Q: Why does China make it mandatory to learn English?
A: As Rammstein sang, “we’re all living in Amerika, Amerika, Amerika.”
With English as the world’s most widely spoken language, it makes sense to teach it to the inhabitants of the world’s most-populous country.
But that wasn’t always the case.
In the ‘50s, Communist China opened many Russian language schools to prepare its people to study and work with their communist ally, the Soviet Union.
But after the end of the cold war and China’s opening-up four decades ago, the nation’s leadership found itself lacking in talents who could communicate with the English-speaking world – most importantly America.
English is mandatory in primary education, although it’s not always taught due to a lack of resources.
So in 1978, the Ministry of Education first suggested English should be taught from the third grade onwards.
In practice, for the next two decades most English-language teaching started in middle school, until in 2001 China made English an official mandatory course, along with Mathematics and Chinese.
In top cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, English courses start at first grade – sometimes even in pre-school. But in smaller cities and towns, access to English education varies, with many starting at a later stage and lacking access to teachers with decent English speaking and writing skills.
At school, students follow a set of textbooks to get the basics.
But for those who aspire to study abroad or work for foreign companies in China, the learning takes place mostly in formal and informal after-school programs.
As a result, English-language tutoring and SAT prep has become a multibillion-dollar industry.