English in China: How do Chinese People Perceive?

*Shizheng Liu (Wallace)


When the Chinese government innovatively issued the so-called ‘reform and opening up’ policy in the late 1970s, China, a country which used to be isolated from the modern world, set her feet on the road to the globalization. The globalization in China has impacted on many aspects of Chinese society, such as the economy, society and culture. Speaking of cultural globalization in China, one of its embodiments is that numerous foreign languages begin to be embraced by Chinese society. For instance, English, as a global language, is widely learned in China and even becomes a compulsory subject in Chinese schools. Also, there are some other languages such as Japanese and Korean becoming increasingly popular due to their cultural input in China. Therefore, having felt the significance of dealing with the status of these languages in China, this paper will explore the status and role of English and other languages like Korean in China, and discuss Chinese’s general attitudes towards these foreign languages.


English as a language of word communications and trade, actually has influenced so many countries, and China is no exception (Gil & Adamson, unknown, p.23). Actually, the role and status of English in contemporary China has shifted many times. English was limited to most schools as a foreign language back in the early 1950s because the relationship between China and Russia was intimate and thus Russian-teaching was largely promoted at that time. Due to the political schisms between Russia and China in the 1960s, English went into schools, whereas Russian was abandoned. During the Cultural Revolution, English-teaching was illegal in most of places in China. From the end of Cultural Revolution to nowadays, the status of English in China has been constantly increasing (Gil & Adamson, unknown, p.25). As Gil & Adamson point out (unknown), English language currently has the unprecedented value in China. In addition, Bolton and Graddol (2012) also utilized “unprecedented popularity” to describe the role of English in current Chinese society. Specifically, the unprecedented importance of English mainly reflects on the language policies and education systems in China. According to Tsui & Tollefson (2007, p.18), Chinese language policymakers regard English not only as an essential tool for the nation to achieve goals, but also as the indispensable resource for individuals to accomplish personal progress. The revival of English teaching in China started with the “reform and opening up” policy, and grew rapidly throughout the 1990s and 2000s because of the official promotion of English by Chinese government. In the education system, the Chinese government lowered the age at which English is taught, and rendered English as a crucial part of key examinations in order to ensure the importance of English (Bolton & Graddol, 2012). More specifically, the Chinese government enacted a policy in 2001, saying that any school-age children above 8 or in Year 3 of primary schools must be taught English (Wang, 2007). Under such circumstances, numerous private kindergarten schools proclaiming the ability to teach Chinese preschool children English appear and grow considerably fast because Chinese parents across the nation try to offer their children as much educational advantage as possible by providing them early English education (Bolton & Graddol, 2012). Furthermore, English test is even included in the National University Entrance Qualifying Exam, namely GaoKao, which is taken by more than 9 million students in China every year, alongside with Chinese and Maths (China Daily, 2010). The importance of English does not reduce even at university since all undergraduates in China, regardless of their majors, are required to pass College English Test (CET) before graduation (Bolton & Graddol, 2012). Therefore, it can be seen that English has

English in Practice

Apart from education systems, English also has huge impact on academic researches, media, business as well as tourism in Chinese society. English has been widely utilized in international academic research conferences in China. Chinese scholars need to be proficient in English if they intend to undertake academic exchanges, publish articles in international academic journals (Gil & Adamson, unknown). Also, some highly ranked educational institutions such as Tsinghua University publish their academic journals in English (Gil & Adamson, unknown). With regard to Media, the importance and presence of English has been constantly increasing as well. Many English publications such as People’s Daily, 21st English, and China Daily are well known and enjoy a large number of consumers (Gil & Adamson, unknown).
Also, there are diverse English television and radio programs, such as CCTV 9, which is English language channel controlled by Chinese central television group. In addition, some media have their own complementary English websites. As for the role of English in the business field, it is considerably important. English is commonly utilized in joint adventures between China and foreign enterprises. According to the report from National Bureau of Statistics of China, there are over 40,000 foreign enterprises founded in China every year. In such companies, English is widely used by employees to send email, fill in forms and read specialist literature. Many Chinese local companies even have their own English names in order to be recognized overseas such as China Mobile, Bank of China, China Telecom, and Commercial and Industrial bank of China. Finally, the use of English is pervasive in hotel, airport, buses and light train vehicles, via some on-board announcements and recorded announcements. Moreover, tourists from English-speaking countries might find it is fairly convenient to visit China without knowing Chinese because tourist signs and literature are everywhere in scenic spots, parks and museums. In consequence, it is reasonable to say English has become a part of Chinese people’s daily life.

Attitude of Chinese towards English

Since English has become so crucial, it is significant to discover Chinese people’s common attitudes towards English. Actually, Chinese’s attitudes towards English have experienced several changes and currently seem to be ambivalent. According to Adamson (2002, p.231), English can be related to some of the worst images in China such as military intruders, the threat to national identity or anti-communists. Nevertheless, some Chinese people believe that English is a conduit to strengthen China’s position in the world (Adamson & Borris, 1997). On the one hand, the leaders of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regard studying English as a necessary tool of fostering international trade as well as gaining technological expertise; on the other hand, those leaders might be concerned about the integrity of Chinese system, identity and culture because they perceive that English probably would bring undesirable values such as imperialism, capitalism or even barbarism to Chinese system, which are antithetical to the ideology of the CCP (Adamson & Borris, 1997). As for ordinary students, there was a research concerning undergraduate’s attitude towards English in Beijing University, which was conducted in 2013 by Fong Peng Chew, a scholar from University of Malaya. The result displayed that generally those participants supported the high status and role of English in Mainland China believed English was conducive to their personal advance. However, they commonly disagreed that the use of English has a large contribution to the development and prosperity of China (Chew, 2013). In addition, over 50% of the respondents did not think that they should be compelled to learn English. Thus, it can be perceived that Chinese people generally think the influence of English can be both detrimental and beneficial.

Other Foreign Language, Korean in China

Actually, in addition to English, there are many other foreign languages spoken in China. According to the census of 2012, there are 2.71 million people in China speaking Korean, 43% of which are Korean monolinguals (Ethnologue, Unknown). Even though the role and status of Korean in China is not as high as English, it still has decent amount of influence on Chinese people’s daily life.

In terms of the data on Ethnologue (2016), Chinese people who speak Korean mainly located in the north east of China including Heilongjiang Province, Liaoning Province and Jinlin Province as well as some provinces in the north like Shandong and Hebei. Moreover, as mentioned above, there are 2.71 million people speaking Korean in China. Korean minority is also one of the 56 national minorities in China. Therefore, it can be seen that Korean does enjoy a kind of popularity in Chinese society. Furthermore, there is anecdotal evidence that due to the increasing global popularity of “Korean wave” from South Korea and its spread in China, a decent number of Chinese people are motivated to study Korean. Youth in China as well as other places in Asia are found to have massive interest in Korean culture, which consequently encourages them to study Korean language. Learning or speaking Korean language is becoming a popular cultural sign in China. From my personal experience, some of my friends are addicted to Korean music band and they are simply curious of everything about their favorite idols including the culture group their idols represent. In this situation, they intend to be close to the cultural group that those Korean bands stand for. In consequence, they are motivated to learn Korean language. Moreover, there are many Korean dramas coming into China each year and some of them are quite popular and even become a widespread cultural phenomenon. For example, many Chinese young girls like to imitate Korean to say “Oppa”, which means “brother”. Therefore, generally speaking, Korean is relatively popular at At the government level, there is a Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture located in the Jilin province, which is supported and founded by Chinese government. Chinese government keeps labeling this prefecture as a model of “national integration and progress” in order to emphasize the achievement of ethnic Koreans in China (Gao, 2009). Overall, there is not too much academic evidence suggesting that the role and status of Korean in China is increasing. However, in terms of personal experience, it can be perceived that Korean is becoming increasingly popular among Chinese people.


In conclusion, English has deeply penetrated in Chinese society and has huge influence on Chinese education system, media, tourism and academic researches. Chinese people’s attitudes towards English are relatively ambivalent; they recognize the function of English in securing China’s international status and also fear that the promotion of English might do damage to Chinese culture and identity. As for other languages in China such as Korean, its role and status is relatively lower but increasing. People’s love or hate towards it is not so obvious as that of English. Finally, the sources used to discuss the status of Korean language are not so reliable rather based on the general observation compared to the sources used to discuss the spread of English language in China. Therefore, the reader might need to keep questioning the validity of the status of the Korean language in China.


Adamson, B. (2002). Barbarian as a foreign language: English in China’s schools. World Englishes 21(2), 231-243.

Adamson, B., & Morris, P. (1997). The English curriculum in the People’s Republic of China. Comparative Education Review41(1), 3-26.

Bolton, K., & Graddol, D. (2012). English in China today. English Today,28(3), 3.

Tsui, A. B., & Tollefson, J. W. (2006). Language policy and the construction of national cultural identity. Language policy, culture and identity in Asian contexts.

Chew, F. P. (2013). Language attitudes of university students in China.International Proceedings of Economics Development and Research68, 89.

China Daily. 2010a. ‘Rush to learn English fuels qualityissues.’ Online at <http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/ 2010-08/05/content_11098499.htm> (Accessed Oct 17th, 2016).

Ethnologue, “A language of Korea, South” Online at https://www.ethnologue.com/language/kor (Accessed Oct 17th, 2016)

Gao, F. (2009). Language and power: Korean–Chinese students’ language attitude and practice. Journal of multilingual and multicultural development,30(6), 525-534.

Gil, J & Adamson, B. (  ?  ) The English language in China: a sociolinguistic profile. English language education across Greater China, 23-45.

Wang, Q. (2007). The national curriculum changes and their effects on English language teaching in the People’s Republic of China. In International handbook of English language teaching (pp. 87-105). Springer US.

2-pic*Shizheng Liu is currently a MA student in the University of Warwick. He obtained his BA degree from a top-notch Sino-British university in China. He has two years experience of CHI-ENG / ENG-CHI translation and interpretation. He has acquired the intermediate certificate of interpretation in China. His translated work concerning Russian education is published on a noted Chinese educational journal. He was also an intern editor of Southern Weekly, a newspaper with the largest circulation in China. After his graduation, he decided to change his future career path from translation to ELT, and thus entered the University of Warwick. 


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