For Better or Worse: English Language Reform to Begin in China

For Better or Worse: English Language Reform to Begin in China
Nov 22, 2013 By

Editor’s note: The Gaokao has long been controversial. At the present time, a student’s scores on the Gaokao determines what Chinese university they are allowed to get into, and as a result children are forced to spend most of their school years cramming for this test. The ‘best school in China’ is labeled as such solely because it is a ‘super Gaokao factory’ and an unusually high number of its students get into Tsinghua. Despite this, not everyone is convinced by the Gaokao. An ever increasing number of students are refusing to take it in favor of private schools and other forms of examination. Provinces across China have been reviewing and reforming it, trying to create a better method for assessment that won’t just create tired, overworked children that have spent their whole entire academic careerlearning the skill of memorization.

Beijing has recently published their own Gaokao reform plan which includes a reassessment of the importance given to the subject of English versus Chinese. In a previous article, we delved into whether the importance of expat English teachers was diminishing; this translated article explores the proposed reforms from a Chinese perspective. 

Beijing recently released its college entrance examination reform plan for feedback to the public. The reforms would see scores for the English part of the exam cut from 150 to 100 points while raising those for Chinese language and literature from 150 to 180. The reforms also suggested ways to improve the content of English study in Chinese schools.

For those following the move, the central issue is whether this will pull English off its “godly platform”; in other words, critics are wondering whether learning English will no longer be the number one priority among students.

Since the reforms of the 1980s, both the government and society of China have attached a great deal of importance to the English language compared to other subjects. “Learn mathematics, physics and chemistry; take on the world” had been the popular slogan of the time. When that slogan went out of fashion it changed to “Learn your ABCs, take on the world”. Now that slogan has changed again to become, “Learn your ABCs, leave the country by plane.”

In addition to Beijing’s plan to reduce the points of English by a third, students will now be able to take the exam multiple times and then have their best score used as the valid examination score.  This move is believed to have been inspired by other countries’ experiences in teaching foreign languages and is seen as the start of the end of Gaokao’s biggest flaw: sealing a person’s fate based on the results of just one exam.

Beijing is not the only city reforming their Gaokao system; many other provinces are also reexamining it. In the future, English may not even become a requirement of the Gaokao examination.

Language and nationality

After many years, China finally has the chance to create a new standard for English teaching. However, reforming the English exams has also brought up discussions about nationality and culture.

A particular consideration in reforming the English exam is that the previous importance attached to English meant Chinese learning was underrated, a consequence that in turn led to the serious decline in many students’ Chinese language ability. A country with “over 5000 years of culture and history” should attach more importance to the mother tongue; as such, Chinese national culture ought to be more vigorously developed. 

Many students find coping with the necessary study time required for both English and Chinese extremely difficult. Reducing the required points for the English exam on the Gaokao isn’t about not studying English, but instead about trying to improve the way English is studied.

Those who are opposed to minimizing the importance of English argue that reducing the number points will weaken English education; for a country like China, closing itself off to the outside world would be detrimental to its development. If this is part of the Chinese dream, it is a blinding national hubris.

Not long before the reform proposals were made public, the official media posted an article related to the studying of English, seemingly to influence public opinion ahead of the reforms’ publication. The article quotes a Shanghai-based expert in teaching foreign languages who said that Chinese children spend 10 years studying English but only 5% can express themselves in the language. Educators blame China’s exam-oriented education system as the reason behind these results.

Language and culture

Since learning English became the educational craze of China, many Chinese children have been learning it as soon as they can speak. In this way, parents hope to raise their children bilingually and give their offspring a head start. Moreover, when these kids have reached the “finish line” (completed the Gaokao), some go on to continue their studies abroad to master the language while others will take the civil servant exams while others still will use their English language skills to stand out in a competitive job market.  Many early childhood education centers promote English learning as part of an education that also includes culture, thinking and ideas. However, the opposite is true in Chinese primary schools, high schools and universities; they learn a lot of English language but very little about the culture.

Supporters of the Gaokao reform say that English is nonetheless a kind of tool and skill. Learners can’t turn a blind eye to the cultural background of a language.

It would be difficult to imagine a Confucius Institute somewhere in the world merely teaching Chinese language and not even touching upon Chinese culture. But in China, that is what happens in English classrooms; the emphasis is on vocabulary and grammar and not on deep thinking and culture.  

During the reforms of the 1980s, accompanying the English learning craze was a so-called anti-bourgeoisie freedom movement. Intellectuals concerned with democracy, freedom, equality and human rights, ascribed to the peaceful evolution of Western (especially American) culture in China. These cultures, their ways of thinking and ideals could not be separated from the study of English.

In the subsequent years, the Chinese education department has remained cautious of attaching a cultural element to the learning of the English language. Many English teachers in China have stressed the importance of culture when studying a foreign language. Professor Wang Zuoliang was a graduate of Tsinghua University who went on to study at Oxford University and later became the first president of the China English Language Education Association. If you studied English in China in the 1980s, you would have heard of his name.

Wang once said, “Learning the language through culture will improve your ability to learn the language. The charm of the language and its style is worthy of study, mainly because behind it there is the spirit of the world: both language and culture must be artfully merged together because they both work together in promoting ideas and expression.”

The remarks of Wang Zuoliang seem outdated in today’s China, where the thirst for English seems to be driven by the prospect of studying abroad, civil service exams and the Gaokao.  Besides, the current English-learning market doesn’t use culture as its base but is still high in demand. This seems to indicate that stripping language learning of its cultural roots isn’t much of a hindrance as far as the popularity of learning the language is involved.



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Keywords: education reform English on gaokao gaokao reform English Language Reform To Begin in China English language requirements


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English should be taught as an elective in China and for the interm still included on Gao Kao. I come from Canada where there are 2 official languages. When I went to school both are manditory until grade 9 (Junior 3 in China) after which either became an elective depending on whether you lived in Quebec. 10% of the students in China have a 10% chance of using functional English in their lifetime (my figures gaged from 4 years of teaching and 6 years of living in China). My point is English should become an elective at the high school level. It is difficult to teach anyone something when they are old enough to realize they are not interested in it. That is true of English when China's population in number one and its economy is number 2.

Mar 07, 2014 20:05 Report Abuse



The Gao Kao is a horrible exam and the requirment for them to pass English needs to go! This is just a test to get into High school, many of the Chinese will never go abroad and many of them will never be in careers where they must speak English. Therefore, I think it is rediculous to force to take an exam the requires them to memorize something most of them will never use! A big waste of time! Sorry if this chaffs some of ther English Teachers out there but we cant be like the Oil companies surpressing other technologies just so we can continue to make money.

Nov 24, 2013 12:21 Report Abuse



Your opinion does not chaff me at all. But the Chinese students need something to differentiate from those who can go one university or another. When I was in high school I took a lot of tests in a lot of subjects that I have not used since. Since you are wanting to exclude English, don't stop there. The Gao Kao also tests history, let's get rid of that for no one needs to learn of their past. Might as well stop teaching trigonometry and other worthless stuff like that- very few will use it after graduation. The only things Chinese students need are maths (up to to arithmetic) and the Chinese language because that is all they will use after graduating school. On a serious note the central government can make English be worth 50 points and I would still have work in China. A lot of Chinese parents are becoming well off and they want to send their children abroad to study. They hate the Gao Kao just as much as students. I work in a very small town in China and I have so many private students that I have to turn some away. Training centers may suffer, but business has been better than ever for me.

Nov 24, 2013 23:10 Report Abuse



How can English teachers suppress technology to make money? Where is their influence on Beijing? 哈哈

Jan 31, 2014 17:17 Report Abuse



The Gaokao nightmare is just the one before they graduate and start living the RMB 1800 one upon graduation, from university, for quite a few. Whatever emphasis they are juggling to teach their kids, be it digging up pieces of traditional Chinese values from Emperor Who's tomb or Western ones from the internet, the 1.3+ billion as a group is still facing a core issue ---- why do the majority of us still earn a dismal couple hundreds of USD a month, despite 30 years of "becoming rich"? Rather than blaming it on capitalism, better face the music and look at the demand and supply of labor. The ultimate solution is to address their population control policy. They courageously adopted a single-child policy, which unfortunately resulted in many a horrible monsters. Time to take it one step ahead, such as combining it with the Singaporeans' population policy.

Nov 22, 2013 11:53 Report Abuse



Imagine a Chinese teacher teaching English culture. What a shame that would be. Especially seems American culture is not English language culture, it is a mere part of it that comes from Europe and has a 5001 year history.....

Nov 22, 2013 09:21 Report Abuse



It should be noted that the ratio of transfer between English and Chinese isn’t 1:1. In addition to the overall total for Chinese being raised by thirty points, twenty points also went to the arts/sciences section of the exam. Very few articles have reported this because it detracts from their attempts to describe this change in terms of lingua-nationalism. Which it isn’t. If we step back from this topic a little, I think its worth noting that very few countries mandate the study of a foreign language until the age of eighteen. Although the results of language education in middle and high schools in China can sometimes be rather dubious, at least the will to fully incorporate languages into mainstream education exists. Furthermore, the proportion of time, energy and assessment weighting given to English language by the Chinese education system is extraordinary when compared to the post-16 systems of many other countries. Also, most provinces give more weight to English than Beijing does and contrary to a lot of recent articles, it is not a bellwether indicator of future education practice in other parts of China. Of course, as we all know a lot of this English language education effort doesn’t achieve much and to a significant degree this is due to the nature of education within China and in particular the university entrance examination itself. If viewed in terms beyond reliability and practicality of administration, the “gaokao” is actually a terrible test – one can obtain very high marks using strategies which aren’t based on genuine learning and understanding. It is a test for which cramming works. It is, of course, a very difficult task to create an admissions system which functions properly in a country as large and “developing” as China – I always consider it to be a minor miracle that it keeps on working every year – but that doesn’t detract from the fact that the test is a very poor measure of many things, amongst them language skills. In short then, moving the exam-points-goalposts, whilst notable in terms of potential EFL sector washback, is less significant in relation to more genuine educational outcomes. Altering the questions content and mechanics of the test itself would be far more significant.

Nov 22, 2013 09:14 Report Abuse