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What We Use in China


Section I: Teaching English in China continued

What is the EFL Industry Like in China?

English language learning can be accurately thought of as a national obsession in China with an estimated 325 million people (one-fifth the population) studying English at any given time with an expenditure of over $60 billion per year on English language learning materials (Frank, 2006). English language books for children represent the fastest growing segment of English language learning materials in China comprising between two to three thousand titles and approximately 5 percent of the overall publishing market for children’s books in China (Zhang, 2009).

Historically, the English language—to the degree it was associated with Western culture—was generally not well received until 1978 when Deng Xiaoping came into power and operationalized Zhou En Lai’s Four Modernizations. In essence, the English language was then viewed as a necessary tool for achieving the country’s goals towards becoming a world economic power. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that the English language became a compulsory subject in the Gao Kao exam, China’s college entrance exam, and the Ministry of Education promulgated its “exposure to a native speaker” requirement at all public schools and universities (Zuo, 2008).

All these forces came together to produce an ever-growing market of English language education in China that has resulted in a massive recruitment drive of approximately 100,000 foreign teachers per year (People’s Daily Online, 2006) and, in 2006, it was estimated that more than 150,000 foreign experts were employed in China, recruited primarily from Australia, Canada, England, New Zealand and the United States (China Daily, 2006).

Why the Chinese Want to Learn English

China has one of the world's oldest civilizations with a rich and fascinating cultural history. It is also a country of stark contrasts and contradictions. Life in China is heavily influenced and adversely affected by gross overcrowding, ubiquitous air and water pollution, as well as some unfavorable climatic conditions. It is also one of the world's fastest growing economies, particularly since its admittance into the World Trade Organization in December 2001.

Consider just a few representative statistics: In 2004, China contributed one-third of the world's economic growth. In 2005, the country achieved 14 percent of the world economy on purchasing power parity basis, second only to the United States and, in 2006, the average annual income in China rose to USD $2,025, up from only $293 in 1985 (World Bank, 2008).

Chairman Mao

As China continues to develop and reach out to the rest of the world, especially in the now historical context of having prepared for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, the importance of learning English appears obvious.  However, some have raised provocative questions about the practical usefulness of English for most Chinese in their day-to-day lives. In fact, most Chinese have never met a foreigner in person, nor do they have much opportunity to use or practice English outside of their English language classes. In the absence of any real need to use English functionally on a daily basis, it has been estimated that the total percentage of English language users in China (as opposed to learners) is .77 percent (1 out of every 130 people; Yang, 2006).

Nevertheless, English as a foreign language is required curriculum from 3rd grade in primary school through the third year of university. Technically speaking, college students must pass the College English Test, Band 4 (CET-4), or an equivalent, in order to receive a bachelor's degree: Those who do not, only receive a 3-year college diploma instead.Non-English majors must pass the CET Band 4 (CET-4), while English majors must pass the TEM Band 4 (TEM-4): Test for English Majors. This policy has raised a lot of controversy among Chinese educators and is in the process of being reevaluated. In reality, many universities bypass this requirement by offering an "equivalent" examination that is so simple, any student can pass it.

Currently, the majority of employers who hire recent graduates require some evidence of English language proficiency, despite the fact that the vast majority of their employees will only need to use English in a marginal or peripheral way, at best, throughout their entire careers. Despite this reality, it is the widely-held and firmly entrenched perception of future economic advantage that ultimately prevails and Chinese parents, many at great economic sacrifice, will pay tuition for their child's English language lessons from the time the child is as young as four years old.

Depending on location, one hour of English language classes with a foreign teacher can cost anywhere from 15 to 50 yuan (USD $2.15 to $7.15) per child, for classes up to 25 to 30 students in size, and as much as 250 yuan (USD $35.75) per hour for private tutoring. To place this into proper perspective, the typical cost of a six-month course of English language study at most private language schools will run the child’s parents around 25 to 30 percent of one month’s combined family income, when you consider that the national monthly average per capita income in China is currently about 1,500 yuan (USD $210). Despite this significant financial sacrifice to both parents and adult learners alike, private English language schools remain one of the largest and fastest growing businesses across the country.

The next chapter offers the reader an overview of exactly what oral English teachers are expected to teach in China, followed by a TEFL (teaching English as a Foreign Language) Primer for those who are unfamiliar with the field.


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Middle Kingdom Life is the premier award-winning educational website for foreign teachers and Western expats in China. It was founded by an American professor in psychology and sociology for the purpose of disseminating valid and reliable information about living and teaching in China. The site's mission is to protect and enhance the interests and social welfare of foreign teachers and Western expats in China.

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