Study shows teaching of English is paying off
The results of a survey on the use of English, in which China edged ahead of India, illustrate the rapid change in the mainland population's relationship with the language.
The change has come as a result of government policies and public perception of the benefits of having a good command of English.
The mainland made the language compulsory from the third year of primary school in 2005.
According to 'English Next', a study commissioned by the British Council in 2010, such policies have resulted in the mainland producing more than 20 million English speakers a year. The trend has been recognised by language educator EF-English First, which conducted the survey and has 140 of its 400 branches worldwide on the mainland.
'For developing countries to compete successfully in global industries and capitalise on the business outsourcing boom, the ability to produce large numbers of skilled graduates who speak English is a priority,' Bill Fisher, president of EF's online learning division Englishtown, said.
Educators say it seems likely the pursuit of English is taking place mainly in cities.
'English-language learning is a growing trend, and is principally learnt by those who want to go into foreign trade or colleges overseas because of the perception that a foreign education is superior to one that can be found locally,' Leo Gong, deputy principal of the Hangzhou Entel Foreign Language School, said.
EF executive vice-president, Ming Chen, said people aged 16 to 30 made up the bulk of the subjects of the worldwide survey, in which Scandinavian countries came out on top.
'This was true in China, a country that is dedicated to learning English,' she said.
In another survey by the EF, 3,086 users of mainland messaging site QQ said their reasons for wanting to speak English were personal, as well as professional.
Just over 80 per cent believed that good English helped career development and 84 per cent said speaking English made one more charming.
Gong said the case of India was rather different in that English was an official language there. 'In India the role of English is more established, so they grow up speaking English', he said, adding that English was a colonial remnant in India, rather than a tool to compete.
It will however take much longer for knowledge of the language to spread evenly throughout the population and truly place China ahead of India in terms of English proficiency.
'On a whole we are doing better but we certainly have a long way to go,' Gong said.
On the whole Asia performed badly in the study with only Malaysian participants reaching an average score defined as of high proficiency - on average 55.54 out of 100.
The bottom three countries - Thailand, Turkey and Kazakhstan - were all in Asia, Kazakhstan faring worst with an average of 31.74.
The top country was Norway, with the Netherlands and Denmark in second and third.
The mainland is producing 20 million English speakers each year
It outscored India in a test of English proficiency. India has this many English speakers, according to its 2001 census: 125m