BEIJING, China – English language education is a major issue in East Asia. China, Japan and South Korea seek to improve English proficiency among their populations, especially since instruction methods and personal interest are major hurdles.
English Language Education
Certain factors contribute to English language education being a problem in East Asia. English is completely different from Chinese, Japanese or Korean, for instance. East Asian native languages each have writing systems and sentence structures that are dissimilar to those of the English language.
Moreover, population size is indicative of how many English speakers are in East Asian countries. China has the largest population at 1.35 billion, while the Japanese population is 127 million and the population of South Korea is 50 million. Comparing the numbers of English speakers is eye-opening.
China had 400 million people learning English when the decade first began. English-language training had a market value of $7.5 billion in 2011. English is a major business in China.
This is especially true since China, Japan and South Korea all require English as a subject on their college entrance exams. The number of students who took those exams further reflects the number of English speakers in each nation according to population size.
China had 9.12 million students take the Gaokao college entrance exam in 2013. It is an undergraduate degree requirement for students at Chinese universities to pass the College English Test (CET) as well. The CET tested 9.38 million students in 2013.
Japan and South Korea had much lower numbers for 2013 than China, however. South Korea’s College Scholastic Aptitude Test (CSAT) had 650,000 test takers while the National Center Test in Japan had 570,000 students take the exam.
Furthermore, English instruction in China has been aimed at passing the entrance exam rather than communication ability. For example, teachers taught English spelling and grammar, but did not speak English with students.
However, China, Japan and South Korea now use communicative language teaching (CLT) and English immersion to improve communication skills, but there are still flaws.
Conflicts with English
The cultural values and beliefs related to English can also conflict with those related to native languages, thus affecting the progression of English language education.
English as the prominent subject in a curriculum can devalue the importance of other subjects. Essential subjects such as those concerning the native language and advanced sciences could weaken. In fact, students would miss out on key fundamentals such as basic native language literacy.
The skills of Chinese youth have declined, a fact which critics blame on the high emphasis placed on English.
Beijing, however, plans to rectify the problem by 2016. English classes will begin in third grade rather than the first while greater emphasis will be placed on Chinese over English for the Gaokao exam.
As it stands, English proficiency will not fare well if it is not seen as a public good by society. For example, Japan struggles with this matter because the wider society has not come to perceive or accept English as beneficial.
The disinterest the Japanese have in English may come from the fact that Japan is already firmly established in the global economy, to which the per capita GDP growth in 2012 is a strong indicator. The World Bank reported that Japan had a 7.3 percent per capita GDP while China’s was 2.1 percent and South Korea’s was 1.6 percent.
The United Nations, furthermore, categorizes Japan as a developed economy and both China and South Korea as developing economies.
China is, in fact, developing a domestic consumer class served by homegrown companies, thus allowing less jobs to require English proficiency. Could the interest in English among the Chinese decline like that of the Japanese if economic growth is sustained? Only time will tell.
– Brittany Mannings