China ‘aggressively working on improving English proficiency’

I would say that compentancy in the global language of business, English, isn’t one of China’s strengths. However, a global IT research company, Gartner, reckons that China, which is ‘aggressively working on improving people’s English language proficiency’ will soon challenge India’s domination in the information technology sector. Not only in the IT industry either:

The Chinese government is stressing on English language learning as Beijing city is all set to host the 2008 Olympics that year. Moreover, the government is supporting Chinese IT companies to learn from India’s experience in the software sector and replicate it here.

“The Chinese mainland will have the largest English speaking capability by 2008, with a significant impact on business and IT globally. Removing the language barrier will enable mainland companies to work in a wider range of markets and segments. While English will become the preferred language of business in China, the context will remain in Chinese and the cultural barriers will remain.” Dion Wiggins, vice president and research director at Gartner, said.

Stressing the English language is all very well but I can’t see it going quite so smoothly. For example, most managers than I have come into contact with, mainly those over 40 years of age, speak little or no English at all. Fortunately, I don’t have to speak English here but I would say that the general level isn’t particularly good, certainly when compared to places like India.

The Discussion: 8 Comments

It’s a real issue, and not easily solved. India’s English skills came at the cost of a century of English colonial domination that entrenched the colonial language (although apparently in a somewhat class-divided way). While many of the young, cosmopolitan professionals speak pretty decent English, they’re a small segment of the population. Many of the ones I know who speak decent English were educated overseas and, like those of us who live in China, had no choice but to gain some proficiency with the language.

The model I think of is Japan, where English speaking ability apparently remains abysmal despite widespread English education.

In the absence of a driving reason to learn English –think of Europe’s national integration, India’s colonial legacy, or Singapore’s combination of colonial legacy and ability to dictate curricula and media languages at a national level– efforts often seem to founder. Especially where any tradition of cultural arrogance creeps into the picture (see Japan example above, and, just as food for thought, consider Americans generally dismal second-language performance).

All this being said, I met a cabbie the other day who was teaching himself English and had made a pretty good start of it. He had his eyes firmly on establishing a competitive advantage when the Olympics roll into town. So I guess, if the right incentive is there, it can still be done.

December 8, 2005 @ 7:59 pm | Comment

Quote: “The Chinese mainland will have the largest English speaking capability by 2008”
Ummm, in one month it will be 2006. I can’t imagine English in China improving that much in two years. Thankfully I don’t have to rely on English here, as the only place where I have found it to be reliable is at 5-star hotels. Any other time that English has been forced on me by over-agressive English-speaking waiters or waitresses, it usually ends with awkwardness and confusion.

But I gotta say that the “confidence” is already here. I translate Chinese to English, and I often get local customers (this doesn’t happen with our native English speaking customers) returning documents and telling my company that what I wrote is not “authentic English.” The documents are plastered with all types of Chinglish, and I have to go thru and argue that the way that I speak English is, in fact, correct.
I will need to change jobs soon in order to avoid becoming a bitter person.

December 9, 2005 @ 2:09 am | Comment

OMG, can you imagine how many Hongxins and AC_Dropouts there will be come 2008? We’re going to have to learn and / or switch to another language to avoid them…
Swahili anyone, or Esperanto?

December 9, 2005 @ 4:02 am | Comment

For someone who uses English as much or more than his native toungue(Kannada) while living in India, I know that is not easy to learn and retain a language – this when I love the English language.

Its not enough for it to have an incentive – it needs circumstances that force you to learn and use that language.

I know that people sharing the same native toungue will talk in that no matter what other language they know. Considering that unlike India, where English is a connecting language – and hence very necessary, while most of China speaks nearly the same dialect/language – it is not going to be easy to learn the language.

For example, I find at times, that I do falter with my English, when I dont use it as often as I do – despite all of my reading & writing being in that.

So, a whole new language is not easy, more so when there is no culture to sustain it. India has a whole load of publications in English – exclusing the “news” media. And still there are enough people who find it difficult to gain acceptable command over the language.

In the absence of such a support structure, I cant fathom how the Chinese will fare well(on a large enough scale to threaten India’s ambitions in the service sector).

December 9, 2005 @ 5:29 am | Comment

Prasanna makes a good point. Let’s take Taiwan as an example. There is a tremendous push here to learn English. Many people speak it quite well (usually those who have lived abroad). But after years and years of trying, even in Taipei, most people either don’t speak English, or they speak it so poorly that they can’t sustain a conversation.

Taiwan is waaaaaay smaller than China. Now imagine trying to lay the foundation of an English speaking culture in China. I don’t think it is impossible, but I don’t see it happening in the next few decades.

December 9, 2005 @ 6:35 am | Comment

Prasanna’s comment sums it up perfectly I think. Despite whatever exhortations, China will need more than either a govt dictat or business ambition to reach widespread proficiency in English.

Indeed, English is a living language in India and that makes all the difference you need. Tkae any large city anywhere in the world (Hong Kong is a good example) and you’ll find large numbers of Indian professionals filling the major banks, accountancy firms and all the other professions.

Thomas’s final paragraph is equally valid. I can’t see it either mate.

December 9, 2005 @ 6:49 am | Comment

Looks like my job (English teacher) is safe for the foreseeable future … ๐Ÿ™‚

December 9, 2005 @ 8:22 am | Comment

I hope that China gets its priorities right when teaching English.

I learnt English from a very young age (both of my parents can speak it) and can speak it fluently, but I doubt that I could pass the higher level CETs because of their obsesion with ‘perfect’ grammar and punctuation that means that students basicly have to memorize sentences rather than understand them.

I also noticed that Chinese students learn a lot of grammar that I have almost never heard native speakers use.

December 13, 2005 @ 1:01 pm | Comment

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