In 1979, when the cultural revolution ended, China began an open door policy and they formed stronger diplomatic bonds with the United States. This sparked the emphasis on English education among the Chinese people. A study done in 2007 stated that there were 200 million English speaking Chinese, with over 50 million school children learning it as a secondary language. Even with these numbers, another study done by the Telegraph in 2017 found that only roughly 10 million Chinese people spoke English conversationally, which is only less than 1% of the people. The drop in numbers is probably due to the citizens feel less of a need for the language skills to be taught.
Children are still being taught English in schools though. Most have their first English lesson by third grade. However due to criticism on the part of the people who do not see the point on why Chinese learn English, teachers seem to teach more for students to be able to pass a skills test instead of be able to speak the language fluently. Things like grammar become memorization instead of fluid learning, and have been criticized by Western people are fundamentally wrong. Even in spite of this, skills such as writing are still considered important and a big part of their education system. This causes their testing to be off balance, as writing is 80% of their score. Only 20% is based off of listening to English words and translation, beyond that only English majors are required to actually speak the language at all. Chinese students rarely get to put their new English vocabulary to use, as very little need is seen for it among the population that is dominated by Mandarin. In 2010, Guangdong Province began requiring an English speaking test for college admittance, even if only half of the teachers believe this skill to be useful.
The English language was first heard by the Chinese people during trading experiences, and shortly after in 1630 missionaries began to set up schools to teach English in Macau. In 1949, the Republic of China was founded, and the primary foreign language was Russian. This was changed shortly after, around 1960, with the Sino-Soviet split and English began transitioning into school systems. Due to the cultural revolution, English was temporarily not seen in school systems. The only textbooks that were available with English translations were Mao Zedong’s works until the end of the revolution in 1976, and the Gaokao was brought back in 1978. English had mostly disappeared from the school systems until Richard Nixon made a political visit to China in 1971, when it slowly became reintroduced. When the open door policy began under the rule of Deng Xiaoping, English and other foreign languages began to thrive in China again. Due to trading and tourism, English became extremely popular in the late 1970’s until the 1990’s.
Today, English still plays an important role. The College English Test is the standardized test on the subject, and since 2011 most employers require a score of CET 4 or CET 6 to be hired. These scores have become synonymous with English proficiency for both reading and writing. There is also the Public English Test System, otherwise known as PETS, but it is not as common as the College English Test.
Tourism is an important factor in the health of many countries, and China is no exception. Tourism creates over 11% of the gross domestic product for the country of China, and is a major contribution to both direct and indirect employment of up to 28.25 million people. In spite of these massive numbers, the hospitality services often have very few English speaking employees or even none at all. If looking for these services, they are most likely to be found in luxury or premium grade facilities, while lower or average quality facilities will most likely not have anyone. There are however bilingual guide services available for anyone to use, and can provide relief from the language barriers.
With the rise of technology and the convenience it provides, many have turned to online English classes or even one on one tutoring through an online service to learn the language on their own time and at their own pace. Many companies such as Magic Ears use the online platforms to hire people from the United States or other English speaking countries to provide the lessons to Chinese students. Leading companies such as TAL Education Group and New Oriental and Technology Group have gone public in the United States, and as such have seen a major increase in share profits. With parents who were raised in the digital age and see the benefits of the technology, many other companies are starting to gain ground in the field. The company VIPkid that is based in Beijing has amassed over 200,000 students, and raised over 1.5 billion US dollars as venture money. Total, VIPkid has over 500,000 students in China as well as four other countries, and 60,000 English speaking teachers based in North America. Another smaller company called DaDa has roughly 100,000 students with about 10,000 English speaking teachers in it’s program. The smaller companies are gaining ground as well as this field continues to expand and the demand for online tutoring grows.
The reasons for why Chinese learn English range from tourism, to employment, to the standard of the country. The popularity of the language has fluctuated with the tides of time and the temperatures of political situations between the two countries, but today the need to learn English has been deemed important by many. Even with growing popularity, there are those who critique the standards that the country has for learning the language, or the need for it at all. There are still some language barriers, as many professions including the hospitality sector still do not employ English speakers. However other options, such as a bilingual guide for hire, help connect people. The different learning platforms have changed with the time, but today the growing demand for online education has opened the doors for many to learn English as a secondary language. Major and minor players have a chance at connecting students and teachers from around the world to learn English as a second language. As the demand grows, so do the opportunities to learn.