English language fever in China

An English language course in Guangzhou

By Xinyi Wang

Over 100 students get together, spending four hours in a classroom listening to an English teacher. It is the typical scene at the New Oriental School in Wushan, a famous English school.

New Oriental, the full name of Beijing New Oriental Education & Technology (Group) Co., Ltd., with headquarters in Beijing, is the largest integrated education group in China. It is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, with a value $ 6.4 billion, and has schools in all the important cities in China.

From a small school to this massive enterprise, the fever of learning English plays the most crucial role in its success.

“I joined New Oriental 15 years ago when it first came to Guangzhou,” Aloof Lau, one of the founders of New Oriental in Guangzhou, said, “ I remember when we started teaching, there were more 500 students in one class.” According to Lau, New Oriental in Guangzhou has taught over 300,000 students.

Why do so many students want to study English?

Hunter Lee, who is studying at Sun Yat-sen University, said: “Going abroad is my dream. Although now I’m at a top university in China, it can’t satisfy me. I want to experience higher education.”

For some students at a less recognized university, they have the same desire.

Li Changzhao, a student in Southern Medical University, said, “My graduate degree is not good enough, which means I need a higher diploma if I want a better job.”

Studying overseas is the main reason for English fewer. According to the National Education Department, more than 500,000 Chinese students went abroad to study last year. Two of the main English tests for going abroad, TOEFL, or The Test of English as a Foreign Language, and IELTS, or the International English Language Testing System, are the hottest courses in English studies. In 2014, about 600,000 and 200,000 students attended IELTS and TOEFL respectively.

“Easier visas and the rise of income helped the growth of overseas students,” Lau said,
“Compared to 10 years ago, the chance of getting a visa successfully is much higher. And for students going abroad in the past, they had to get a full scholarship to support their studying. But now many families can afford the cost. It was once hard to imagine that someone spends $ 150,000 going abroad.”

Since 2001, which is the same year China joined World Trade Organization, the storm of studying English, the language in common use all over the world, started to sweep over the whole country.

The Chinese State Education Commission stipulated, after the high school students entering a university, they must pass the CET, or the China English Test, for graduation.

The most important test in China, gaokao, or the China college entrance exam, also requires English as a subject. The National Career Title Exam, which is used to get a higher salary, also includes an English test.

All these exams drive a huge number of people to learn English. In 2014, 9.4 million students attended gaokao, and three million people took part in the National Career Title Exam.

According to Xinminweekly, the market for English studies in China is worth over $1.5 billion. Take IELTS as an example. The fee is $260 per person. In one year, 600,000 students needed to pay $156 million for testing. “Cambridge English IELTS,” a textbook published by Cambridge, and the creator of IELTS, costs $17. Nearly three million books are sold per year, which mean income of nearly $50 million. As a result, IELTS earns over $200 million a year in China.

English training agencies are big winners, too. At New Oriental, a course of 64 hours costs a student about $1,000. For VIP students who want to learn English one to one, the cost runs $300 per hour.

“Personally, I have seen the parents pay $ 30,000 once, which shocked me a lot,” Lau said.

For ordinary students, the price also isn’t low. “ The whole course cost me nearly $950,” Li Changzhao, a student in Southern Medical University, said. “Although it’s a little hard to accept, I have no choice.”

Talking about the future, Lau is full of hope. “ I believe that there will be more and more people come to study English. But the classroom of 500 people has gone. You can see now most of our classes are small because of more various needs of studying,” Lau said.

After 15 years, New Oriental in Guangzhou has 33 schools in all the main districts. The courses have been expanded from only TOEFL at the beginning to over 40 subjects, including English subject for students from kindergarten to high school.

According to the Chinese General Social Survey, a poll in eight big cities, including Bejing, Shanghai and Xian, showed over 90 percent believed English will play a crucial role in children’s future. Ninety-three percent of parents had plans for their children to study English.

Despite the fact that students are still a major part of English studies, people from older groups are following.

Zhang Kaiyu, who already has a job, is studying TOEFL now. “I’m not satisfied with my job. One of my friends in America told me that the prospect there is better. So by his encouragement, I decided to have a try,” he said.

With globalization, English, a basic tool for anyone to enter the global market, has obtained unparalleled attention in China. Many transnational corporations have come here, which has a lack of workers with good English. To adapt, many white collar workers pick up English studying again. As an acceptable credential for numerous companies, the Business English certificate has attracted over a million people to take lessons.

“Time for class, teacher Lau,” the course manager said. Lau drank some water and went into the crowded classroom. It looks like English fever will last for a long time in China in the years ahead.


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