Someone’s level of English says a lot about their background; arguably, it’s also pretty useless
My English is Terrible
It’s a fairly common occurrence when I’m in a group of Chinese friends for some sort of English to come up in conversation. Perhaps one person will ask “how do you say that in English?” and, though a little confused as to why they would ask and fairly certain they won’t remember, I will tell them. Almost every time this occurs, at least one person in the group will hang their head in shame and say, “My English is terrible.”
This shame initially baffled me. Speaking English doesn’t have much use in the world’s most populous nation. Even in the biggest cities, it is patchily spoken; in smaller cities, not at all. It is not a lingua franca between China’s many different linguistic groups, and relatively few Chinese will ever travel abroad (only around 10% own a passport). Non-Chinese speakers make up only a fraction of a percent of China’s domestic workforce, meaning English-language communication (face to face at least) is exceedingly rare.
English content is also hard to come by. There are next to zero English language TV channels or printed publications, and only a limited number of foreign films shown domestically per year. Even the internet is separated in common parlance into the wang, the Chinese internet, and the waiwang,the “outer” or “foreign” internet, where almost all English language content lies and which is mostly accessible only with VPN software. Many urban Chinese, especially the tech-savvy younger generation, have VPNs installed, but few use them to read English language content. Understandably so, since reading in a second language is slow and challenging, and China has its own version of everything anyway. Weibo for Twitter; Douyin for TikTok; CCTV instead of international news; Bilibili, Youku and Tencent videos instead of YouTube.
Forcing oneself to speak, English, then, seems an almost absurd pursuit, requiring a large investment of time and effort and resulting in little return. So why does everyone care so much about it? I have come to the conclusion that, like Latin in the Europe of times gone by, it’s related to social class.
Education, Culture and Being “International”
First is the fact that English is part of China’s national curriculum. Education in China is infamously competitive, with students studying long hours for years on end in preparation for the “gaokao”university entrance exam, widely regarded as deciding one’s educational and therefore financial fate. English makes up 150 of the gaokao’s 750 available points. Therefore, having good English is important in an academic and employability sense; similar to being good at Latin in the west. It isn’t really a life skill, but doing well in it gives you opportunities and bragging rights.
A more striking comparison, however, is the associations with elitism that both Latin in the UK and English in China hold.
Education isn’t just about getting good grades. The education someone has access to is also a marker of their socioeconomic background.
Teaching quality is significantly lower in rural areas of China, and this is particularly true for English, since few rural teachers have a very high level of English themselves. Unhelpfully, the gaokao style of teaching English is also stiff and unrealistic in many instances (in a typical example, students are taught that the correct answer to “How do you go to school?” is not “I walk”, but “I go on foot”). Rote memorization of nouns and set phrases is a common tactic. Rural students who do graduate do so knowing words, but struggling to string a sentence together.
In cities, the education quality is far better. Schools have more funding, foreign teachers are common, and parents have the money to spend on extracurricular English classes or even to send their child to a bilingual school. In the last decade or so, it has become fashionable for upper-middle class parents to “internationalise” their children by sending them to boarding schools and universities in the UK, with fees costing tens of thousands of dollars.
In the west, Latin has long been associated with higher social class. In the UK, only 25% of schools offered Latin even at its peak in the 19th century, when only the rich attended school; today, the small percentage of schools that still offer it tend to be on the expensive side. In Germany, Latin courses are taught mostly at university-preparation grammar schools; in Greece, Latin is a prerequisite course for decidedly white-collar university degrees, such as law and social and political sciences. The result is that Latin proficiency communicates a background of money, culture, and educational opportunity in much the same way that English proficiency does in China.
A Symbol of a Widening Gap
Seen through this lens of social class, it makes more sense that poor English might be a cause for insecurity.
In the words of Foreign Affairs magazine, inequality in China is the modern regime’s “Achilles heel”. The Gini coefficient, a measure for income inequality, has soared from just over 30 in 1985 to 47 in 2015, the highest possible rate being 100 (the US, for reference, sits around 45, and Sweden and the UK around 35). Chinese officials have repeatedly stated that levels above 0.4 are “dangerous”. The difference between incomes of those living in the city and in the countryside is so large that they can be almost viewed as different countries, with urban dwellers earning the average wage of citizens of Hungary, and rural dwellers earning the average seen in Vietnam.
This inequality of opportunity means that rural Chinese can be socially looked down upon, and often report feeling isolated in the megacities they migrate to for work. There is also a growing societal concern for the leagues of rural single men, who, with less financial clout and greater competition owing to China’s skewed gender ratio, tend to be less successful in China’s high-pressure, highly materialistic “marriage market”.
The key difference between Latin and English is the fact that one language is alive and well, whereas the other is dead. There is a strong argument for dropping Latin studies, but it is hard to say the same of English without admitting that China’s education system is falling short at a task that from some angles doesn’t make much sense in the first place. Strangely for an English teacher, I would actually advocate making English, like Latin, the optional course that it ought to be, so those who will never use it might spend their time better elsewhere. In the meantime, English seems set remain the symbol of inequality it has become for quite some time.