• Sat
  • Jul 26, 2014
  • Updated: 6:05am
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 October, 2013, 6:56pm
UPDATED : Monday, 11 November, 2013, 12:19pm

Study English for the test of life

Kelly Yang says the reason Chinese students should learn English is so they can exchange ideas, not to pass university entrance exams

Last week I was having coffee with a few other parents. The topic of professions came up. I told the group that I am an English writing teacher. However, I was woefully unprepared for the looks of pity I got back. Has learning English become "so last season?"

If the Chinese gaokao is any indication, the answer is yes. Last week, the Chinese education authorities announced that the English language section of the gaokao, the Chinese national university entrance exam, will be cut substantially. The English sections of the exam will now earn 100 points instead of 150. In comparison, the Chinese portions will earn 180, up from 150. In addition, in Shandong , English listening skills will be excluded from next year's English test paper.

This is in line with what many Chinese politicians have been saying lately about shifting the focus away from English back to Chinese. In March, Zhang Shuhua, a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, criticised English learning as being "destructive", resulting in an "unprecedented crisis" in education.

Indeed, a 2010 study by China Youth Daily showed that 80 per cent of people polled agreed that Chinese skills were deteriorating. More than half blamed this on the emphasis on foreign language study.

As an English teacher, I applaud the shift in gaokao, particularly the much-welcomed change to allow students to take the test twice a year instead of just once a year. However, my support is not because I think English is unimportant. It's because I believe English is not a language best learned through tests.

I'll never forget the time my cousin in mainland China was preparing for the gaokao. He turned to me, practically in tears with frustration, and demanded to know how I remembered the difference between past perfect tense and past continuous tense. I shrugged and admitted I didn't remember the exact rules off the top of my head. "But you speak and write such good English!" he exclaimed.

I told him the same thing I tell my students in Hong Kong. English is best learned through doing. In order to speak and write it well, you have to use it every day. The best thing you can do to learn English grammar is to pick up a real book, not a grammar workbook.

The problem with the gaokao and other English grammar tests is that they completely sap students' interest in the language. Instead of embracing English as a beautiful language and an art form, students see it as a stubborn and sneaky trap, designed to trick them at every opportunity. If forced to do enough of these tests, these kids might become experts at identifying misplaced modifiers, but weak at - or, even worse, fearful of - actually exchanging ideas.

That would be a shame, too, because exchanging ideas is the real point of learning English or any other language. And given that an estimated 750 million people around the world speak English, Chinese students should continue to learn it; not for the gaokao, but for another exam - the exam of life.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School.



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This article is now closed to comments

It is a pity that other than international schools or few elite schools, HK schools do not have the atmosphere to promote the student's interest in English. The curriculum is simply too dry focusing on preparing students for high scores in examination but not on how to use it to communicate. Also the heavy workload and long school time (esp in primary school )is depriving student time for relaxation and at the end, the students find it more and more difficult to find time to learn English in an informal or more interested way, like seeing a English cartoon/film or reading a comics/magazine, out of a tight schedule. We emphasize work life balance but who care about study life balance for our students particularly the primary student.
The reality is that until English language learners start to use the language for communication, their results will be poor. After teaching English for over 30 years, a consistent theme has been that students who are interested in things, other people, ideas and wish to talk about that and more are the ones who are more likely to succeed.
The ones who approach language as study are the ones most likely to not succeed. Language is not like studying accountancy or other subjects. You can study them and somehow get the results. Language is entirely different. language requires personal involvement, interest, engagement, etc
Important thing is to get out there and USE the language!
Enjoy! :-)
These comments are all on the mark. I noticed when studying Chinese 20-30 years ago that the students studying Chinese out of interest in the culture and the language did much better the students studying Japanese just to make more money. Likewise just studying for the gaokao is not motivation enough.
I always recommend students to read English newspapers daily. Newspaper offers a variety of reading material and never stale. Capturing one's interest in following up a news and a story motivates one to learn English daily. I have done that myself. I have a whole range of reading materials from newspaper to magazine. For topical books, i have to make an effort.
I was a member once when I was a kid of SCMP's Sunday section way back in the 60s..
Of course, learning Chinese only is a one-way ticket into a linguistic ghetto, but it is a vibrant ghetto of more than a billion people, albeit a mainly Putonghua-speaking one with various prejudices against those who speak it with a regional accent.
In a globalized world, speaking Cantonese alone is a virtual dead end, even in Hong Kong!
Americans, as a general matter, speak English only, so they are also in their own kind of linguistic ghetto, but their language is the universal language. They can get on almost anywhere in the world.
If you want to get on outside of China, you better learn English. The good thing is, you don't need perfect English; you just need enough to be understood, and no one will ask you to take a test.
Cantonese is a first language of 60 million people and second language of tens of more millions, particularly in Guangdong. Learning Cantonese enriched my life and made me enjoy Hong Kong and Guangdong much more. Don't disparage that which you have not seen fit to even try to learn. Don't expect Hong Kong and Guangdong people to accomodate your inadequacies. Should you be too old, too busy or too incapable to learn much Cantonese, don't discourage those that do want to learn.
Some years ago I had advocated in SCMP’s letter writing that Chinese students shouldn’t waste their time trying to learn English. While I was appalled by the low proficiency after years of formal learning of English in school, the more reason is the amount of time devoted to it that takes away learning other subjects or playtime. All at the same time, translated books in Chinese had become so accessible in bookstores. China has many language universities training professional translators in English as well in many other foreign languages. There is no compelling reason for every Chinese student especially those who possess no language aptitude not to concentrate on what they should be learning and good at. The best guide is it is better to learn one language well than two poorly. The service from Google translate is improving too.
A recent article in SCMP is saying the following for me:
Study: One in four Chinese students drop out of Ivy League schools
‘The students, who were all high-achievers in China, were unable to adapt to the new environment largely due to differences in the educational system and language barriers, said the 2013 Overseas-returned Graduate Recruitment Report citing statistics collected from the universities.’
Obviously the statistic will include you if you were admitted in an Ivy League school. I advise you aim lower or just concentrate do what you can do best.


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