BEIJING — After months of public debate, China’s Education Ministry has finally decided that the college entrance exam will no longer include the subject of English. Instead, students will take several English tests spread over the course of the school year.

This recurring topic is once again heated, bitterly dividing those with starkly divergent viewpoints. People who wanted to eliminate English from the college entrance exam believe that teaching the language in China emphasizes only reading and writing while neglecting speaking and daily use. They argue that China’s English instruction has become entirely exam-oriented. 

Meanwhile, opponents are convinced that axing English from the college entrance exam represents a terrible regression in China’s approach to the rest of the world. They also believe that this decision will lead to English instruction being neglected in primary and secondary school curriculums, which would be particularly harmful for rural children. They note that while urban children from economically stable backgrounds could supplement their education with off-campus courses to boost their English, children from rural regions would have even less to offer in the future job market.

What sometimes is lost in the debate is that the the original vision of the Education Ministry was to relieve at least some of the heavy studying burden on Chinese pupils.

I too am circumspect about repealing English from the college entrance exam, though my reason is different from those described above. First, it is highly improbable that this measure will lighten the load of studying for Chinese children. As long as the future of students “is fixed for life with the college entrance exam,” as is the common refrain  about this all-important test, the time saved from studying English will simply be used to reinforce other subjects. Talk of “relieving the students’ burden” is just empty rhetoric.  

Besides, from a pragmatic and rational perspective, English is the world’s dominant language today. Whether in scientific, commercial or cultural exchanges, English is the most universal and useful language. The better our students master it, the more advantageous for our country’s scientific, technological and cultural development. Learning English well is not a question of ideology but simply a critical part of self-development. Because English is so important globally, it is of course better to learn it as early, as systematically, and in as institutional a way as possible.

Morning exercise for schoolchildren in Xi'an — Photo: Tom Thai

The strength of the English language is historic, and from a linguistic perspective, it is also relatively easy to learn. Certain countries — in particular those that attach great importance to competitiveness and ambition, such as South Korea, Japan and Singapore — pay a lot of attention to English learning. After Singapore became independent, then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew made English one of its official languages, which provides a great boost to Singapore's economy.

China should be more like Singapore

In the book, Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master's Insights on China, the United States, and the World, Lee praises China’s achievements since instituting reforms and opening itself up to the world. But Lee is convinced that the Chinese language hinders Chinese exchanges with the world because it is too difficult to learn. He thus strongly recommends that Chinese people learn English well. The advice of Lee, who led and lifted Singapore out of poverty to become a country with a per capita income of more than $30,000, is worth considering.

There are indeed problems with the way Chinese children learn English today. But there are many ways we can improve English learning — for example by creating an English college qualification test if its scores are not counted in the college entrance exam. English instruction needs to attach greater importance to reading and real practice rather than vocabulary and grammar.

As this debate has played out, there has been some predictable rhetoric: “Why should we have an English exam if foreigners do not take a Chinese test?” This is the same mentality that drives Chinese people to boycott media coverage of the Oscar awards. Why doesn’t the foreign press come and report on the Chinese Golden Rooster Award or the Hundred Flowers Award, the thinking goes?

This is essentially a very intolerant and narrow-minded attitude. In modern China, Chinese people tend to swing between two extremes: Either the heritage of our ancestors is absolutely immutable or it should be overthrown completely. We seem to have great difficulty in finding a balance — protecting our own culture while at the same time learning that of others.

It is this mentality that we must nourish.