Language: Test vs. Tool

Since my last post, I’ve been unable to get permission to conduct research at any English instruction companies here in Beijing, so I’ll be doing my project without a field site. However, this means that a very important method of gathering information – observation, of English classes for example – is no longer available to me. To make up for this fact, I plan to conduct more interviews that I may otherwise have done, with native Chinese speakers who have learned or are learning Chinese.

So far I’ve done two interviews, and something I found interesting is that both interviewees referred to English as a tool, and viewed learning English as very important in today’s society. When I asked if they would have wanted to learn English, even if it hadn’t been a mandatory class in school, they both immediately answered with an emphatic “Yes”. I think I’d been expecting the opposite answer, because of the way my friends back in the US have often answered. Since English has become such an international language, it seems that most people in the US don’t see learning foreign languages as being very important. Many of my friends at home have told me that the only reason they learned any foreign language was because it was a mandatory requirement for them to graduate high school. They learned in order to pass their tests and get good grades in their classes, but once they had satisfied the basic requirements, most had no desire to continue learning the language, and forgot what little they had learned already. Conversely, from what I understand, the Chinese school system places much more emphasis on learning English. Chinese students start English classes around age 11 or 12, and continue to learn through middle and high school, and there is an English section on the college entrance exam.

However, even though the required amount of English instruction in China is higher than the required amount of foreign language learning in the US, the problem of learning solely for the purpose of passing a test still exists. English instruction schools such as English First focus almost entirely on passing the GRE and TOEFL tests, and, according to my second interviewee, teach techniques for correctly answering test questions without necessarily fully understanding the question or the given answers. The result is that many Chinese students will be relatively proficient in written English and test-taking, but cannot really speak or use the language. Personally, I find this surprising. For me, being able to speak and understand a foreign language is not only useful but extremely interesting – languages are intricate and diverse creations of the human mind, that stem from our histories and cultures, and it’s fascinating to me that by simply stringing together the correct series of sounds in the correct order, we are able to communicate to our fellow human beings about anything, from the physical things we see and do in everyday life to abstract concepts that can only exist in our imaginations. My first interviewee seemed to share this view:

Interview Clip

“The point is to see the language as a tool, as a bridge of the people….Imagine, I just speak some English words and you can understand!…That’s why language exists, not on paper on an exam.”