Few articles are as simultaneously infuriating and mollifying as this recent article from Xinhuanet.com. It centers around a forum at china.com where 98% of the readers called for lower years English lessons to be dropped. Two reasons for this attitude are shown below:
‘It is very ironic parents and students spend so much time and money learning something they don’t use’
‘My daughter has mixed English with Chinese pinyin, which is pathetic’
These two comments unfortunately betray a lack of foresight, and not just a little jingoism, on the part of their authors. Being a native English (and terrible Mandarin) speaker to find that this attitude is still prevalent is upsetting, but also completely and absolutely wrong. As such I’ve been thinking about several very good reasons why the Chinese shouldn’t drop English from primary and junior high schools
1) Learning any language is easier when you are younger. A simple but very important fact- if it is considered worthwhile to learn English at all- and I will show in the next few points why it is- it is much better to do it when the child is younger and much more amenable to learning languages.
2) English is the language of international business. Despite what the above quotation might say about parents and students not using the language, thousands of business transactions involving Chinese people are conducted in English every day. Without a good grounding in my native tongue, how do these people expect to get well paying exciting global jobs? Bearing in mind of course that this is not just in Chinese-American/English trading (though there is a lot of that), but also between the Chinese and most other countries, since more people speak English than Mandarin, or German, or French, or Spanish, or Thai…
3) English is a great social language. Linked to the pint above; English is THE most spoken language on the planet, as a first or second language it is more commonly used than Mandarin (which is the second), and can be found in many more countries. So, a good education in the English language means not only that you can speak to more people; you can travel more comfortably to pretty much anywhere around the world.
4) English is an unusually forgiving language. Without having to learn English as a second language I’ll freely admit that this point may be circumspect. However I think it is fair to say that whilst it is a difficult language to learn, you can make mistakes and get away with it much easier in English than in many other languages. Plus, even better, you can make new words up (Shakespeare was a master at this, coining the word ‘excellent’ amongst others), and if you’re really stuck you can always just pinch words from other languages for that certain je ne sais quoi. All of which means that actually mixing Chinese pinyin and English is not ‘pathetic’, and you can get by in the latter just that bit easier.
5) Finally, just as it’s a shame that I can’t read Mandarin to enjoy some of its classics, Chinese children need a good English education in order to appreciate some of the best literature in that language. It is unfair to deprive people of the opportunity to read Shakespeare, Twain, Austen, Bronte, Dickens for example.
Which is why I was suitably relieved and uplifted when I read that the official reply by Sun Xiaobing from the ministry of education was that lessons in foreign languages were ‘necessary’, that ‘Chinese should be able to communicate with people from other countries’ and that it is important to be able to ‘talk directly with foreigners if we could speak their languages’