The Problem With China’s English-Only Schools
China’s red-hot enthusiasm for international schools is showing no signs of cooling off anytime soon. In 1999, just 86 schools taught international curricula, by 2019 there were over 800. That number is expected to rise, as private institutions in the U.K. and elsewhere open satellite campuses across the country.
These institutions are hardly universally accessible: The average annual tuition at international high schools in Shanghai was over 250,000 yuan ($36,000) in 2019, or roughly four times the city’s average disposable income. The parents opting to send their kids to international schools generally see them as an alternative to China’s grueling college-entrance exam system and a way to prepare their kids for an overseas education. To meet this demand, schools highlight their exotic — from a Chinese perspective — offerings: sports like equestrian and rugby, Western etiquette and courses on English tea art, and of course, English-language instruction.
I’ve been teaching English for Academic Purposes at an international school in East China for the past four years. In that time, my school’s enrollment figures have soared, in no small part thanks to its increased emphasis on English-language learning and teaching. Today, it’s expected for even local teachers to exclusively speak English in the classroom, regardless of their accent or ability to express themselves.
But is anybody actually benefitting from this embrace of English-language learning? Admittedly, immersion in a target-language environment is generally accepted by educators, parents, and learners as one of the best ways to learn a foreign language, but whenever the discussion turns to immersion learning, I can’t help but think of a conversation I had with a struggling student last year.
I had just finished giving my first lesson of the year entirely in English when he approached me after class. “Are you a foreigner?” he asked in his own faltering English.
“I am Chinese,” I replied.
He frowned. “Why did you keep using English then?”
“Because the language will soak into your mind this way,” I explained, smiling.
He looked disappointed. “I can’t understand one word,” he replied. “What’s the point?"
As a young teacher, I take pride in ensuring my classroom is inclusive of all students and their needs. Yet I’ve gradually come to realize that international schools’ obsession with all-English instruction isn’t aimed at helping the students, but their parents. Once, the mother of a boy in my class asked me not to give any Chinese definitions of English words; she also insisted that her son use an English-English dictionary.
The kids are less enthused. “It is us that are learning. Not our parents. We didn’t ask for this,” one student confided in me.
To better understand my students’ needs, I conducted a survey at my school. The results were definitive: 83% of students were opposed to English-only teaching. Some gave academic reasons, such as believing that there was nothing wrong with teaching English grammar in Chinese, since the primary goal is to understand the rules. Others vented, complaining that they often feel lost in class, sometimes to the point of giving up altogether.
A few took a more global perspective, seeing the curriculum as a threat to their native culture. As one 14-year-old wrote: “I’m Chinese. I should know the Chinese language very well first. And I wouldn’t say I like it that my cousins go abroad and speak fluent English and never come back. That’s how brain drain happens.”
Squeezed between my students and my school, I reached out to an experienced teacher, Zhang, who has taught English at international schools and colleges in East China for almost a decade. In that time, she has repeatedly been told by school administrators not to speak any Chinese in the classroom. Nevertheless, she said she is sympathetic to her students’ struggles and allows a five-minute “Mandarin Time” in each period, during which anyone can ask questions or converse in their native language. She also approves of using Mandarin when giving peer feedback on complex topics.
Her students learn more effectively this way, Zhang told me. Her bosses disagree, and at one point her conduct was labeled “unprofessional” by the school’s foreign directors. The directors are responsible for supervising teachers’ in-class performance, their assessment of which plays an important role in teachers’ annual review and directly affects their promotion prospects.
Language of instruction is an easy target in these assessments, and its importance can sometimes supersede even a person’s teaching ability. At my school, departmental supervisors and principals — foreign and local alike — expect all teachers to use English as the medium of instruction. This is especially true of open and demo classes.
It is difficult for local teachers to push back against this system, partly because if schools, parents, and students agree on one thing, it’s that they’re here for our foreign colleagues, not us. Although most private international schools in China are led by Chinese, foreign teachers enjoy a privileged position and their words carry more weight than their local counterparts. I remember struggling to calm an unruly class down until my American colleague showed up and settled their revolt like magic. It was not that he was strict; the students simply tend to treat their foreign teachers with more respect. After all, they’re the reason their families are paying for them to attend an international school.
That explains why the ratio of foreign to local faculty matters so much to families. Generally speaking, the more foreign teachers a school has, the higher its enrollment figures will be. Foreign faces have long been a major selling point for international schools. On a typical open day at my school, foreign teachers will welcome parents at the school gate and their pictures are the ones that appear on the brochures handed out to prospective students and their parents.
There are some legitimate reasons for this: International schools rely on foreign teachers to lead flagship offerings such as A-level, AP, and IB courses — classes they themselves generally took or taught in their home countries. But for local teachers, it can feel like we’re abandoning our mother tongue not for pedagogical reasons, but in order to come off more like a foreign teacher. This also involves avoiding the use of traditional Chinese teaching philosophies like rote learning and strict classroom discipline in favor of Western classroom norms. Memorizing words or texts is verboten, as it is a quick way to kill the kids’ creativity; students can answer questions from their chairs; and individuality always comes before conformity.
It can be frustrating turning my back on the learning philosophy that shaped my formative years while watching my students spend their time and tuition fees on fashionable but often ineffective “creative learning” methods or English-only instruction, but there’s little I can do. Ultimately, however, cultivating talents capable of feeling equally at home in China and the West requires a blend of foreign and local wisdom, not just copying from the U.S. or Europe.
Editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Visual elements from iStock and 500px/People Visual, reedited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)