At present, China is in the throes of what has been called a “mania” for learning English. Indeed, when you see pregnant women playing English songs for their unborn babies, 80-year-olds in parks practicing oral English at dawn, and the crowds of students standing in line to register for TOEFL tests, you can understand why.
English has been part of China’s formal education system since the early 1980s. Now, all students are required by law to start studying English from the age of 8, and Chinese people spend over 30 billion yuan ($4.37 billion) on English-learning resources every year.
Three decades ago, at the outset of China’s economic reforms, people learned English primarily in order to better understand the world and communicate with the growing number of foreign visitors to China. As English tests gradually became crucial requirements for admission to college and graduate school, people began to see bilingual proficiency as a vehicle for better education and career opportunities.
Today, however, English learning is strongly tied to two dominant discourses in Chinese society: neoliberalism and nationalism. For most students, proficiency in English is a tool used not only to become individually competitive in the global economy, but also to represent China as part of that economy. With the promotion of English learning by both governmental and nongovernmental actors, millions of Chinese are now throwing themselves into the language.
As China has reformed its economy over the last three decades, it has strategically advocated neoliberal values — in particular, free markets and competition. To prevent conflict with dominant ideological buzzwords from the pre-reform era, the government has promoted ideas of competition and private responsibility as a means to realize “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and has shied away from loaded terms such as “individualism.”
In the process, China has gone through a cultural transformation in which competitiveness has been elevated to a position so prominent that it has begun to function as a new ideology. This new ideology, in turn, has brought with it the notion that the ideal future Chinese citizen will be bilingual.
Successive education reforms have sought to greatly reduce state-planned employment schemes and encourage college graduates to seek jobs on their own. In 1999, the Chinese Ministry of Education approved the Facing the 21st Century Education Revitalization Action Plan, in which it proclaimed the end of state-allocated jobs and the establishment of a market-oriented employment system. As university enrollment shot up from 1.08 million in 1998 to 5.67 million in 2007, and the graduate unemployment rate continued to rise, the key question facing students, parents, and professors was how to prepare students better for the severe competition in the market.
In response, believing that English would be the lingua franca of the 21st century and expecting China to actively participate in global affairs, the Ministry of Education actively projected an idealized image of the highly educated, English-speaking citizen who would help China compete in the globalized market. Few parents opposed the promulgation of this image, because China’s 2001 accession to the World Trade Organization, alongside its later bids to host major international events such as the 2008 Olympics, echoed the country’s need for more English speakers.
Parents’ eagerness and anxiety have created an enormous English-language training market alongside the formal education system in the last two decades. Although the new market competes with school education in a general sense, both sectors have integrated ideas of global competition with calls for national resurgence.
In 2002, Wang Shouren, chairman of the National Foreign Language Teaching Advisory Board under the Ministry of Education, published an article in the journal Foreign Language Education claiming that China should facilitate the use of English in society, since “only through English can we help the world learn about the significance of China’s local knowledge and experience.” His views were echoed by party intellectuals to whom English was essential for producing modern Chinese citizens with global vision and attracting foreign-language talents to promote China’s national development and cultural revival.
Private training organizations have sometimes pushed the rhetoric of nationalism to the extreme in their drive to recruit English-language learners. One of the most influential language training organizations in China, Crazy English (CE), has been known to encourage mass gatherings of students to shout patriotic slogans like “Conquer English to Make China Stronger.” Li Yang, the company’s founder, has played on Chinese students’ anxieties to succeed, acceptance of global competition, latent nationalistic fervor, and belief in individual choices to attract those who have struggled to pass the national English exams.
Li has promoted his unorthodox teaching methods nationwide. According to the education scholar Li Jingyan, learners who invested time, money, and energy in CE classrooms formed “idealized views of their English-speaking bilingual selves.” This collective ego further created an imagined community of globalized Chinese citizens who could rival Americans, the native speakers of English and the model of global leadership.
Other private training schools take a different tack. Targeting their marketing mainly at preschool children and their parents, they frame English ability as a key aspect of becoming so-called global elites. The idea of nurturing elite children is especially seductive to middle-class parents, who have the means to give their children an overseas education to prepare them for more global responsibility.
A typical example of such organizations is Rise English, whose marketing materials promise students an “American education in China” and the chance to become “future global leaders.” An acquaintance who attended one of their summits described how three 6-year-old kids walked onto the stage and pretended they had just come back from the future. Complete with English dialogue and futuristic costumes, the aim of their performance was to lead Chinese parents to make a connection between English instruction at an early age and an elite global identity in the future.
In the case of Rise English, neoliberal values are reinforced by projecting the current polarization of China’s socio-economic classes into the future, in which even more intense global competition means only elite citizens may survive and thrive. The drastic pace at which China has changed in the last three decades continues to shape how people imagine China’s developing role in a globalized economy and to stoke fears of failure to keep up with this evolution.
Today, learning English has been positioned as a crucial skill for Chinese citizens. Each actor promotes English learning as a means to achieve its own set of goals. However, the groups are all complicit in sustaining a dominant neoliberal and nationalistic discourse that justifies the country’s English “mania.” If the hordes of Chinese students devoting themselves to studying English are anything to go by, it is a craze that shows no signs of abating.
(Header image: A girl leans on a classroom lectern in front of several English sentences written on a chalkboard at an elementary school in Changsha, Hunan province, March 5, 2015. Xie Changgui/VCG)