The Influence of the English Language in China

English is increasingly becoming a language of the young in China and its influence is transitioning beyond basic communication. English is also influencing Chinese culture, and even the way the young think and act.

Today, according to Diane Sawyer on ABC World News, there are more people studying English in China than there are people living in the US. Chinese primary schools, as a matter of course, begin teaching English in the third grade and, in the next five years, according to China Daily, all schools will begin teaching English in kindergarten. In addition, within the next five years, all state employees younger than 40 will be required to master at least 1000 English phrases.

One of the obstacles to this plan is a shortage of proficient English teachers. Although the government is accelerating the training of teachers, it will more than likely be the next generation of Chinese who are able to speak English as a natural form of communication, such as Europeans might easily transition and speak the language of another European country.

Part of the reason for this emphasis on English is that China wants to become more international. After being an isolationist nation for nearly 5,000 years, until 1978 when China opened itself to international trade and adopted capitalism, the government decided that having its citizenry speak the English language would allow it to better communicate with the international community, especially in matters of business, trade and technology. As one mother puts it, speaking about her son learning English in school: science and math are all written in English so it’s essential for my son to be fluent in the language. China feels that English is the international language of business and that by speaking English, China will be more effective in its business dealings with the West. In addition, the government feels that understanding English will allow China to better adapt technologies from the West and also provide increased impetus to its current and long-term growth.

However, while the young may be able to converse, and actually become fluent in English, older Chinese have a difficult time. Therefore, in a great many companies Westerners still conduct business in Mandarin or Cantonese with their Chinese counterpart. That’s changing as the next business generation should be better able to transition from Chinese to English in its conduct of business. Also, English is not displacing Mandarin, Cantonese, or the ethnic languages in China. On the contrary, Mandarin is still, and will continue to be, the dominant language of China. Instead, English is the language of international business, and China is quickly adapting. As the World’s number two economy, and destined to be the World’s largest economy, importer, and exporter, it’s essential for China to be able to understand and conduct business on a global basis. English allows them to do this.

Learning English has had an additional influence on younger Chinese, beyond an increased ability to communicate and conduct business within the international community. According to Boye Lafayette De Mente, in his book The Chinese Mind, the English language is also a reservoir and transmitter of culture and also encourages individualism and independence. Younger Chinese who learn English also tend to absorb American culture. They’re likely wearing American-style clothing, watching American-style shows such as American Idol, and gathering with their friends at Starbucks. But the behavioral changes in China of those who learn English is even more profound. When one learns English they tend to project themselves outside their culture and immerse themselves in America. The younger the person, the faster and more profound this American influence will be on their thinking and behavior. The more they speak English, the more they begin to think like Americans. In children, for example, this influence is usually noticeable in a year or two. In fact, in children this change becomes so pronounced that it’s almost immediately noticed by older Chinese who don’t speak English or who have minimal exposure to English culture.

Speaking English is looked upon, by younger Chinese, as a good thing. Younger Chinese want to speak English and tend to envy those in their peer group who have a better command of the language than they may presently have. While in some countries speaking English is looked on as being anti-nationalistic, among China’s young it’s looked upon as a leap beyond the constrictions of Chinese life and into the open spaces of the US and the international community. It gives them an enhanced sense of status, and a feeling of modernity, independence, and internationalism as China gradually begins to transform itself in the 21st century.

Alan Refkin        

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