International Asia Writer Lijia Zhang explains the ill effects of reducing the use of...

Writer Lijia Zhang explains the ill effects of reducing the use of English in China

Ms Zhang says that not being able to speak English isn't the way that China should prove its cultural confidence. In fact she feels choosing not to translate official press conferences into English denotes cultural arrogance

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An opinion piece released in the South China Morning Post by columnist Lijia Zhang talks about the ill effects of those rallying to reduce the importance of knowing how to speak English in China.

Two separate proposals were sent to the National People’s Congress (NPC), both sharing the same thoughts that English should not be a prominent language that is taught in Chinese schools, nor should it be prioritised in press conferences.

According to Zhang, one such delegate, Yang Weiguo of Hunan, believes that choosing not to translate government press conferences from Chinese into English will “promote Chinese culture and demonstrate China’s cultural confidence.”

Meanwhile, the commentary also goes on to say that another delegate, Tang Hailong of Beijing, thinks that English should not be considered an important school subject. Mr Hailong explained that by doing so, it will “promote the dominance of Chinese as the country’s official language.”

While some Chinese citizens supported this way of thinking, others claimed that both proposals were “narrow-minded.”

According to the writer, while she wasn’t surprised that both proposals were submitted to the NPC, she doesn’t get why it cannot go “hand in hand with learning English” while also supporting both Chinese language as well as Chinese culture.

Ms Zhang was privy to another debate that had the same sentiments on the effect of learning the English language in China. She explained how Hua Qianfang, a former farmer who is now a popular writer, had posted on Weibo that he believes that not only is English worthless to the Chinese, but he truly thinks that it “cost children their childhoods.” Ms Zhang explained that Mr Qianfang also wrote in his article, those that wanted to learn English were “self-dwarfing slaves” to the “Western ideology.”

But unlike Mr Qianfang and the two delegates she mentioned earlier, Ms Zhang cited that she could not disagree more.

For Ms Zhang, learning to speak and write in English changed her life. She was born into what she maintained was a “poor working-class family” in the city of Nanjing. While it was her dream to eventually become a writer when she was older, she shared how she was forced to leave school at just 16 to start working in a military factory that made intercontinental missiles.

During her time there, which lasted an entire decade, she was made to grease machine parts. It was during that time in the 80’s that she taught herself English, using a borrowed radio in order to follow a programme named New Concept English.

Ms Zhang also said in the article that she was “fascinated” by English because it was totally different from her own language. She would sing Carpenters’ songs, and even speak to herself in English, getting backlash from her co-workers who called her “a toad who dreams of eating a swan’s meat.” But as she said, “I didn’t care.”

Not only did she teach herself English, but she is now a writer whose English-written work is featured in a number of international publications, even having penned a novel entitled Lotus. And as she explained in her own words, “In a small way, my story demonstrates the transformative power of language.”

Zhang knew that being able to speak English back in the 80s gave people an edge when it came to getting jobs too. She herself wanted to work as an interpreter with a foreign company in Nanjing when it was still uncommon for locals to speak any other language but their own. However, these days, understanding and speaking English is already considered a basic skill.

In these modern times, China has managed to become much more proficient in English, which is why the country has managed to have major “economic growth and global prominence.” She also mentions that the latest result of the EF English Proficiency Index, which tests English proficiency in non-native adult speakers, China ranked 8th amongst Asian countries, after South Korea, the Philippines and Singapore, which sits at number one.

In Zhang’s opinion, she doesn’t believe that not being able to speak English is the way that China should prove their “cultural confidence.” In fact, she even goes on to say that choosing not to translate official press conferences into English will show cultural arrogance instead.

She also feels that China’s economic growth and rise has managed to make the West uncomfortable and fearful of the country’s capabilities, while the Covid-19 pandemic has managed to make matters even worse. Because of this, Ms Zhang calls on China to “behave graciously and open up more channels for cultural understanding.”

Ms Zhang concludes that the world today needs more people that know how to speak different languages in order to facilitate better communication, and that it has become “one of my self-appointed missions in life to serve as a cultural bridge between China and the outside world, in my small way, of course, explaining where China is coming from and why certain events happened.” /TISG

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