HANGZHOU, China—Here’s something to ponder. It’s conceivable that by 2025 the number of English-speaking Chinese will exceed the number of people speaking English as a first language in the rest of the world.
Skeptics abound this will happen. But what’s undeniable is that China has made educating its population in English a big priority—and when this Communist government decides something is important, it goes all out.
Reminders of the importance China places on English are easy to find. As members of the Indiana University delegation I’m traveling with picked up our bags at Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport on Saturday and boarded a bus for the three-hour drive to Hangzhou, signs the whole way were in both Chinese and English.
China Daily reports that more than 300 million Chinese already are studying English—nearly one quarter of the country’s population. And in the next five years, all schools will begin teaching English in kindergarten, and all state employees younger than 40 will be required to master at least 1,000 English phrases.
The effort comes at the same time that many U.S. schools, including some in the Indianapolis area, have begun offering Chinese, usually on a modest scale. Both nations are trying to prepare their residents for success in such fields as global business.
But numerous obstacles stand in the way of China’s quest, including a shortage of good English teachers and the country’s test-oriented education system, which tends to build more proficiency in reading a language than speaking it.
Scott Kennedy, who is leading the IU delegation and is director of the university’s Research Center for Chinese Politics & Business, said the Chinese are a generation or more away from being able to speak English well—on par with the way many people in Europe speak additional languages.
That means it will continue to be important for U.S. companies doing business in China to speak Chinese, said Kennedy, an associate professor in the Political Science and East Asian Languages & Cultures departments.
“If a foreign company came to the United States and didn’t speak English, they would be at a distinct disadvantage. I think the same thing applies in China,” he said.
“Companies that are serious about doing business in China may be able to get away with very simple supply relationships. But anything complex—you have to have people communicate in Chinese. You have to operate in the Chinese system.”
Companies typically bulk up that expertise by hiring staff with significant China ties. Some firms even have a Chinese speaker at the helm of their operations here. Cummins Inc., for instance, does, while WellPoint Inc. does not.
“A good percentage” of communication in China is bilingual, said John Domeika, the Shanghai-based CEO of WellPoint China. “It does help to know some of the language. I make my effort, and people are nice about not being critical of how badly I am doing.”