Proposals to Downgrade English in Schools Stir Debate in China
Proposals to downgrade English from being a compulsory subject in Chinese schools have stirred heated debate in China over recent days, with rural parents appearing more supportive of the idea than those living in major Chinese cities.
For decades, English has been a compulsory subject in all Chinese schools from primary school through high school — the only class to receive this status apart from Chinese and math.
But that could be about to change. At this year’s “two sessions” — an annual meeting of China’s top legislative and advisory bodies, which concluded Monday — several representatives proposed scaling back English teaching.
Chen Weizhi, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body, suggested reducing the role of English in schools in several ways, as the subject is poorly taught and given an excessive emphasis in the curriculum.
These proposals included scrapping English classes for first and second graders, and making English an optional rather than a compulsory subject in China’s most important national exams: namely, the high school enrolment exams, or zhongkao, and college entrance exams, known as the gaokao.
Tuo Qingming, a deputy to the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislative body, also proposed reducing the importance of English in the gaokao.
He said that since most people don’t use English in their daily lives, learning the language was unnecessarily adding to the pressure on students. Scaling back English teaching would also help combat inequality, as urban children find it easier to access language learning resources than those in rural areas, he suggested.
“The weight (given to English) in college entrance exams should be lowered to ease the pressure on students, especially those from rural schools,” Tuo said.
It is unclear whether any of these proposals will be taken forward and become official policy. Similar ideas have been discussed repeatedly at the “two sessions,” with a proposal to cancel English exams in the gaokao in 2017 also generating heated debate online.
In 2017, polls suggested that the Chinese public was split down the middle over the issue, with some surveys showing a slender majority in favor of downgrading English in the gaokao.
Now, the new proposals are once again stirring discussion. On Monday, a well-known education influencer known as Zeicha published a widely shared article in support of English language learning.
In the article, Zeicha said the argument that “most people won’t be using English in their life and work” did not make sense, as few people used classical Chinese or complicated algebra in their daily lives either. What’s more, English remains a common lingua franca for people all over the world working in business, science, and technology.
“Most of the top technologies in the world today are still based on English,” Zeicha wrote on their account on the social app WeChat. “English is only a tool. It has nothing to do with cultural confidence.”
Parents who spoke with Sixth Tone shared a variety of views on the proposals, with those living outside China’s major cities appearing more supportive.
Lei Yan, a mother of three children from a rural county in central China’s Hunan province, said that she was in favor of downgrading English, as teaching her children English was time-consuming and expensive.
“If you want your child to perform well in exams, you have to give them extra tuition outside school,” Lei told Sixth Tone. “But the language will not necessarily be an essential tool in my children’s future lives. Neither picking up a job in the civil service nor taking over our small family business will require English skills.”
Xu, another mother from the northwestern province of Gansu, said she wanted English to be given less weight in China’s national exams, but added that she still wanted her children to learn the language at school.
“I assume that learning the language will benefit the kids in some way or other in the future,” said Xu. “But I’m afraid that the fact our family doesn’t have the right resources will put my kids at a disadvantage in those life-changing exams, where the English test scores matter as much as those in Chinese and math.”
Meanwhile, children in some parts of China already appear to be spending less time in English classes than in the past.
In 2021, China launched a major campaign known as “double reduction” aimed at reducing the pressure on schoolchildren. A major goal of this policy was to prevent families from investing huge sums to send their children to private extracurricular lessons in subjects such as math and English.
The policy already appears to be having an effect. A teacher at a tutoring firm in Shanghai told Sixth Tone that it is clear young students are now spending less time studying English than before “double reduction” began.
Public schools in Beijing and Shanghai have also gradually been reducing the number of English classes students receive per week in recent years, parents and teachers in both cities told Sixth Tone. Students in grades one and two now typically receive two or three English lessons per week, whereas they often receive Chinese classes every day.
Most urban parents who spoke with Sixth Tone said they were opposed to scrapping English classes, even for first and second graders.
“It’s better for kids to start learning a foreign language at a young age,” said Wang Qinglan, a mother living in Shanghai. “I’m not making my child do too much extra learning. In fact, to save him from the grueling competition (here), I’m planning to send him abroad to study when he finishes middle school. But English skills will be essential no matter what happens.”
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: Left-behind children receive an English class at a tutoring school in Zaozhuang, Shandong province, July 19, 2018. VCG)