The English major crisis in China

Blog post written by Ningyang Chen, author of the article ‘The English major crisis in China: Why did the once-popular major fall out of favor among Chinese students? recently published in English Today.

There was a time in China when becoming a foreign language major was the dream of many aspiring young minds. The English major, in particular, enjoyed the greatest popularity and was associated with many advantages: a better social reputation, better-paid jobs, and above all, the chance to go out and see the world. Over the years, however, the English major has been losing its appeal to Chinese students. Some critics have questioned its validity or even proposed closing the major. This concern was brought to the fore by a recent Chinese newspaper article in which the opinionist described the major as suffering from “a guilty conscience”.

How to explain this drastic change? There are some obvious reasons such as the expansion of choices. But other factors may have also played a part. According to an analysis of WeChat (China’s most popular social media channel) comments on the “guilty conscience” article, three types of attitudes portray the social media response to the English major crisis. In the first place is practical attitudes, followed by the pessimistic and the optimistic. The majority of the student and teacher commenters find elements of truths in the motto of “Being practical is everything”. The English major in the modern era falls behind other majors in securing a financial future. Success models like Jack Ma serve only as reminders to choose a major that is more “worth” the “investment”. This prevailing attitude of being practical echoes a critical paper on ‘the practical turn’ in English studies, in that the successful turn seems to have exerted a lasting influence. The pessimistic views of the English major in China find fault with the teachers and the courses. Courses taught by less qualified teachers can be a waste of time, and irresponsible teachers increase students’ dismay even further. The small number of optimists are mainly proud English majors who share an interest in literature and the language. Yet their voices seem hushed by the overwhelming negativity and criticism.

The bulging purse of the Chinese is an economic reality we find difficult to ignore. With this comes wider options and opportunities. What used to be an accessible and promising way to pursue a “modern” education is now among the least efficient ways to achieve that goal. Let’s face it: Why sitting through a boring class taught in Chinese-accented English when one can get a more “authentic” English experience by watching a Hollywood blockbuster? What’s the point of spending four years in a program to learn skills that can be readily acquired by studying in an English-speaking country at a reasonable price? Even those with a less superficial understanding of the major may doubt, quite rightfully, if a Chinese professor can interpret Shakespeare as adequately as Lu Xun.

Although the decline of the liberal arts subjects seems a shared concern across institutions and cultures, the English major in China has its specificities. After all, it is pathetic to find what started out as part of the “solution” to the country’s modernization has become a “problem” of its own. As globalization deepens, a similar pity is likely to be felt in other contexts around the world where the program once played a big part in training personnel who pioneered international communication and engagement. Yet opportunities are born out of crises. The raised concerns could inspire creative changes to the system. And while we are a long way away from figuring out what the future holds for the English major in China, getting a sense of the distressing reality can be the first step.

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