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

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 October, 2013, 6:56pm
UPDATED : Monday, 11 November, 2013, 12:19pm

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.