English fever cools in post-Olympic China

English fever cools in post-Olympic China

After an enthusiastic bid to learn English in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games, China's ardour for the language, it seems, has cooled considerably.

The Beijing municipality said it might downgrade English for the city's key college entrance exam - or gaokao - in 2016. Meanwhile, the Education Ministry is suggesting removing it entirely from the gaokao by 2017.

The changes reflect concerns that while Chinese students invest huge amounts of time and effort in studying English, few are able to use it well.

They also show a rising confidence in the currency of Chinese as an global language, after the country's three decades of rapid economic growth.

While some parents are worried this might hurt their children's proficiency in English, Ms Qin Ping, whose 16-year-old son is taking the exam in two years, said she welcomes the move.

"His English grades are above average but they are not top of the class so he can spend more time on subjects he is better at," said Ms Qin, a 40-year-old who works in the clothing industry.

In October, Beijing, for instance, said it plans to make the English test in the Chinese capital's gaokao easier, while reducing its weightage and raising the importance of Chinese instead. Earlier this month, the Education Ministry also said English will be removed from the gaokao in 2017.

China's experience mirrors that of Singapore, where parents have called for the mother tongue to be given less weight, or to be made optional in computing the Primary School Leaving Examination score.

Many Singaporean children are strong in other subjects but weak in mother tongue, and find the subject highly stressful. But Singapore's Education Ministry has rejected the idea on the grounds that making it optional will lead to pupils not taking it seriously.

Chinese observers and parents alike are split in their view of this policy shift. Some worry that a reduced emphasis will result in poor English proficiency and hurt the ability of young Chinese to interact with the rest of the world. But others note that with China's economy booming, English might not be crucial to the careers of many students.

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