In April, 2009, a new English-language paper published by China's Communist Party was launched — part of Beijing's efforts to raise its profile on the global stage and find an international audience for the party line. The new English-language paper's launch reflects China's recent "soft power" drive to build its global reputation. Read here for more
English and Science in China and Japan
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Yesterday I had the opportunity for an eye-opening talk with a man who for 20 years has been the Director of a world-renowned biochemistry and physiology research institute.
His job frequently takes him to key labs in China and Japan, and he always has scores of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean staff scientists and postdocs working in his own labs.
Here are some of the mind-boggling things the Director told me:
- In their labs, when Chinese and Japanese scientists are engaged in discussions on research topics, they often speak in English or heavily lace their Chinese and Japanese with English.
- Chinese and Japanese scientists regularly write to each other in English, often even on non-research topics.
- There is an extremely strong imperative in the scientific culture of China and Japan to publish in English language journals. In China, there is even a fixed award schedule for researchers who get published in top English language journals, from very large monetary bonuses to individuals whose work makes it into the pages of Science and Nature, on down through lesser, but still substantial, rewards for work in less prestigious, specialized journals.
- English is the de facto language of scientific culture in China and Japan.
- The Chinese government and Chinese business interests offer scientists who have landed coveted positions in American universities and industry extremely lucrative packages to buy them back to the motherland. So great are the financial inducements that American institutions simply cannot match them.
I will here only give one small example by way of evidence, but could cite many more instances from my own experience.
Two weeks ago, a well-known Chinese historian, who has been my friend for about twenty years and who is the head of a research institute in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), wrote to me saying that the powers-that-be in CASS had issued an urgently-worded directive that research units under their administration should go all out to publish their individual work in English, that journals from CASS should have English versions, and, moreover, that adequate financial support would be provided to pay for skilled English translators from outside of China at going rates.
Thirty years ago, I predicted that all of this (the rapid shift to English) would happen IF East Asian countries did not aggressively expand the applications of Romanization for their own languages. To my mind at the time, this was simply a foregone conclusion due to the archaic nature of sinographic writing and the relatively inflexible phonetic representational ability of syllabic writing in comparison with alphabetic scripts.
English as a Global Language in China
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Wenzhou Vocational and Technical College
(Wenzhou College of Profession and Technology)
Wenzhou, Zheijiang Province, China
English is now said to be an international language or known as a global language.
It is an obvious fact that English is definitely important as a window for Chinese to see the world.
English is the key for us (Chinese) to access the Western modern scientific and technological advances.
In this article, I will try to examine some issues with particular reference to the situation of English language teaching (ELT) in China and its relationship with the outside world.
From an ordinary Chinese point of view, English is not the language for us to speak with Americans, the British or any other native speakers. Rather, it is the common language for us to communicate with Japanese, Koreans, Thais, Singaporeans and other Asians and people from developing countries.
As a matter of fact, English has been used by our Chinese as a tool to know the West and at the same time, let the World know China at its greatest extents.
A Brief History of ELT in China
English has no legacy in the land of China.
In fact, China had a long history of deliberately avoiding contact with the West for fear of cultural contamination. After the establishment of new China in 1949, the place of English was replaced by Russian as the only foreign language in the country in the 1950s. During the time, English was condemned as unpatriotic because of national campaign against American imperialism and British colonialism.
However, this phase didn't last long for the coming up deteriorated relationship between Russian and China in the middle of 50s of the 20th century.
The substantial change toward English language teaching in China didn't happen until late 1978 when Deng Xiao'ping (the late chairman of China) came to power . English was again prominent as a main foreign language taught in Chinese various schools.
It was not long by the early 1980s that English had been restored as a compulsory subject in the college entrance examinations.
English was considered as a vehicle to change an average Chinese fate in his motherland, where the language was used as a tool to know better our hostile West and serve our great country better.
On the contrary, we Chinese now regard English primarily as a necessary tool which can facilitate access to modern scientific and technological advances in the countries where English is a major language.
The economic progress China has made over the past decades makes it possible for us to enter into WTO (the World Trade Organization) and the successful bid for Olympic Games in the year of 2008. English is becoming the most popular foreign language in modern China.
It is estimated that the number of people studying English in China is much larger than that of all native speakers around the world. The spring of English has arrived in China.
Modern ELT in China
A great deal of attention has been paid to English teaching and learning since the beginning of the reform of Chinese economy in 1978. With more and more Western companies and joint-ventures rushing into China, many college students would like to pursue their further education in the West to acquire advanced knowledge in science and technology.
The Chinese students are no longer ignorant of the international English tests such as TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and IELTS (International English Language Testing System) so on. Some foreigners will even be amazed to see the heat-wave of English learning in China.
Just take a domestic employer, especially those in the field of foreign trade businesses for example. They consider communicative competence in English to be a decisive factor in hiring a potential employee.
Therefore, an applicant must demonstrate his oral English capability besides their various English qualification certificates. This emerging challenge to the traditional methodology of ELT is unprecedented in that the teacher is no longer seen as the sole provider of knowledge and the students are no more encouraged to assimilate their teacher's instruction dutifully and to work their way ploddingly through the lines of their textbook.
The initial progress in ELT took place when English became part of the College Entrance Examinations. The Ministry of Education issued guidelines for textbook makers, requesting that English textbooks should include materials on the Western culture, listening and speaking practice as well.
The most prominent in reforming the English testing system in China is that listening and written English are included in some most important English tests for the all Chinese educational institutions.
However, there are some disadvantages of ELT education in China. The first is a lack of qualified foreign language teachers most of whom have no experience of living in Western countries.
Worse is the backward methodology; teachers as well as students typically adopt the Grammar-Translation means to teach and learn English, which focuses on English grammar and vocabulary, on linguistic phenomena rather than on reading the content itself.
It is no surprise to see a Chinese student who has a very satisfactory mark on his English examination can't express himself well in English with his foreign peer. There is a popular saying about this extravagant scene in learning English as "dumb and deaf" English.
According to a survey, most college students in China whose majors are not English spend more than 70 percent of their study time on English after class. Meanwhile, They have to attend four-hour English courses every week in class.
It can be seen from the reform of syllabuses and curriculum development project issued by the Ministry of Education in 1999. The new syllabus emphasis is on a student-centered approach instead of a teacher-centered one. Meanwhile, the vocabulary capacity required for students has been enlarged from the original 1,800 common used English words and phrases to 4,000.
Another outstanding feature of ELT reform in China's higher institutions is that English study will be continuous throughout the duration of four years in college.
ESP (English for Special Purpose) courses are also added to the final year of students' study of English in college. The goal of these courses is to ensure the non-English major students who have different specialized background can make good use of English after their graduation in their future working career.
Besides this, the Ministry of Education requires that all of the specialized subjects (preferably foreign textbooks) be conducted in the English language in the near future.
There will be a national English standardized test which will be divided into several levels to evaluate the outcome of reforming in Chinese ELT from primary level to the tertiary level, which means English will become a real tool for communication in China's educational institutions. The construction of a streamlined ELT system from Chinese primary schools (third grade) to the tertiary level is underway.
At this stage, China needs and will continue to want English badly.
In order to function efficiently in its economy with the global market, Chinese needs to bring large numbers of people to a higher level of proficiency in English for a wide variety of functions. Success of English language teaching and learning depends largely on understanding English as a tool for communication.
Thus, if a student is encouraged to speak with confidence, it is a foreign language teacher's duty to help students overcome the fear of speaking and learn the fact that Chinese English learners can use English effectively without feeling guilty of their strong accent
Modern communication such as TV and the Internet makes us more exposed to an English-medium environment than we used to be. It will be no surprise at all for a Chinese person to survive with English.
A Brief History of English Language Teaching in China
Among the many different aspects of China which have fascinated the West are the sheer size of its population, its remote and mysterious culture, and the intricate difficulty of its language. Equally, the West has always intrigued China, with its technological advancement despite its 'barbarity', its cultural diversity within a small space, and the way in which one of its languages - English - has managed to become the lingua franca of the world.
China originally felt no need of the West, in fact deliberately avoided all contact, for fear of cultural contamination. The bombing of the Chinese embassy during the Kosovo war was a terrible set-back in relations which had been steadily improving. However, despite this, partly because of its desire to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO), China has welcomed and listened politely to leaders of Western countries as they gave their views on democracy and human rights.
The language in which President Clinton spoke, during his visit to China, was of course English. President Jiang Zemin made his replies in Chinese. But each was backed up by a team of first-class interpreters, who made smooth communication possible.
Formal training in interpretation is comparatively recent in China. It was only in 1978 that the first programme for Translators and Interpreters started at the Beijing Foreign Language Institute. The programme subsequently developed into the prestigious school of translation in the Beijing Foreign Studies University.
The learning of English in China, however, has a longer history and now occupies the attention of millions of its people. How many million is hard to say, since much depends on the level of proficiency one takes as the norm (Crystal, 1985).
But there are probably in the region of three hundred million actively engaged in the job of learning English.
China's reasons for learning English were well summed up twenty years ago by a team from the U.S. International Communication Agency after visiting five cities and many educational institutions in China: "
The Chinese view English primarily as a necessary tool which can facilitate access to modern scientific and technological advances, and secondarily as a vehicle to promote commerce and understanding between the People's Republic of China and countries where English is a major language" (Cowan et al., 1979).
This basic motivation has not changed, as can be seen from the Report of the English 2000 Conference in Beijing, sponsored jointly by the British Council and the State Education Commission of the People's Republic of China, in which reasons for the learning of English by Chinese were summarised:
".. They learn English because it is the language of science, specifically perhaps of the majority of research journals.The learning of English in the mountainous provinces near Tibet is very different from the way it is studied in the cities of Nanjing, Shanghai or Beijing. Nevertheless, there are sufficient general characteristics about the history of the learning of English in different parts of China to justify a brief review, if only to remind us of the pendulum swings of China's history this century.
They learn it because it is the neutral language of commerce, the standard currency of international travel and communication.
They learn it because you find more software in English than in all other languages put together" (Bowers, 1996:3).
Those who wish to find the story more fully told may consult Dzau (1990) and Cortazzi and Jin (1996). Although there is mention of English language teaching (ELT) in China in the mid nineteenth century during the Ching Dynasty, it first figured in the syllabus of schools in 1902 in "His Majesty's Teaching Standards for Primary and Secondary Institutions".
In those early days the model for education in China was that of Japan. The method of ELT was traditional, with emphasis on reading and translation. There was much grammar and vocabulary learning, with pronunciation learned by imitation and repetition. This was the norm for about the first twenty years of the century.
In 1922 there was a change of direction, with a swing away from the Japanese system of education, and towards more Western models. Schools were obliged to follow the "Outlines for School Syllabuses of the New Teaching System". These put more emphasis on listening and speaking skills. There was more use of the target language and of the new teaching resources offered by the mass media. The best schools tended to be Christian missionary schools, which gave more class-hours to English than other schools.
1949 was a crucial date in the history of China - the founding of the People's Republic of China. Education had now to serve the proletarian purpose. All textbooks became vehicles for government propaganda, loaded with messages of service to the people and the motherland.
The Ministry of Education issued a new "Scheme for English Instruction in Secondary Schools" in which the goal of English language learning was clearly stated as being to serve the New Republic.
All capitalist thinking, especially educational ideas from the United States and Britain, were condemned as unpatriotic. The place of English was taken in school syllabuses by Russian and by 1954 Russian had become the only foreign language taught in Chinese schools.This phase did not last long, however, since China was already trying to extend her markets throughout the world and immediately felt its lack of English.
Accordingly, in 1955 the Ministry of Education announced that English teaching should be restarted in secondary schools. In big cities, like Shanghai, it was also reintroduced at primary level.
Initially the textbooks were based on the former Russian models, which, like their Japanese predecessors, were very traditional. Methodology too was backward: the teacher was seen as the provider of knowledge and the students dutifully assimilated the teacher's words of wisdom, working their way ploddingly through the textbook.
However, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a minor revolution in education took place in China, as the need to open up to the international scene became more urgent.
The importance of English was accepted and a significant step was taken in 1962 when English became part of the entrance examination for colleges and universities.
New teaching materials appeared, with listening and speaking again given prominence.
The Ministry of Education issued guidelines for textbook writers, recommending that English textbooks should include material on the culture of the English speaking countries. It began to look as though better days had come for ELT in China (Price, 1971).
But it was not to be. With distressing inevitability, The Chinese pendulum swung, and the progress made in the early 1960s was swept aside by the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966 and lasted for ten dreadful years. English was again banned from schools. Foreign language teachers were branded as spies.
Some universities were closed, others were subjected to re-education visits. Dow (1975:254) describes the situation thus: "During the Cultural Revolution, when workers' propaganda teams for the spreading of Mao Tse-Tung's thoughts came to China's colleges, classes were stopped altogether, and the students travelled instead all over the country in order to take part in criticism and debate and to exchange revolutionary experiences".
By 1977 the Cultural Revolution had exhausted itself and the country with it. There is an old Yorkshire saying: "There's nowt like religion when it's bent". Those who lived through the Cultural Revolution in China would challenge that saying, maintaining that distorted political ideology can be much worse than bent religion.
However, happier times were ahead for China and for ELT in China.
In 1978 the Ministry of Education held an important conference on foreign language teaching. English was given prominence again in schools, on a par with Chinese and Maths.
By the early 1980s it had been restored as a compulsory subject in the college entrance exam. It has not looked back since then (Kang, 1999) and the fervour for learning English has been fanned by Teach Yourself English programmes on television, watched by hundreds of millions of people.
As China opened up more and Chinese scholars were allowed abroad, the need for both social and academic English became apparent. As markets also opened up and more foreigners were allowed into the country to do business, the appetite for Business English among all levels of Chinese people has become insatiable.
The Chinese are a diligent and intelligent race and are surely destined to make a significant mark on the history of the twenty-first century.
On a personal note, one of my first ELT jobs, in 1979, was teaching a small group of excellent Chinese students on an intensive summer course in England. They were the pick of the Chinese crop - scholars who had suffered under the Cultural Revolution, but who were now being given the chance of graduate studies in British universities. I have never had keener, more hard-working students, and teaching them was one of the most memorable experiences of my life (Boyle, 1980).
We have seen, then, in this brief review how English has twice come and gone in China in the course of the twentieth century. To us now it seems unlikely that such swings will happen again and on present evidence the continued popularity of English eems assured. However, history is full of examples of the unpredictable.
For one thing, China's own language is liable to become of more global importance in the future. As Graddol (1997:3) advises: "We may find the hegemony of English replaced by an oligarchy of languages, including Spanish and Chinese". Machine translation will also undoubtedly increase in sophistication and perhaps make the learning of English less essential. English may not be as inevitably the lingua franca of the world as some may like to think.
Nevertheless, at this stage in the last few years of the millennium, it does looks as if China will continue to want English, and want it badly.
As Maley (1995:47) says:
"China is in a phase of industrial, scientific and commercial expansion which will make it the world's largest economy by the early years of the next century.English looks set to flourish in China - at least for the next ten or twenty years.
In order to function efficiently in this role, it needs to bring large numbers of its people to high levels of proficiency in the use of English for a wide variety of functions".
But anyone who knows anything about the history of China would be slow to predict much beyond that.
Chaining the Children of the Poor
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The ancient Chinese bound the feet of their baby daughters so they would grow up with deformed tiny feet, thus limiting their mobility and participation in life outside the little world of their homes. These women would then be totally dependent on their men.
In rescinding the policy of teaching science and mathematics in English, the government is likewise binding the intellectual development of our children.
They and future generations of Malaysians would grow up with warped intellect. They would then be totally dependent on the government, just as ancient Chinese women with tiny feet were on their men.
My friend and fellow commentator Azly Rahman has a more apt and colorful local metaphor; we are condemning future generations to the Pekan Rabu economy, capable only of selling pirated versions of Michael Jackson albums. That would be the extent of their entrepreneurial prowess and creative flair. They are only subsistence entrepreneurs and ‘copy cat’ creators.
Make no mistake about it. The government’s professed concerns for the poor and those from rural areas notwithstanding, reversing the current policy would adversely and disproportionately impact them.
The RICH and those in the CITIES have a ready escape; the rich through private English classes, urban children from the already high levels of English in their community.
The most disadvantaged will be the poor kampong kids. That means Malay children. Thus we have the supreme irony if not perversity of the champions of Ketuanan Melayu actively pursuing a policy that would ensure Malay children be perpetually trapped economically and intellectually.
I thank Allah that I grew up at a time when the likes of Muhyddin were not in charge of our education system. Otherwise I would have been trapped in my kampong.
The idiocy of the new move is best illustrated by this one startling example.
- In 2012 when the new plan will be implemented, students in Form IV will be taught science and mathematics in Malay, after learning the two subjects in English for the past nine years.
- Then two years later when they will be entering Sixth Form or the Matriculation stream, they will again have to revert to English.
- Then switch to Malay for the next five while in secondary school, and
- Then switch again, this time to English, in Sixth Form and university!
Had these policymakers done their homework and diligent downstream analysis, such idiocies would not crop up.
Then again this is what we would expect from our CIVIL SERVANTS. They have been brought up with their minds bound up; they cannot think. They have depended on others to do the thinking for them.
Najib Razak’s flip-flopping on this major national issue eerily reminds me of similar indecisiveness and lack of resolve of his immediate predecessor, Abdullah Badawi. No wonder he supports Najib in this policy shift. Najib should not take comfort in that, unless he expects a similar fate as Abdullah’s. Abdullah was kicked out by his party; with Najib, it would be the voters who would be kicking him out. Public sentiments are definitely against this policy switch.
Failure of Policy Versus Failure of Implementation
The cabinet reversed course because it deemed the policy did not produce the desired results. However, in arriving at this pivotal decision the cabinet failed to address the fundamental question on whether the original policy was flawed or its implementation ineffective.
False Premise Following the UNESCO Report
It just assumed the policy to be flawed. Muhyddin and his senior officers relied heavily on the 2005 UNESCO Report which suggests that “‘mother tongue first’ bilingual education” may (my emphasis) be the solution to the dilemma of members of minority linguistic groups in acquiring knowledge.
Muhyddin and his advisers seriously misread the Report. It was concerned primarily with the dilemma at the societal level of members of a linguistic minority having to learn the language of the majority (“national language”) versus the need to maintain linguistic diversity generally and minority languages specifically. UNESCO was rightly concerned with the rapid disappearance of languages spoken by small minority groups. The report was not addressing specifically the learning of science and mathematics.
Malay language is not at risk of disappearing; it is the native tongue of literally hundreds of millions. To extrapolate the UNESCO recommendations for Malay language is a gross oversimplification and misreading of the report.
The UNESCO Report does not address the issue of when and how best to introduce children to bilingual education. Later studies that focused specifically on the pedagogical and psychological aspects instead of the sociological and political have shown that children are quite capable of learning multiple languages at the same time. Even more remarkable is that the earlier they are exposed to a second language the more facile they would be with that language. They would also learn that second language much faster; hence second language even at preschool.
The acquisition of bilingual ability at an early age confers other significant cognitive advantages. These have been documented by clinical studies with functional MRIs (imaging studies of the brain). Malaysia should learn from these more modern studies and the experiences of more advanced societies, not from the UNESCO studies of backward tribes of Asia.
Decision Based on Half-Baked Academics' Research
The other basis for the cabinet’s decision was ‘research’ by local half-baked and politically-oriented pseudo academics. They should be embarrassed to append their names to such a sophomoric paper. The quality is such that it will never appear in reputable journals. As for the Ministry’s own internal ‘researchers,’ remember that they came out within months of the policy’s introduction in 2003 documenting the ‘impressive’ improvements in students’ achievements!
The one major entity that would be severely impacted by the cabinet’s decision is our universities. Yet our Vice-Chancellors have remained quiet and detached in this important national debate. They have not advised the cabinet nor lead the public discussions. Again that reflects the caliber of leadership of our major institutions.
Had the cabinet decided that the policy was essentially sound but that the flaws were with its implementations, then measures other than rescinding it would be the appropriate response. This would include recruiting and training more English-speaking teachers and devoting more hours to the subject.
The Present Crop of "Lallang" UMNO Leaders
What surprised me is that when Mahathir introduced the policy in 2003, he was supported by his cabinet that included Najib, Muhyddin, Hishamuddin, and over a dozen of current ministers who now collectively voted to reverse the policy.
Likewise, the policy was fully endorsed too by UMNO’s Supreme Council then. Like the cabinet, many of those earlier members are still in that body today. Yet today the Council also voted to disband the policy. Muhyddin, Hishamuddin and the others have yet to share with us why they changed their minds. The conditions that prompted the introduction of the policy back then are still present today. This reversal will do not change that.
Najib, Muhyddin and Hishamuddin are “lallang leaders,” they bend with the slightest wind change. Unlike Margaret Thatcher’s famed resolve of “This lady is not for turning,” with Najib, Muhyddin, et al., all you have to do to make them undertake a U turn would be to blow slightly in their faces. Blow a bit harder and they would scoot off with their tails between their legs.
These leaders will NEVER lead us forward.
This reversal will not solve the widening achievement gap between urban and rural students. The cabinet has yet to put forth new ideas on ameliorating that problem.
So, just as ancient Chinese women were physically handicapped because of their bound feet, rural or more specifically Malay children will continue to be intellectually handicapped by their warped and small minds, the consequence of this policy shift.
Perhaps that is the real objective of this policy reversal, the shackling of the intellectual development of our young so they will forever be dependent on their ‘leaders.’
-Dr. M. Bakri Musa
English can be a language of Malaysian unity and teach Sejarah and Agama in English.
Dr. Azly Rahman
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Contrary to many an opinion of Malaysian linguistic nationalists, I do believe that English language can be a powerful force of revolutionary change -- and a language of Malaysian unity primarily.
Bahasa Melayu has its own dignity but do not have the power to become a language of postmodern science and technology. In its current form, Bahasa Melayu is being destroyed by its own internal contradictions and suitable only as a language of literature and Malaysian bureaucracy.
Everytime it tries to transform itself into a language of science and technology it become closer to becoming yet another periphery of the Center; it becomes subservient to the English Language. Why English language is a lingua franca can be explained by its ease of transformation. Philologists have written extensively on this phenomena.
Bahasa Melayu is fast evolving into a language of Ketuanan Melayu; abused for political reasons. Language is an expression of culture and helps construct the social reality of that culture.
The phrase "kedaulatan Bahasa Melayu" is not a necessary slogan. No language has a dimension of Divine Sanctity unless it is pegged to the concept of "kerajaan" or the maintenance of this or that status quo however oppressive it may be.
In this case, no race in Malaysia is challenging the dignity of the Malay language. I believe it is merely a political play.
Malay linguists, academicians, and literary figures are now jumping into the bandwagon of defending the "dignity" of Bahasa Melayu.
However, they may in the end be bringing the kampong kids back into the kampong when they grow up. Ignore them.
Parents wanting to see the progress of all Malaysians must understand the importance of the English Language and to master it while at the same time respect the status of any language including the Malay language.
Parent must demand that schools teach Maths and Science in the English language. In fact schools should also teach Sejarah Malaysia and Pengajian Agama Islam, and also Pendidikan Moral in English.
To erode the influence of Ketuanan Melayu and to start thinking of being Malaysian and to start asking critical questions about history, teach the subject in English.
It is a liberal enough language to accept many points of view. To achieve inter-religious understanding, teach Agama Islam and Pendidikan Moral in English. It is a language liberal enough to accept religious differences.
Respect Bahasa Melayu but master the English language. The latter is also a language of global unity and of advanced science and technology.
-Dr. Azly Rahman