ENGLISH TESTING: Students at a college in Hubei Province taking a compulsory nationwide English test in December 2012 (XINHUA)
When Winston Churchill won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953—in part for the early volumes of his History of the English Speaking Peoples—he personified a reinvigorated era of English as a global lingua franca. Although the British Empire was in tatters, American ascendancy meant that English would continue its linguistic hegemony. This proved especially fortuitous for Churchill and others like him. Famously a poor student in foreign languages, his remarkable career and historical importance might well have been lost to lesser pursuits had he not been, as he put it, a master of his own language. Indeed, his ability to rouse his own citizens and perhaps equally important, Americans, is often cited as a critical element in the struggle against fascism.
When English language study reached a low ebb in China during the "cultural revolution (1966-76)," then leader Mao Zedong made it known that he regretted not studying English earlier in life. Unlike many of the other senior figures of his generation, Mao was one of the few who did not study abroad. Despite his many exceptional abilities, several biographers have suggested that his inability to speak a foreign language kept him in China while others gained experience in France, the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. And yet, like Churchill, Mao was gifted in the use of his own language, and likewise used this gift to help change the course of history. We can only speculate how Chinese history might be different if he had concentrated his efforts and studies on other topics and in other places. What if Mao or Churchill were forced to pass an exam like the gaokao—
China's national university admissions test, which places heavy emphasis on foreign language study—before moving forward in their careers?
China has rapidly expanded access to higher education during the reform and opening up period. In 1977, when the gaokao was revamped and offered nationwide, approximately 6 million taking the exam competed for less than a quarter of 1 million higher education openings. In part, this was due to a combination of pent-up demand and a relatively limited supply. Today, demand for higher education remains high, but capacity has expanded exponentially. While admission to the top Chinese universities is extremely competitive, there are more than 2,000 Chinese higher education institutions (HEI) enrolling more students than ever before. For example, in 1998, universities' enrollments reached 3.6 million; in 2003, 11.7 million; in 2008, 21.5 million; and by 2010, they exceeded 30 million. In policymaking parlance this is sometimes referred to as moving from an "elite" higher education model to a "mass" higher education model, a shift that began in earnest in 1999, and that continues today.
The benefits of a mass vs. elite model are well known and probably essential as a nation develops. This shift was instrumental in American development and likewise, for several Western and some of the leading Asian economies. Interestingly enough, when we look at the top 10 "most educated nations" according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, English is the native language for six of them (Canada, the United States, UK, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland). For three of them (Israel, Japan, South Korea), English is compulsory, but these countries have profound security links with the United States and other conditions that encourage English studies. Obviously, China faces a different situation. So, higher education levels correlate strongly with economic growth and development, particularly when transitioning away from basic manufacturing toward hi-tech development and service economies that are characteristic of the top 10 most educated countries. Since China wants to emulate this, would continuing to emphasize English studies facilitate greater global integration at the expense of higher rates of higher education? Would this bottleneck or support Chinese development?
We know that the mass education model helps make access more equitable. It contributes to individual development and enriches communities overall. For example, empirical evidence indicates that on average, higher educated people are healthier, produce better educated children, are more likely to be positively engaged in their communities, and help improve their own lives and others in numerous ways. Nevertheless, the mass model has shortcomings. Expanding enrollments, particularly at the rate experienced in China since 1999, puts tremendous pressure on HEIs. As noted, scaling up is difficult and quality often suffers. Increasing admissions results in lowered standards. Additionally, as the number of graduates rises rapidly, the workforce struggles to absorb them, particularly when economic growth slows, as has been the case in China over the last few years. This puts increasing pressure on administrators to emphasize market-oriented skills and abilities. Does the Chinese job market really need more graduates who are able to speak or comprehend spoken English, at least at a professional level?
With all of this in mind, let's consider recent Chinese proposals to change the gaokao in ways that de-emphasize its current foreign language component that is presently worth roughly a third of the exam overall. Since 1977, earning a competitive gaokao score has been essential for most Chinese students seeking higher education. While it has changed over the years—particularly since 1985 when regional variation started becoming more common—for most it takes the form of "3+X," with "3" representing the three compulsory subjects (Chinese, mathematics and a foreign language), and the "X" representing a fourth area connected to the individual student's particular interests or abilities, drawn from either the humanities or the sciences. Late in 2013, local Beijing policymakers proposed de-emphasizing the overall value of the English portion of the exam while increasing the value of the Chinese portion. Additionally, the English portion would place more emphasis on listening comprehension than before. At the national level, however, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has proposed fundamentally changing the foreign language requirement altogether by 2017. The MOE proposal would phase out English testing altogether and shift it over to other testing authorities who are not confined to the gaokao's usual, one-and-done approach. This would give students more opportunities to take the exam, including the option of taking it more than once, and further, allow for greater regional variation to better meet local needs and abilities.
Unsurprisingly, these proposed reforms have generated a lot of discussion among various stakeholders. Many Chinese have a love-hate attitude toward the gaokao, particularly its English component. On the one hand, while imperfect, the gaokao has provided most people with a meritocratic means for determining who gets access to specific advantages. On the other hand, the gaokao, even with regional variation, takes a one-size-fits all approach and thus, is too reductive, too standardized, and in turn has fostered rote-based pedagogies. Further, the make-or-break consequences frequently associated with the exam means that students, their families and their schools face intense and often harmful pressure to over-achieve. For many, this pressure is most acutely felt when faced with the foreign language requirement.
Policymakers have other concerns as well. De-emphasizing the foreign language component will likely support expanding enrollments, therefore confronting the fact that most Chinese do not actually become bilingual, despite the tremendous amount of time and resources lavished on foreign language studies. Indeed, it is practically impossible to teach a foreign language the same way other subjects are taught, and further impossible to test it the same way as well without resulting in what is sometimes called "dumb English"—the ability to engage a standardized test but not to actually speak or comprehend it when they hear it. Indeed, what's the point of spending so much if the actual return is so little? Wouldn't funds be better spent on areas where higher returns might be realized, particularly if slowing economic growth rates require increasing thriftiness?
Some are worried that such reforms might limit China's access and connections to international information and studies. This includes both Chinese people as well as foreign universities who have benefited from the fact that most overseas students in the world today are Chinese. Conversely, some worry that overemphasizing English diminishes Chinese studies and subjects Chinese learners to linguistic imperialism while providing direct conduits for foreign soft power operations. Others are concerned that overstretched primary and secondary school budgets will respond by sharply curtailing foreign language study, particularly in the provinces, while the major municipalities like Shanghai and Beijing—where China's top universities are located—will continue to teach English and require it for university admission. Also, while China's meteoric rise amid reform and opening up has resulted in less pressure to be "international," and while more foreigners than ever before are studying Chinese, English remains the global language and will likely remain so for a long time to come.
We can recall the need to expand enrollments while seeking higher returns from educational investments. We can recall the luminaries like Mao and Churchill who struggled to learn a foreign language. We can recall that Albert Einstein failed his first university admissions exam, and that the Tang Dynasty poets, Du Fu and Li Bai, both failed the gaokao's ancestor, the keju, the imperial examination. Or we can think of the long list of contemporary technical geniuses and entrepreneurs who never mastered a foreign language. And we can keep the perspective that even if the proposed reforms are successfully implemented, China might still devote more effort and resources to teaching more people English than any other country in the world.
In fact, it can be argued that such reforms might be positive in other ways, as many Chinese have been sick with "English fever" for too long. While English studies peaked in China as it reached WTO membership in 2001 and prepared for the Olympics in Beijing in 2008, it is only natural and perhaps healthy to seek a new balance and approach. No doubt millions of Chinese children will agree.
The author is an associate professor of politics at East China Normal University; research fellow with the Center for the Study of Contemporary China at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Fudan University; and assistant editor of U.S.-based Journal of Chinese Political Science