Quake Shocks Sichuan
Nation demonstrates progress in dealing with severe disaster
Current Issue
· Table of Contents
· Editor's Desk
· Previous Issues
· Subscribe to Mag
Subscribe Now >>
Expert's View
Market Watch
North American Report
Government Documents
Expat's Eye
Photo Gallery
Reader's Service
Learning with
'Beijing Review'
E-mail us
RSS Feeds
PDF Edition
Reader's Letters
Make Beijing Review your homepage
Hot Links

cheap eyeglasses
Market Avenue

Expat's Eye
Print Edition> Expat's Eye
UPDATED: May 16, 2011 NO. 20 MAY 19, 2011
Crazy About English
China’s obsession with the English language



Long ago, Confucius (551-479 B.C.) warned Chinese authorities it would be impossible to govern the country without creating clear language policies. He knew, as modern sociolinguists know, language exists as a social phenomenon. Language is political. Although someone may unconsciously choose his or her linguistic code, each person's choice of language creates both intentional and unintentional identity.

Over the ages, China has not had serious problems regarding language choice, and linguistic identities have never been threatened by outside languages. But today, with English touted as a global language, Chinese linguistic struggles are matched by the parallel and stunning development of China's economy. How will the country accommodate the need for English, and how will the government accommodate the rising popularity of Chinese dialects, while maintaining high levels of Chinese literacy using standard Mandarin?

This challenge has no easy answers. Since the late 1970s, with the reform and opening-up policy, the Chinese people have become determined to learn English. Most people feel English is a crucial tool for China's modernization because English is the international interethnic language of communication for business, sports, diplomacy, entertainment and education. In 2001, in Beijing alone, English as a Second Language (ESL) centers made almost $85 million in profits. The renowned New Oriental Education & Technology Group, once a small institute created to help Chinese students with the GRE and TOEFL scores, is now the largest private educational enterprise in the country. New Oriental School stocks are traded on Wall Street.

Chinese academics are questioning the spread of the English language in their country. Scholars have labeled English as imperialistic, and said English is suppressing and marginalizing other languages. Chinese linguist Pan Wenguo, in his book Chinese Crisis (2008), outlines serious problems the Chinese language is currently encountering. Two of these challenges include: the overwhelming English usage on the Internet and the fact that most cultural globalization is transacted in English.

Not just linguists are worried about English hegemony. In China, many scholars must prove fluency in English to maintain their academic positions, or to obtain advanced degrees. Studying English takes up a great deal of time and effort. This can often distract academics from concentrating on their chosen subject.

Nonetheless, it's unlikely Chinese people will boycott English. Some have made their fortunes by creating businesses built to support the English trend. Li Yang, trained as an engineer, is a famous businessman who created the "Crazy English" education company. He cashed in on Chinese nationalism combined with global English using the slogan: "Conquer English to Make China Stronger!"

Fortunately, the Chinese language is not yet suffering from the English onslaught. As many people know, China as a country hosts more than 50 minority groups, each with their own indigenous language. But less people know the Chinese language has approximately seven major dialect groups: Mandarin, Wu, Min, Cantonese, Gan, Xiang, and Hakka. Each of these dialects has their own sub-dialects. Although Mandarin has been successful in becoming the standard for Chinese, dialects are also making a revival. Various rap songs, talk shows, and fiction writers employ dialects. The use of a dialect in local media and print confirms government values focused on pluralism and diversity; this support helps Chinese people to preserve distinct local linguistic and cultural identities. Interestingly, overseas Chinese youth are also promoting dialects other than Mandarin. For example, Shanghai dialect is popular among the diaspora of Shanghai youth around the globe. On the mainland, young people find Cantonese to be a cool way to communicate.

Even more significant is the impact of the Internet on the Chinese language. Digital media has led to the creation of a new Internet language, called "language from Mars." This language is becoming increasingly popular among school kids, causing authorities to make laws that attempt to contain its use in print media and school settings.

On the other hand, nothing is containing the spread of Mandarin. As China becomes more powerful, with growing economic, military and political clout, more foreigners are studying Mandarin. In 2009, more than 30 million foreigners were studying Mandarin Chinese. Moreover, the U.S.-based Institute of International Education says the number of Americans studying in China increased 25 percent over the 2006-07 academic year. American policy makers view Chinese as a "critical language" to learn. This eagerness for Chinese language has created a similar interest in Chinese culture as well. The Confucius Institute Headquarters, or Hanban, is in charge of the Confucius Institutes and other programs that support Chinese language and culture abroad. The Confucius Institutes are modeled like the Alliance Francaise, the British Council, and the Goethe-Institut.

China remains a fascinating country in transition. As this superpower continues to take its place as a world leader, who knows—Chinese may become as popular if not more popular than English in the next century.

The author is an American living in Beijing

Top Story
-Too Much Money?
-Special Coverage: Economic Shift Underway
-Quake Shocks Sichuan
-Special Coverage: 7.0-Magnitude Earthquake Hits Sichuan
-A New Crop of Farmers
Most Popular
About BEIJINGREVIEW | About beijingreview.com | Rss Feeds | Contact us | Advertising | Subscribe & Service | Make Beijing Review your homepage
Copyright Beijing Review All right reserved