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2019-03-21 11:42:12

A Chinese media outlet has come out in defense of learning English following days of explosive online debate about the utility of studying the language.

In a commentary published Thursday, Party-controlled newspaper China Youth Daily argued that learning English facilitates respect between cultures, improves the image of Chinese when they travel abroad, and helps Chinese companies expand internationally.

“Learning English is essential for Chinese young people,” wrote the author, Lin Ke. “Everyone needs to be clear about one thing: The purpose of learning English is not to jump through social hoops, but to advance your vision and thinking.”

The commentary conceded, however, that the weighty burden on students to learn English could be reduced: Chinese primary schoolers today spend around one-fifth of their learning time studying the language, it claimed.

The great debate on English learning was ignited by Hua Qianfang, a blogger with around 1.6 million followers on microblogging platform Weibo. In a Weibo post Sunday, Hua called English a “trash skill” for most Chinese. Though Hua later deleted the post, screenshots of it were widely circulated on social media and news aggregators.

“Those who defend learning English are nothing more than industry hacks and ideologically stunted slaves,” Hua wrote, adding that English-language content on websites such as Wikipedia could just be transcribed into Chinese by professional translators.

Hua’s post received over 20,000 comments and triggered widespread debate — with many netizens disagreeing with his position. They pointed out that a certain level of English is required for industries like computer programming, and that most scholarly articles in any field of study are written in English.

“My English is awful,” one Weibo user lamented. “The worse your English is, the more you realize how important it is — and the more jealous you are of strong English speakers.”

The debate escalated when Wang Sicong — an esports entrepreneur and online meme-king with 45 million followers on Weibo — shared Hua’s post and mocked him, saying he seems like the kind of person who has never left China.

“Can translation software translate culture?” Wang scoffed in an expletive-laden post on Monday that was later deleted.

While Chinese netizens largely agreed with Wang’s defense of English, many took exception to his remark about international travel, viewing it as elitist. “I haven’t even been to Beijing, let alone abroad,” read one upvoted comment under a media outlet’s post about the debate.

On Tuesday, Hua clarified that his chief grievance was with the way learning English is quite literally forced upon students. In the same post, he demanded an apology and financial compensation from Wang — who has yet to offer either.

English is a compulsory subject at all levels of education in China, from primary school through university. This year, China’s online English education industry — which includes e-learning apps and online tutoring — is estimated to be worth 52 billion yuan ($8 billion), according to market research firm iResearch.

The debate on the merits of learning English is not altogether new in China. In 2013, Wang Xuming, then a spokesperson for the Ministry of Education, sparked another online debate after calling for primary schools’ English classes to be replaced with classes in Chinese culture. The following year, Chinese netizens argued over whether English should be removed as a compulsory subject on the gaokao, the country’s grueling college entrance exam.

It’s not uncommon for China’s state-owned media to weigh in on pop culture and online trends to convey an ideologically correct position. In the past few years, such outlets have commented on the appropriateness and relative morality of topics ranging from cosplay and musical parodies to memes and masculinity.

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: A foreign teacher interacts with children at an English-language kindergarten in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, March 4, 2019. Lin Zejun/VCG)