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May 23, 2005

'By 2025 the number of English–speaking Chinese is likely to exceed the number of native English speakers in the rest of the world'


So said Gordon Brown, the U.K. finance minister, during a recent trip to China.

If we won't learn Chinese then the Chinese will simply do the heavy lifting and learn English.

It's as simple as that and it's happening.

The Financial Times is well aware of who's going to be ruling the planet in decades to come and is doing its level best to tell us, in our own language, how it's going to happen.

The Times article that follows, by Andrew Yeh, appeared on April 13, 2005.

It speaks for itself.

    New Dawn in a Shared Language

    Many more Chinese are learning English to further their opportunities, driving the market for education

    On a typical weekday morning, Gao Long retreats to a snow-covered park among the grey buildings of Beijing Normal University to practise English by herself.

    Several other students do the same.

    Some sit on benches mumbling over books while others saunter to and fro in sub-zero temperatures while reading aloud.

    They come to work on their spoken English and escape the cramped dormitories they share with many roommates.

    "You don't disturb anybody in the park because everyone is reading out loud," said Ms Gao, a bespectacled college undergraduate.

    "You have to rely on yourself - others can only give you a form or teach you certain ways but it's still up to you in the end."

    Ms Gao spends her time here reading passages from her heavily marked English text, stopping every now and again to perfect her pronunciation of tricky words such as "pesticide".

    As the weather warms up, she says, even more students from the college will come to the park to practise.

    There are countless Chinese youths with the same curiosity and drive as Ms Gao for mastering the English language.

    In a country imbued with the values of self-improvement, learning English is often viewed as one of the surest ways to improve one's career opportunities.

    And these attitudes are expected to yield significant demand for education-related products and services in the years ahead.

    China is a country that has historically placed great value on education. Yet its current fanaticism for learning English is unique.

    "It's a phenomenon," said Zhou Chenggang, a former BBC correspondent who is now vice-president of New Oriental, a private Beijing-based company that runs a network of English teaching services around the country.

    "The biggest motivation is that they know it will help their lives."

    In China today, the keenest students of English tend to be those cramming for foreign exams, with the aim of going abroad and winning scholarships.

    To do well on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), a test of verbal, quantitative and analytical skills, for instance, a Chinese student must be familiar with up to 20,000 words.

    And someone taking the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) needs to learn around 7,500 words, Mr Zhou estimates.

    Students in the capital, where the country's best universities are located, are known for reading and watching everything they can get their hands on.

    This hunger for learning is expected to generate huge growth in the market for English education products, which includes teaching services, textbooks, test preparation manuals, dictionaries and information technology products and services.

    The demand for classroom instruction has been increasing, too, though spending power in many Chinese cities remains limited.

    New Oriental estimated its total enrolment was 750,000 last year, up from 450,000 in 2003.

    And the demographic range of students is widening.

    Mr Zhou of New Oriental says that in the 1990s nearly all students learning English were preparing for specific foreign exams - such as GRE, TOEFL and the International English Language Testing System - to give them a chance to study abroad or raise their prospects of a job at a multinational company.

    These days those studying the language include children, older people and those with a general interest.

    English texts are now the fastest growing sector in China's book education market and account for up to 8 per cent of the retail book market, according to Xin Guangwei, a publishing industry researcher and author of Publishing in China.

    Numerous foreign education and publishing companies have been positioning themselves to cash in.

    Their success, however, will be determined by the extent to which they can access the market and how well they can outperform and co-operate with Chinese publishing houses.

    There is considerable Sino-foreign co-operation in the market for learning English. Oxford University Press and The Commercial Press, one of China's oldest publishing houses, together produce a bilingual English-Chinese pocket dictionary.

    Oxford University is also involved in producing English coursework materials for China's classrooms.

    Gunawan Hadi, Asia vice-president of McGraw-Hill Education, says his company has been working with Chinese publishers to develop English texts and reference materials.

    He adds that the company's China revenues have grown steadily in the past five years.

    Other foreign publishers such as Pearson Education and Cambridge University Press have also been trying to target the country's English enthusiasts.

    Gordon Brown, the UK finance minister, said during a recent trip to China that Britain's education exports were now the fastest growing export earner, having nearly doubled in five years to £10.3bn ($19.5bn) - equivalent to about 1 per cent of the country's gross domestic product.

    Mr Brown said that education exports would be vital to the UK economy - possibly reaching £20bn a year in 15 years time - and that China is expected to be the primary driver of growth.

    Many believe that China already has the world's largest number of people learning English.

    "In 20 years time, the number of English speakers in China is likely to exceed the number of speakers of English as a first language in all the rest of the world," Mr Brown said during a speech in Beijing.

    "I believe this is a huge opportunity."

    Those on the crest of the wave of learning are endlessly creative about study methods.

    Jessy Zhao, a 23-year-old from China's western Xinjiang region who is now studying for a Masters in education at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, covered her dormitory room wall with memos with English words she wanted to remember.

    "There was a movie that I really liked a lot when I started to learn English, so I tape recorded the conversation and repeated it again and again just for fun," said Ms Zhao.

    Students can be particularly obsessive about memorising vocabulary. Maggie Cheng, a student of English at Beijing Foreign Studies University, recalls how someone from her home town was given two Oxford dictionaries by her family as study aids.

    She ended up using one as a reference guide and the other for memorising.

    "She would read a page and then rip a page - for a sense of accomplishment, I guess," Ms Cheng says.

    There are many study aids available to Chinese students.

    Aside from the internet and English books sold in stores, outdated foreign newspapers and magazines are often for sale at a discount from street vendors and underground hawkers.

    Ms Gao of Beijing Normal University has been studiously flipping through issues of Time magazine because the "stories are real rather than a sham", she writes in an e-mail.

    "I read every book I can, I'm very interested," explains Ms Gao, who spends long hours in the library.

    "I think books help broaden our modes of thinking and knowledge."


    Cost and Complications Take Some of the Appeal Out of Studying Overseas

    Despite China's fascination with the west, the number of Chinese students heading overseas has been declining in recent years, while those returning have been on the rise.

    More than 114,600 students went abroad to study last year, down from 125,000 in 2002, according to statistics from China's education ministry.

    And in the last five years, the number of Chinese returning from overseas stints has been increasing, exceeding 25,000 last year.

    Many students are choosing to stay at home to avoid the cumbersome visa procedures associated with foreign travel and the heavy financial cost of studying abroad - in marked contrast to the trend of the 1990s.

    UK universities in particular have witnessed a significant drop in the number of postgraduate applications from China, as well as other Asian countries.

    But for many students, the returns they seek can only be met by leaving China, where the job market for young professionals is tight.

    English language skills, coupled with scarce expertise in a technical area, are seen as a combination for success.

    "I regard [learning English] as a key to open the door to another world in which there are different cultures and people I want to understand," says Annan Yang, a 23-year-old from Hangzhou, near Shanghai, who is studying for a PhD in biology at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.

    "It's a tool like a computer to get information," she explains.

    "Especially in science, if I want to know the development of a field, I must know English because the best magazines are in English."

    Gao Long, a student at Beijing Normal University, says she wants to go to the US since it represents fairness and better opportunities.

    A book she is now reading describes an American town where life is "in harmony with its surroundings".

    "It's an open country," says the 16-year-old.

    "In China, many jobs are based more on background. In America, people pay more attention to your ability."

May 23, 2005 at 09:01 AM | Permalink


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