Insight & Opinion

Why can’t Chinese graduates speak good English? Blame the teaching methods

Philip Yeung says English-language proficiency will only improve when teachers look past rote memorisation and encourage students to learn how to learn

Philip Yeung UPDATED :

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The Chinese have a love-hate relationship with English. It is the “language of opportunity” – the passport to a coveted overseas education, a well-paid job or foreign citizenship. Zhang Lu, the photogenic English-speaking interpreter for top leaders, is mobbed everywhere she goes, while state interpreters of other languages remain obscure.

But despite its prestige, English is taught unimaginatively on the mainland. Students there say the only significant learning occurs in the first three years of junior secondary, the final three years of high school having been hijacked by endless drills for college entrance exams.

English is mandatory in the first two years in a Chinese university. But the language is taught bookishly, short on functional skills. College graduation calls for CET (College English Test) level 4 or 6 standards. But employers complain that few graduates are prepared even for the simple tasks of writing or responding to an English email or answering business phone calls, much less conducting trade negotiations with foreign clients. There is talk of dropping English from the required curriculum in some jurisdictions.

Students recite the classics during an activity to greet the new semester at Shuguang Primary School in Hefei, capital of Anhui Province, on August 30. Photo: Xinhua

China’s rigid college entrance exam is failing the tests of equality and diversity

What has gone wrong? First, there is a singular lack of method. The basic approach is backward – memorising individual vocabulary words and incomprehensible grammar rules. Any effective approach must address two questions: first, how is it that you can understand every word in an English sentence and yet fail to understand its overall meaning? Second, after attaining basic proficiency, why is further progress in English elusive, however hard you study? This is true of many Chinese scholars who return home after decades in the US.

As long as English teaching is hitched to rote learning, Chinese students are denied the chance to “learn how to learn,” or sensitivity training in “pattern recognition”, especially necessary in developing writing skills. It has been said that native speakers, unlike non-natives, learn by “subconscious” acquisition, but I know that students can be taught “subconscious” learning once they acquire pattern recognition.

Each year, nearly half a million Chinese students go abroad. China may be the world’s second-largest economy, but Indian nationals vastly outnumber the Chinese in leading Fortune 500 companies or American universities. China lacks the soft power of English communication. This challenge should not be left to cram schools or tutorial centres, as being exam-savvy doesn’t translate into functionality. English teaching must be reimagined to prepare our people for global citizenship and leadership.

Philip Yeung is a former speechwriter to the president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. PKY480@gmail.com

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