjective that most people used after learning that Yao Wanchen, 27, spent 42,000 yuan ($6,200) on a one-and-a-half year English training program just to improve her English.

But Yao does not think so, and neither do countless trainees in many English-training schools and institutes around China. "I think greatly improving my English is well worth the investment. I am in charge of foreign trade for our company and most of my customers are foreigners. Excellent English is very necessary for me," says Yao, an employee from the international trade branch of the China Animal Husbandry Group.

Chen Ming, executive vice-president of EF English First Asia, says millions more Chinese English-language speakers will have a huge impact on China's competitiveness as an economic superpower but she agrees that despite the high numbers of people studying English, the overall standard is poor.

EF English First, which started in Shanghai in 1993 and has taught millions of Chinese students English, was the official language trainer for the Beijing 2008 Olympics.

"One of the biggest challenges for Chinese people, who start to learn from a young age during compulsory schooling is the of lack opportunities to apply their English, and actually use it," Chen says.


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