By many Chinese, English is considered a personal weak spot, a source of frustration or a skill that isn't realized to its great extent. Is it the lack of oral practice, the conservative teaching methods, or a problem that has to do with elements within the Chinese culture and Chinese 'nature'?
Since the initiation of the open-door policy in 1979, the perception of English in has began changing significantly. Some westerners, who see how Chinese is more and more studied by outside China might assume that within China the status of Chinese is high and English is neglected. This is completely untrue, as the impressive Chinese GDP doesn't change the fact that most young-middle age Chinese acknowledge the importance of English skills and see them as a synonym to successful career, modernity, wealth and aspirations. English abilities is a huge plus when applying for jobs in most sectors in China.
English is studied since the 3rd year of elementary school in China, and becomes more intense during middle school (初中chuzhong) when pupils attend challenging English exams. Later on, in the end of high-school (高中gaozhong), a higher summit is the English section of the college entrance examination (高考gaokao), where English the most important topics examined.
Some Chinese manage to jump on the train and become fluent English speakers, but for many, English is a weak spot, a source of frustration or a skill that isn't realized to its great extent. Is it the lack of oral practice, the conservative teaching methods, or a problem that has to do with elements within the Chinese culture and Chinese 'nature'?
First and for all, as many other school subjects, English is taught mostly in a theoretical and literature level. The huge classes of 50+ pupils, the study material which focuses on grammar and vocabulary and not speech, and the teachers that are normally Chinese, all contribute to the fact English isn't well exercised during middle and high school. The traditional Chinese study methods also influence this process; reciting and understanding sentence patterns does help to grasp some important knowledge, but don't provide to confidence and flexibility of taking on a conversation. Furthermore, the most important challenge pupils see in front of their eyes is the exams, and as long as they can make it in that domain, they tend to postpone the worries about oral English skills for later years.
Therefore, it is not surprising that many Chinese claim that their English reading and writing abilities exceed their oral skills significantly. I find this to be true to some extent. The fear of making mistakes often reflects the school-class atmosphere and perhaps even a deeper Chinese notion of shame and loosing face. Still, the problem is not only evident when speaking. When writing English, Chinese of all ages often make mistakes in word combinations, by mixing archaic terms with modern English, or by constructing correct sentences grammar-wise which have an empty meaning (read the following article for a reference to how English is used in an amusing way when promoting merchandise in China). The lack of oral practice and the few opportunities to interact and learn from native English speakers, also have their impact on the above phenomena.
A lively 'English corner' session in a Beijing university campus
Perhaps there are also some more subtle psychological factors here. Desiring a good English accent and overall perfectionism are other main obstacles. However, while many Chinese do not show resourcefulness in terms of opening their mouth and giving it a try, more and more Chinese do invest money and energy in improving their English study conditions. Parents send their kids to expensive evening schools or private teachers, 'English corners' (英语角 yingyu jiao) are organized in central parks (whereas members communicate only in English) and many young Chinese lunge when bumping into a westerner, trying to make foreign friends potential English tutors (this desire of a 'western friend' often combines the English issue with other aspiration which the western represents, and it is funny how often Chinese assume that any white western must have perfect English, no matter if he/she is British, French or Hungarian).
With the demand for English speakers within the Chinese economy is only growing and with the foreign culture knocking on the door of more and more mainland Chinese, it is clear that more creative ways to improve one's English level will be realized. As long as it remains clear that progress cannot be achieved without opening the mouth...