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Lingua franca

Updated: 2011-02-25 10:14

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

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"We also have found that many Chinese learners of English do not have a lot of confidence in speaking English."

However, Chen says modern technology is helping overcome this problem such as 24-hour access to native speaking teachers online.

Another popular movement in China has been English-speaking contests, which help students gain confidence and overcome shyness.

The Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press (FLTRP) holds a national competition, which attracts about 1 million contestants every year.

"We noticed that our contestants actually have great language competence, logical thought processes and cultural accomplishments," says Li Ping, from the Higher English Education Publishing department of FLTRP.

"However, compared to students in developed countries, they still lack critical thinking and creativity."

One of the major prizes for attaining a high level of English is the lure of higher salaries and landing a good job in China's highly competitive employment market.

Tao from United English says more than 85 percent of his students are learning English to improve their job chances, reflecting a major change compared to the 1990s when students learnt English to improve their educational opportunities.

In the 1990s, Chicago University conducted a survey which revealed the largest group of undergraduates at its college in a variety of courses were from Peking University and Tsinghua University.

"These students had acquired English to attend university. Now we are seeing young people acquiring English to get jobs," Tao says.

Special English examinations are attracting more graduates and white-collar workers who intend to climb the career ladder, according to ATA Co, the largest professional services provider of testing, assessment and related services in China.

In 2008, 100,000 people took the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC). The figure tripled to 300,000 in 2010, and the company predicts this figure to reach 500,000 this year.

Within the next three to five years, the number is expected to exceed 5 million, according to Wang Lin, president of the company.

However Professor Yang from Beijing Foreign Studies University says China, like Japan and South Korea, does not have to become a nation of English speakers to be successful on the world stage.

"We do not need everybody in China to learn English because we need different kinds of talents and we do not need to be like Malaya or Singapore," she says. "We are not only concerned about the economic benefits of learning English, we are concerned about learning other cultures.

"An English speaker can serve as a bridge between cultures and we can let foreigners better understand our culture in a way that is acceptable to them."

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