English in China Today and the influence of Education Reform

Chong Zhang (Chris)


This article provides a contemporary overview of English language policy in China with reference to the language’s global position and rising influence of Mandarin Chinese. In addition, the article provides a historical overview of this topic with reference to Chinese government policy. This reviews how English has become more prominent overtime in relation other languages and how its potential for the future. The English education market is currently of a considerable scale owing much to the current trend for many students seeking higher education in English speaking countries around the whole world. In many international organisations, English has become prerequisite for advanced positions; this has contributed to the growing popularity of the study of the language. Although the influence of English is particularly prevalent at this time, the question for the future is will this continue to be the case? This article attempts to answer this to some extent.

Key words: China, English, Gaokao, NMET, Language Policy


After the launch of China’s reform and opening-up policies during the late 1970s, China began to attach more importance to English as a lingua franca to contact with the outside world (China Daily, 2010). Recently, globalisation has given English an unprecedented dominant position in foreign language teaching in China and this increasing trend is likely to continue. However, the Chinese Ministry of Education (MOE) adopted a reform policy on National Matriculation English Test (NMET), the English test of the National University Entrance Qualifying Exam (Gaokao) in 2013. According to this policy, English would be of less importance in Gaokao. Since this exam is an indicator for most Chinese students, this reform was assumed to seriously influence the status of English in China. This paper will focus on the status and roles of English in China, Chinese attitudes toward English, and the influence of the NMET reform.

The status of English in China

The past decades saw a tremendous shift in the status of English in China. Through this shift, the leading position of Russian was replaced by English (Hu, 1999). The importance of English increased continuously as the result of the official policy of the Chinese government in the national education system. China’s policy of reform and opening implemented in the late 1970s was a turning point in the language situation in China. Accompanying this economic reform, the Chinese government formulated a series of policies to recover English and other foreign language teaching (Adamson, 2002). Among these languages, English was attached more importance because English study was promoted on a national scale. English lessons became a compulsory course in school study and students from Grade 3 are obligated to learn English (Wang, 2007). Moreover, a variety of English examinations are the direct methods that the MOE applied to arouse people’s attention to English study for the reason that tests are of high importance in Chinese education system. English, along with Chinese and Mathematics is the main subject tested in Gaokao. The Chinese hold the view that Gaokao can affect one’s entire life for the reason that it decides whether one can enter an ideal university. Gaokao has a special meaning for every Chinese student and some students believe that all the knowledge they obtain serves to achieve high scores in Gaokao. As a major subject in Gaokao, English is not only learned for personal advancement, but also for a brighter future. Thus, setting the English examination in Gaokao has a huge impact on the spread of English among teenagers. For Chinese university students, professional knowledge becomes more important. Since they have already secured their places in universities, English study seems to lose its status. Nevertheless, undergraduates are required to take compulsory English courses in the first two years preparing for another examination, College English Test Band Four (CET-4). MOE regulates that Chinese university students will fail in graduating from universities without holding the CET-4 certificate. It can be found that the MOE improves the status of English and encourages English study by forcingtudents of all ages to study English and pass the exam.

In addition to the high official status of English, many Chinese, especially Chinese parents are aware of its significance because of the government’s promotion of this language. Chinese parents extremely treasure their children due to the one-child policy. Thus, they will try their utmost to give their own child the best education resources. Gasping these business opportunities, a large number of English training institutions are established to fulfil the demands of parents. According to the MOE, the number of English training companies is around 50,000. Their market value is assumed to be about 30 billion RMB. This large industry shows the high demand for English training. It can be seen that the Chinese are willing to improve their English level without any strict instruction because of their awareness of its importance.

There are approximately 400 million people learning English, about one-third of the whole population in contemporary China (China Daily, 2010). According to the SGO (2006), English language learners account for 93.8% of the people with foreign language learning experience. In addition, Russian is learned by 7.1% of the foreign-language learners, ranking cafter English. Comparing the number of the learners, the enormous gap indicates that English is the most popular language in China. The high official status and Chinese emphasis on English are likely to contribute to the popularisation of learning this language.

The roles of English in China

In recent decades, China has been facing the unprecedented process of economic globalisation. Crystal (2001) owed the rapid spread of English to globalisation because English acts as the major medium of communication through this process. English plays a more significant role as a lingua franca in contemporary China, covering the field of business, education, and media.

At present, China plays an increasingly important role in the world economy and has become one of the main destinations for the world’s foreign investments. Developing the economy is the main force to promote English in China. According to statistics, around 40,000 foreign corporations are established in China every year (National Bureau of Statistics of China, 2009). English is used mainly for communication for Chinese businesspeople. The employees of international companies use English to contact work matters via email and phone, leave a message to colleagues through a memo, and fill in forms. In addition to foreign companies in China, Chinese companies prefer to have an English name for international recognition, such as Bank of China, China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation, or China Mobile.

English has become a medium of learning for the Chinese students who would like to study overseas. In the last twenty years, an increasing number of students have gone abroad to seek further education. The majority of their destinations are English-speaking countries, such as the United States or Britain. According to Robin, there were 98,500 Chinese undergraduates and postgraduates studying a wide range of subjects in American universities in 2009 (UN Human Development Report, 2009). In the EU, the number of Chinese students was around 120,000 in 2010 (European Commission, 2012). It was estimated that approximately 230,000 Chinese students studied abroad in 2011 (China Daily, 2011). The upward trend of educational migrants results in the growing demand for passing English proficiency tests such as TOFEL or IELTS in China. Meanwhile, Chinese universities also begin to set up English-medium curricula and establish teaching programmes cooperating with foreign universities. For example, Fudan University has ten international cooperation projects collaborating with famous overseas universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For academic research, proficiency in English is necessary for Chinese researchers because of the dominance of English in academic discourse. Additionally, there are an increasing number of English academic journals and dissertations published in China. For instance, Tsinghua University publishes journals in English. In the field of education, especially high education, English has begun to serve as the medium of learning in several subjects.

Moreover, there is a vigorous tendency of English media development, especially English news media. There are English television channels like CCTV 9, or international channel Shanghai, and daily or weekly English newspapers, such as China Daily, Shanghai Daily, and 21st Century English. These television channels and newspapers are aimed at servicing the foreign immigrants living in China.

In addition to the traditional media, the spread of English on the Internet is much wider. Although two-thirds of all Internet users were non-native English speakers, English plays a dominant role in popular culture, which is an essential part of the Internet (Staff, 2003; Crystal, 2001). I (Zhang, 2016) have conducted a quality study of Chinese university students’ attitude toward English in online communities. Most of the participants showed that they used English mainly for entertainment, including playing computer games and watching American and British Drama. Several parts of the interviews can indicate the roles of English on the Internet with a fresh eye:

…I believe learning English is a duty for people in the modern age. I love to check World News every day by browsing the official website of BBC, ABC. It is interesting to find the differences between the news in English and the news translated into Chinese. Moreover, knowing the international news give me a sense of belonging to this world. I really enjoy learning English in the process of reading news.

Furthmore, another interviewee said that she used English online for interests:

Now I am really addicted to Japanese drama and anime but I am unable to speak Japanese. Thus, I get all the information about what I like through English. Though reading the English translation of Japanese name is a little tough, I am able to understand most of the information. And it is cool to communicate with the people sharing the same interests with me all over the world. We can exchange our thoughts about the drama just after watching it.

Chinese attitudes toward English

Different from the clear status and roles of English, Chinese attitudes toward English seems to be more complicated. Taking into account that English is at such a high status in China, it may cause mixed thoughts of English. Most of the Chinese think the current situation of English in China is satisfactory while others hold an opposite opinion. Part of them question the exam-oriented English education system due to its inefficiency. Although China is considered as a main English-learning country, the frequency of using English in daily life is much lower than the other countries from the outer circle like Singapore, Philippines, and India (Zhao, 2016). Additionally, there are worries that overvaluing English will have negative impact on Chinese culture. Some blame children’s disappointing performance in the language study on the influence of their English language study (Yajun, 2003). Furthermore, several Chinese claim, that, given the rapid growth status of China, Chinese will replace English to become a global language eventually. The complex feelings about English could be one of the fuses leading to the recent reform policy.

The influence of the NMET reform

According to the detailed plans of the NMET reform, English as a subject has been losing its importance in Gaokao gradually and finally will be removed from Gaokao. A number of Chinese parents and students support this reform since it will release students’ pressure. However, there are several disadvantages causing Chinese disvaluing English and educational inequity. Though the test-oriented English education may lead to learners’ unqualified speaking and listening skills, it does training learner’ writing and reading abilities. Through my experience as a student experienced exam-oriented education, I know that the status of a subject in the university entrance exam determines its importance in school study. Students allocate more time and energy to do the homework of the major subjects and the teachers of these subjects will be more respected than the other teachers. These seem to be the default rules in the education system. Consequently, it can be deduced that the reform will reduce the importance of English in compulsory education. Considering the condition that English plays a key role in China will not change immediately, Chinese students will gain other approaches to learning English which need to be paid. It will cause the inequity of access to English. The children of the poor will have less chance to learn English.


To sum up, the past education policy has given English an unprecedented flourishing stage in contemporary China, leading to the high level of awareness of English’s importance among Chinese and the popularisation of learning the language. English also plays a crucial role in the field of business, education, and media because of the globalisation process in China. Though most Chinese accept the current status of English in China, Chinese attitudes towards English are relatively complicated: some blame the inefficiency of English education; some claim that English have negative impacts on Chinese culture; some believe Chinese will replace English in the future. Recently, MOE adopted the NMET reform policy. Though the influence of this reform is not evident at the current stage, it will definitely have a huge impact on English education in future such as people’s disvaluing English and educational inequity. For English teachers, their focus will transfer from test capabilities to communication skills during teaching.


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*Chong Zhang is currently a MA student in English Language Teaching at University of Warwick. She holds a BA degree in English and Finance at a Sino-British university in China. She decided to become an English teacher and entered University of Warwick.

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