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Language of loathing

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily | Updated: 2013-09-20 16:31

The latest wave of opposition to the ubiquity of English teaching has been lapped up eagerly by some in China. But this opposition may be based more on the way language, or anything, is taught.

Wang Xuming was the spokesman for China's Ministry of Education before he was transferred to the position of president of the Language & Culture Press. His outspokenness set him apart when he was speaking for the government agency, and now his stance as a maverick is even more evident - as shown in his personal micro blog.

Recently, Wang made headlines when he proposed abolishing English teaching in elementary schools to make room for more Chinese classics. This received mixed responses. Some say, "yes, we should place more emphasis on Chinese language and literature", but that does not have to come at the expense of English learning.

The backlash against English is nothing new. In a sense, it is the corollary of its rampancy and perceived supremacy. A decade ago, Chen Danqing, who was then a professor at Tsinghua University, lamented that some of his brightest students could not get ahead because they flunked their mandatory English tests. But they majored in fine arts, which do not require English proficiency unless when they engage in overseas exchanges.

The teaching of English as a second language, or ESL for short, has become a fashion of sorts for the globalization-conscious Chinese. Ever since China opened up to the outside world in the late 1970s, English has been more or less a prerequisite for a basic education, first with middle school and above and then pushed lower and lower, until even kindergartens now offer lessons.

This has created a chain of interests, which, in the eyes of Wang Xuming, is the root of the problem. He cited one primary school that offers an additional English course for 500 yuan ($82; 61 euros), including audio-video material. Sure, it's optional, he said, but every parent opted in. The bottom line is, he insists, English should not be offered before a student reaches 4th grade.

I agree with Wang that the blind devotion to ESL is wasting a lot of resources. Students whose career prospects have nothing to do with another country have to pass obligatory tests to obtain diplomas or degrees. But that is not the fault of English, but rather the fault of China's education system, which is so intractable it is quite difficult to revise a curriculum.

It's not just ESL, but all kinds of mandatory courses that contain little useful knowledge whatsoever. An intern recently told me that her school still uses cases from no later than the 1980s in its journalism course. China's journalism, for God's sake, has been through a roller-coaster ride in the past two decades.

Language of loathing

What I don't agree with Wang on is his blaming ESL for the deficiency in Chinese classics education. You can argue that the time spent on ESL could be diverted to the more worthy topic of national culture. Truth is, those Chinese well versed in English are usually ardent lovers of their mother tongue. And members of the I-hate-English club tend to loathe Chinese classics as neither carries much pragmatic value.

Most people will tell you that a foreign language like English can open up a new vista for you. That's very true. An added bonus, for me, is that English is a constant reminder of the beauty of Chinese. It provides me with a new perspective when I come into contact with the language I was born with and had taken granted for. In daily life, one's need for language is quite limited. But once you explore its literature, you begin to inhabit a parallel world of two languages and two cultures.

When I read Shakespeare, I cannot help thinking how a great line can be expressed in Chinese. And my failure to come up with an equally memorable Chinese version is a testament to my insufficient vocabulary in the Chinese language. And vice versa, when I ponder the poetry of Li Bai.

I went to school at the tail end of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) and it was the all-engulfing political movement, not the encroachment of another language, that deprived me of a proper education in all the great Chinese classics.

In education as in the rest of life, some things are necessities while others are luxuries. Skills for getting jobs belong to the former, and sophistication of taste to the latter.

For those who believe they depend on a certain level of English proficiency for high-paying jobs, learning it is a task they have to take on whether they like it or not. But English, or any other language, can also be a source of enjoyment and a portal to treasure-troves of knowledge. As such, students should be given the option of mastering the language as a tool of communication or a wellspring of self-enrichment, or of not choosing to learn it if they deem it unnecessary.

Cramming it down the throat of everyone, willy-nilly, has not created a nation of cosmopolitan ESL speakers, as many in the West like to believe. It has given rise to a culture of sprinkling otherwise perfect Chinese conversations with English words. As it stands, China is a country of extremely limited and bad English as can be testified by the ubiquitous street signs that are often cause for unintended humor. The publishing house that Wang presides over has a book titled "'In' words for chronicling 2011's China", with the word "In" in English, meaning "in vogue". I think this kind of practice is in bad taste even though I won't call for a boycott.

There is no point protecting the purity of one's mother language. When it is strong, it won't be dragged down by an avalanche of loan words from other tongues. When it is weak, no measures can really prevent it from slipping into secondary importance. The question is not whether English is worth learning, but the right approach to it. And the same for Chinese. The methodology down the millennia, i.e. learning by rote, has drained every ounce of fun from it. That's why it's so hard to find a student who loves one language but hates another. They hate both with equal gusto.

Language teaching should not be boiled down to memorizing a set of rules. As Wang Xuming states clearly: "The change that is most needed is teachers using loads of rubbish to cram students with dead knowledge. China's education won't see a quantum leap if this is not changed fundamentally." The method unfit for teaching Chinese, I believe, is also unfit for teaching another language.

Ultimately, each student or parent should make the decision whether it is in their best interest to invest the enormous amount of time and other resources needed into acquiring the necessary knowledge to use that language. Of all the people who dip their toes into the muddy waters, only a few are able to wade through it. Of course, you cannot say all is wasted because the process can be as rewarding as the result. People should be allowed to pick up or leave off wherever they see fit in the course of language learning.

This does not apply to Chinese though, which is our native language. But beyond the basic skill of communication, one's willingness to delve into the intricacies and richness of the language, which studying the classics will entail, should likewise be one's own choice.

Contact the writer at raymondzhou@chinadaily.com.cn

Language of loathing

A recent call to cancel English learning in elementary schools has triggered a heated public debate. Yu Huali / for China Daily

( China Daily Africa Weekly 09/20/2013 page30)