Academics have commented on the relationship between international competitiveness and students’ English ability, saying that courses taught in English do not guarantee international competitiveness and that the methods used by local universities to improve English might be ineffective.
After grading English test papers for the Joint College Entrance Exam for about 10 years, over these years I discovered that the English proficiency of senior-high school graduates has been unsatisfactory.
A large portion of them give up the subject completely or partially and the situation has remained unchanged to this day.
The university admission rate is almost 100 percent; the majority of senior-high graduates are admitted into universities, which require them to take English courses and pass an English proficiency test as a prerequisite for graduation.
Many students suffer because of this requirement while also giving their teachers a headache. Their poor English is a long-term problem.
As the old Chinese saying goes: “Three feet of ice is not the result of one cold day” (冰凍三尺非一日之寒). What can be done to help them?
All universities across the nation highlight the importance of improving students’ English. However, their efforts have mostly been in vain. University students actually have weaker English abilities than senior-high school students.
Many universities make students’ English proficiency a prerequisite for graduation. Sometimes this results in lowering standards and expectations for fulfilling the language requirement because of the low level of their students’ English.
Such a requirement is more like a superficial “image project.” It is a departure from reality and impractical in nature. Given their poor English, how many students can meet these requirements? For those who do not meet the requirements, universities offer many time-consuming remedial courses.
Such courses are of little help, as they only give schools and students a way to back out of the embarrassing situation, while students waste a lot of time learning under formalistic methods.
English is an important skill, but not everyone has the ability, willingness or time to learn it well. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses as well as their judgments and values. Students need to learn how to take responsibility for their own decisions, and this includes the decision to study a foreign language.
When will the authorities in charge abandon their authoritative, parental attitude of “I am doing this for your own good” and adopt a more practical approach?
They should change required English courses into electives and cancel the English requirements for graduation. By doing so, everyone will be able to catch their breath. This will also allow students to learn how to be responsible for themselves, as they devote their time and energy to more meaningful tasks.
Hugo Tseng is the chair of Soochow University’s English department.
Translated by Eddy Chang