On December 24, 2005, some 5.3 million Chinese students sat for the College English Test, Bands 4 and 6, yet another strong indication that the business of English is well and truly catching on in China, to the pleasure of many who profit from it. But have things gone a little too far?
The study of English as an important subject of learning is not new in China. On November 28, 2005, activities were organized to mark the 90th birth anniversary of Xu Guozhang, one of China's most famous English educators and linguists.
While little has changed in terms of the importance placed on the study of English, much has changed as far as teaching methods and the pursuit for profit.
English as a business only made its indelible mark in China in the 1990s. Li Yang, described by Asiaweek as "China's most successful English teacher and a pop-cult figure" ("Pumping Up the Volume", July 30, 1999), is one of those who changed the face of English instruction.
According to a December 2005 issue of Oriental Outlook, Li is more a down-to-earth businessman than a passionate idealist, although he still doggedly promotes his "crazy" teaching model. Once a shy and introverted youngster, Li claims to have discovered a unique way to learn English after he failed an English exam in Lanzhou University. "Read out loud" and "Don't be afraid to lose face" are his more popular slogans. The result is students repeatedly screaming out English words and phrases during lessons; hence the term "crazy English" or "feng kuang ying yu" in Chinese.
Driven by the profitable prospect of helping 300 million Chinese people to speak excellent English, Li founded the Li Yang Crazy English Studio in 1994. His Crazy English methods have been embraced by over 20 million people in over 100 cities of China.
His lecture tours are likened to rock concerts. "He's like a rock star on the stage, and we're like fans who are inspired to shout English out loud," a part-time teacher told Oriental Outlook, but she admitted "we don't speak English like that in our everyday life."
Copycats soon followed, and some even more "crazy" than Li. David Specchio, an English teacher, and 30 Chinese students participated in what was described as a record-breaking "world's longest lesson," which began at 10:00 AM on September 9, 2005 and ended 72 hours later. The stunt was performed at the English First Training School in Shanghai. A doctor was onsite to ensure the physical well-being of the students. Also present were two independent monitors who logged the event, which will be validated by the Guinness Book of World Records. Participants were given a 15-minute break from their class every eight hours, and ate high carbohydrate foods like rice, vegetables and fruit. They reportedly completed three months worth of English lessons.
That the Chinese are "crazy" about English is not an overstatement. A report co-published by Sina.com, zexiao.com and China Radio International last January showed that there were more than 50,000 training institutes in the country. The report also found that the domestic English training market value hit 15 billion yuan by 2004, predicting a rise to 30 billion yuan by 2010.
As more Chinese people go abroad and more foreigners come to China for business, English has become even more important in recent times. To the Chinese, a working knowledge of English is a passport to graduation, the key to overseas study, and a decent job in a foreign enterprise.
Under China's national education system, English is taught in primary schools from the third grade, with numerous examinations along the way, whether as part of vocational training or selection for government-sponsored overseas study.
In addition, the private sector has put a premium on English, with many service industries insisting on some English skills from employees be they taxi drivers or hotel staff.
Of the various proficiency tests, the most influential are the College English Test Bands 4 and 6 (CET-4 and CET-6 respectively), administered by the Ministry of Education.
Millions sit these tests every year.
Before the system was reformed last February, the CET-4 and CET-6 were two of the most important tests a student of English could sit. A university undergraduate had to pass the CET-4 in order to obtain a bachelor's degree, or the CET-6 for a double or master's degree. CET-6 was important for Chinese companies hunting for talent. Whether or not the person would ever use English again either in his personal or professional life was beside the point.
This gave rise to a huge cheat market where test questions were leaked over the Internet for a fee, or where whole test papers could be purchased online.
In February 2005, Wu Qidi, vice minister of education, announced that the tests were voluntary and were not to be used as conditions for graduation.
But 16 of Beijing's universities felt differently. Tan Yuzhi, vice director of educational administration of China Agriculture University, said in an interview with Beijing Star Daily that proficiency testing will encourage the development of English education in schools, while most companies still consider good CET-4 or 6 test scores as a necessary gauge of their future employees' potential.
And so the business of English continues to flourish.
Institutes offer training for major international proficiency and qualifications tests including SAT, GRE (Graduate Record Examinations), GMAT (General Management Admission Test), TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and IELTS (International English Language Testing System), with TOEFL and GRE growing in popularity since the United States loosened its visa policy in 2004, allowing 26 percent more Chinese students into the country.
Three key players dominate the English training industry: the traditional institutes that are offshoots of the universities; foreign ventures including English First, and Wall Street English; domestic schools such as New Oriental, New Channel, and Li Yang's Crazy English.
These players target different sectors of society. Wall Street English, for example, charges students 7,000 yuan for each of its 17 grades of the training process.
English is undoubtedly big business. New Oriental reportedly made a profit of 700 million yuan in 2005. In addition to training, the publication of teaching materials is also a soaring trade. The Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press reported sales of over 1 billion yuan in 2005.
But quite aside from the millions to be made in the English market, questions have been raised as to the reasons why English is so popular. Is it the love of the language and a thirst for learning, or is it really only to pass exams and get good jobs?
Further, doubts have been raised as to whether the training provided by institutes actually teaches English or merely examination skills.
Hu Min, president of New Channel School, highlighted three major challenges facing China's English training market: a lack of innovative and creative textbooks developed domestically; a lack of specialists who really know about administration and training; and a need for institutes to develop alongside changing proficiency and recruitment policies.
But for the moment, people continue to make money from the teaching of English; business owners, teachers and students. "Everyone's happy," said Zhou Wen, the owner of a small training institute.
(China.org.cn by Zhang Rui January 10, 2006)