The great China English puzzle

The most recent issue of English Today (28/3) is a special issue on the topic of ‘English in China today’. It includes ten articles dealing with different aspects of the spread of English and the uses of English in contemporary China, with contributions from leading Chinese academics as well as commentators from outside the country.

The articles in this special issue provide a fascinating insight into the uses of English in today’s China, with articles on the demographics of English learning, English in the academy, creative writing, English on the Internet, and much else. Nevertheless, in spite of the insights that these articles provide, my own feeling is that the current spread of the English language within the borders of this most populous nation actually still present us with a Chinese puzzle of quite some proportion.

This is for a number of reasons. According to Chinese government sources, the number of English learners/knowers in the Middle Kingdom is now around 400 million, which represents around one third of China’s population. But here, the essential questions are who actually uses English in China on a regular basis, and for what purposes? This is a puzzle because most of those millions of learners believe that English is somehow an important part of their future, but the reality within China is that few workplaces actually require much in the way of spoken English. The reality is that most people are learning English because they need it to pass the endless ladder of competitive exams. But spoken English is not assessed.

A second puzzle is the aspiration to study overseas. In the mid 2000s, the outflow of students from China appeared to be holding steady, but then suddenly started rising. According to the latest statistics, there are 158,000 students from China studying in the US, and a similar number in Europe. Here a central question relates to the role of English in these young academic emigrant lives. Will such students remain overseas, or return to China? What then will the impact of the current fashion for international education be on the cultural and social life of China as it continues to develop as an economic world leader? It is not just the number of Chinese students going overseas which is increasing, but also the number returning.

These are not purely linguistic issues, but English does play a key role in such processes, and is likely to do so for many decades to come. The articles in the special issue help us at least see the puzzles a little more clearly.

You can read the entire special issue without charge until the 31st October here

Post written by David Graddol, Co-Editor English Today

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