Rethinking English Language Teaching and Learning in China

I have just come back from a very successful TESOL Symposium held in Guangzhou, China. We were hosted at the beautiful Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, which is located near Baiyun Mountain. The theme of the conference was really intriguing: “Envisioning and Creating the Future for English Language Teaching and Learning.” Although the focus of the discussions was on China (because almost all the participants were from China), I think this topic is extremely important at this point in time in our field, and we should have these discussions all over the world.

One of the issues that generated a lot of debate was the proposed reform of reducing the weight of the English examination used to admit students to universities in China from 150 points to 100 points, while at the same time raising the number of points for Chinese and the arts and sciences. This means that more emphasis will be placed on Chinese and less on English.

Over the years, the role and status of English has fluctuated in China, reflecting the political climate. This proposed change in the examination implies that the demand for teaching and learning English in China, which increased dramatically in the past few years, may have peaked. It also reflects a change once again in the role and status of English. In an article published in the Deccan Herald on October 22, 2012 entitled “China’s English obsession slowing down,” the author states that

China’s obsession to learn English to catch up with the rest of the world showed signs of wariness amid complaints of stressful experiences of students over mastering the language as well as fears it could overtake Mandarin in the long run.

Although the China Daily on October 26, 2013 reassured English language teachers that interest in English will not wane and in fact, would become stronger, the discussions during the TESOL Symposium showed that many teachers believed that this policy change will have a significant impact on their careers.


See photos of this event

Personally, I question English language policies that impose a one-size-fits-all approach that does not allow for flexibility and does not take into account the available resources and the level of demand for English in the various regions of a country. For example, in Egypt (as an Egyptian, this is the context I am most familiar with), English is a compulsory subject and is taught from Grade 1 in all public and private schools in the country. After 12 years of studying English, the level of proficiency of most Egyptian high-school graduates is low. This is a low return on investment by the government and the challenges for improving the effectiveness of the system are high. The quality of English language teaching and learning needs significant improvement and many students do not actually need or use English in their lives.

I wonder whether there is a more effective approach to implementing English as a Lingua Franca all over the world. Please share your thoughts on this!

About Deena Boraie

Deena Boraie
Deena Boraie is the dean of the School of Continuing Education at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, and president of TESOL International Association. She is a language testing expert and teaches research methods in the MA/PhD Applied Linguistics Program at Cairo University.
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3 Responses to Rethinking English Language Teaching and Learning in China

  1. sara says:

    Thanks for providing this information; really, it is helpful

  2. Hi, Deena,

    We met in the Easeland Hotel Lobby in Guangzhou. It was a pleasure!

    Just after I returned to Hong Kong, I read this article in the South China Morning Post:
    http://www.scmp.com/news/china-insider/article/1361057/beijing-remove-english-classes-early-grades-elementary-schools#comment-51348

    Here is what I wrote as a response: In past articles on this subject, one of the rationales given for this decision has been to “save” Chinese. Mandarin isn’t going anywhere.

    The article states that parents will simply enroll their children in outside English classes at very young ages because they think that will give their children an edge.

    Hopefully the focus of the Chinese education system is more on research on what works best in educating children for the global society.

    In Europe, the additional languages are typically not introduced until 3rd or 4th grade, after children have acquired literacy–being able to READ to LEARN–in their first languages. A good foundation in one\’s home/first language leads to success in acquiring additional languages, including academic registers of those languages.

    In countries such as Norway, Sweden, Finland, and France, the children learn their own languages AND they grow up to be fluent speakers of English and other languages. Those who become foreign language teachers are fully trained to teach in those languages.

    Countries that aim to prepare their children for the global economy should study why European countries are so successful in turning out multilingual adults.

    It is because of good education policies beginning in preschool coupled with HOW additional languages are taught, not how young the children are when they start learning additional languages.

    If governments can distill this for parents, maybe they will concentrate their efforts on giving their children a good educational foundation rather than piling counter-productive linguistic pressures on them.

    Since I wrote the above to SCMP, I have been reading articles and books about Hong Kong\’s education system. The chapters by Dr. Amy Tsui in the two books below are especially enlightening. Despite the numerous studies in Hong Kong going back to the 1970s that children learn additional languages best when they have acquired literacy their first languages (or a similar language first) politics took precedence over research-informed policies.

    Countries that were not former colonies in the same way as Hong Kong, India, and African nations have also been pushing English as medium of instruction, with results similar to what you describe in Egypt.

    Tsui, A.B.M. & Tollefson, J. W. (Eds.). (2007). Language Policy, Culture, and Identity in Asian Contexts. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

    Tollefson, J. W. & Tsui, A.B.M. (Eds.). (2004). Medium of Instruction Policies: Which Agenda? Whose Agenda? Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

  3. Larry Dow says:

    Education is changing, the old factory style of lecturing and teachers providing information for an entire class are chaning. In most countries that mandate English language learning in primary school they probably still use some form that is close to this. For children to learn English they have to have a reason, there has to be an opportuinity to use it outside of class, it has to be interesting and engaging.
    Blended learning solutions are being implemented worldwide in all shapes and forms, technology is an important component which allows students to learn on their own while teachers have more free time to provide higher level teaching to all the students. Technology can range from showing movies to using the latest educational technology.
    The latest education technology includes gaming techniques with reward systems and multi person interactions, It includes social media opportunities, project based learning and child safe ways to meet other children online. It includes curriculum that is engaging, motivating and relevent to children. It uses data to analyze each childs results and automatically create individualized lessons for each student.
    Education technology works, it doesn’t replace good teachers but it allows good teachers to reach more students and it allows more teachers to become better teachers.
    Young children learning English worldwide deserve a better way to learn English and then more will actually learn it.
    My opinion is not based on a long career of teaching English to children and I therefore greatly value the opinions and advice of those who have been working in the field.

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