Teaching English is losing its appeal in China

the herald

Mrs G

I sometimes envy my Zimbabwean friends for their fluent English. God knows how many hours I put in and how many grueling tests I had to pass to be able to speak and write in English as I do today.

For Chinese people who belong to a completely different language family, learning English is a difficult and sometimes painful experience. And yet, we all understand its crucial importance. Hence the double pain.

The rush to learn English began in China in the 1980s when the country was gradually opening its doors after a long period of isolation. In the five years since 1984, when self-funded study abroad was allowed by the government, the number of people taking the TOFEL test increased 63 times, from 285 to 18,000.

During the last two decades of the 20th century, those who spoke English and had foreign degrees were among the highest paid in the country.

This has resulted in the explosive growth of the English tutoring market. It gave birth to the New Oriental Education and Technology Group, an education giant. Its founder, Yu Minhong (Michael Yu), started the company in a seedy 20 square meter room with a leaky roof in an effort to earn enough money to study in the United States.

He wanted to earn 100,000 RMB by the end of the year and get on his plane; but the final tally was three times what he wanted. He decided to stay. Five years later, his income amounted to tens of millions of RMB. In 2006, New Oriental became China’s first blue-chip company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. By then, its net profit had soared to RMB 23.8 million.

It was a time in China when the most coveted jobs were in big Western companies, which flocked to China for its huge market, offering salaries ten times higher than Chinese employers.

When I was still in college, getting an offer from IBM, Motorola, or Microsoft was the best thing graduates could imagine happening to them. Even an internship in their sleek offices was highly sought after. We students were not alone.

Civil servants and employees of state-owned enterprises made their way into multinational corporations. A good command of English was almost a sure way to a decent job and life.

In the 2010s, however, one-to-one English lessons began to lose market. Years of vigorous language instruction have greatly improved the English literacy of ordinary Chinese. Being able to chat casually with a stranger on the street is no longer an enviable skill.

At a deeper level, the economic landscape in China is changing. China’s sustained growth, in contrast to the West’s economic and social challenges, is tipping the psychological balance for Chinese job seekers.

In 2018, foreign companies became the least preferred employers in a survey of university graduates. In 2021, 135 Chinese companies were in the Fortune 500, compared to 122 in the United States.

Today, Chinese graduates generally prefer the civil service and state-owned enterprises for job security or national Internet giants for high salaries.

Western companies struggle to compete on both fronts.

Naturally, the teaching of the English language has suffered a severe blow. Some wryly say that physical training and learning English were the first two choices for a young person if he or she wanted something different; now it seems that only physical training remains.

If you really want to learn a “language”, programming languages ​​like Python are a much better choice. Otherwise, short video editing skills are also a better investment than learning English.

Sam D. Gomez