Tuesday, September 4, 2007

English is (still) king

Forget the hype about how everyone's learning Mandarin: the dominance of English as the world's unofficial second language is growing

Jonathan Adams and Max Hirsch, Newsweek International, August 20-27, 2007

In a cramped, colorful Beijing classroom on a Sunday afternoon, Cindy Wang, age 4, is learning the English words for body parts.

"Head and shoulders, knees and toes, eyes, ears, mouth and nose," she repeats, while doing her best to touch each body part in correct order.

"Toe" is particularly tough: it sounds the same as the Mandarin word for "head," which leads to some comic confusion.

Yet the instructor at the New Oriental language school perseveres, putting Cindy and 14 other hyper Chinese preschoolers through their paces with a rapid-fire mix of vocabulary, games and drills. In the back of the room, 15 parents watch the weekly ritual intently while scrunched into kid-size chairs.

One of them is Cindy's father, Wang Ming-ju, a software developer for Sony Ericsson. "No matter which field she chooses, English will be important for her future," he says.

China's recent rise has led of late to a new conventional wisdom: that Mandarin training is a must for much of the world. Learning Chinese has certainly become faddish, with reports of well-heeled New Yorkers hiring Mandarin-speaking au pairs for their kids or sending their high-schoolers to Chinese classes.

But the truth is that interest in Chinese still pales next to the lust for English that continues to grow in Asia and elsewhere.

Consider just one fact: Beijing now guesses that more than 40 million non-native speakers are studying Mandarin worldwide. But in China alone, some 175 million people are now studying English in the formal education system. And an estimated 2 billion people will be studying the language by 2010, according to a British Council report last year.

"The impression is that 'Mandarin fever' is rampant and spreading, but a close look shows this is an exaggeration," says Stephen Krashen, a second-language acquisition expert at the University of Southern California. "The dominance of English as an international language is growing."

To be sure, Mandarin has become increasingly useful, particularly in Asian business circles. And its utility will rise as China's clout grows.

But for the time being--and the foreseeable future--English remains an essential skill for those hoping to compete in the globalized world. From Brussels to Beijing, English is now the common language spoken in multinational firms, top universities and the scientific community.

A recent survey by the San Francisco-based firm GlobalEnglish found that 91 percent of employees at multinationals in Latin America, Europe and Asia believed English was "critical" or "important" to their current positions.

And the consulting group McKinsey warned China in 2005 that less than 10 percent of its college graduates were suitable for employment at multinationals--primarily because they couldn't speak English. "Any nation that ignores English learning does so at its own peril," says James Oladejo, an expert in language acquisition at Taiwan's National Kaohsiung Normal University.

In recognition of this fact, numerous countries are now starting to teach their kids English at ever-younger ages. According to the British Council, the prevailing model is to ensure that students gain basic-English proficiency in primary school and then to use it as a language of study in secondary school.

This model is much evident in Europe; according to Eurydice (an EU unit that shares information on education), more than 90 percent of primary students in Austria and Norway study English, as do more than 80 percent in Spain. In South America, Colombia and Chile have implemented ambitious to boost English skills nationwide. And the Philippines in 2003 mandated that English be the medium of instruction for math and science beginning in third grade, and for all subjects in secondary school.

No country is ramping up its English education as much as China, which already has the world's largest number of English students.

In 2001, the country mandated that English classes start in the third grade, rather than in secondary school, as before. In big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, such instruction now begins in grade one. And Chinese parents are trying to accelerate the process by sticking their kids into English buxiban--cram schools--as early as possible.

New Oriental alone says it alone has enrolled 4 million students, including 1 million last year; in total, China's English-language training market is now estimated to be worth $2.6 billion a year and to be growing at some 12 percent annually.

Driving that growth is China's rising standard of living: ever more parents can now afford supplementary English classes for their kids. These parents feel intense social pressure to enroll their offspring in buxiban so they can keep pace with their peers.

And the long-term benefits of English acquisition are widely touted. According to New Oriental, which says it has China's largest chain of private English-teaching centers, medium proficiency in English gives a Chinese child an almost 25 percent salary boost when he or she enters the working world; advanced English provides a more than 70 percent boost.

Of course, companies like New Oriental have a vested interest in making such arguments, but many outside experts echo them. Asians who work at multinationals but speak broken English are likely to bump up against a linguistic "ceiling" and be passed up for promotions.

Chinese firms aren't the only ones cashing in on this rapidly growing industry. According to the Educational Testing Service (ETS) --the U.S.-based organization that administers the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and similar exams--Eastern European countries and Persian Gulf states like Qatar have become big new English growth markets.

But even they are dwarfed by the hot economies of Asia. In Vietnam, for example--the region's newest "tiger"--an estimated 90 percent of all foreign-language learners now study English.

China's size makes it enormously attractive, but the market there remains restricted; ETS, for example, must work with government partners to administer its tests. But the English markets in South Korea, ETS's biggest moneymaker, and Japan, its second best, are far more mature with fewer restrictions, ensuring both are very good for business.

Indeed, South Korea seems to have the world's most extreme case of "English fever." "The hunger for Western--and specifically U.S.--education in Korea seems to have no limits," says Bhaskar Pant, head of ETS's Asia-Pacific operations. Many Korean universities now require all students to pass the TOEFL in order to graduate, and many employers won't hire applicants for domestic jobs unless they're similarly qualified--even for jobs where English is not routinely used.

The result has been a surge in demand for the test: according to ETS, the number of South Korean TOEFL takers grew from about 50,000 in 2001 to some 130,000 in 2006.

To prepare for the ever more important exam, South Koreans are seeking ways to expand their English training beyond rote memorization. An entire English-only town--where all conversation and instruction will be in English--is due to open in 2010 on Cheju Island. English hagwon (cram schools) have opened for moms so they can better help their kids, and more and more South Korean families now pack their young ones off to the United States for expensive English-only summer camps.

The country also now boasts at least 10 "English villages," mock Western-style communities complete with "post offices," "pharmacies" and the like, where kids can practice their skills in everyday environments. One Korean Internet provider has even gone so far as to start offering English courses for fetuses still in the womb.

The Koreans' motivation for pursuing such programs is clear. "Chinese is seen as a regionally important language, [but] not a globally important language on par with English," says Marilyn Plumlee, the president of Korea TESOL (an organization for English language teachers). At the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, where she teaches, Plumlee says interest in Chinese has spiked, but English majors still outnumber Chinese majors by more than 2 to 1. In fact, China's rise has actually increased the desire to learn English among the country's neighbors, as they seek to maintain a competitive edge.

Take Taiwan; in 2005, it made English education compulsory starting in the third grade. Three million students now study English in Taiwan's schools, compared with roughly 1 million in 2001. And nearly 60 percent of all primary and secondary students attend a growing number of private crammers. Taiwan is also following South Korea's lead by opening an "English village"--all part of an attempt to raise Taiwan's "global IQ," says Poly Chang, an official with the King Car Education Foundation, which promotes English education."

A similar process is underway in Japan. Mandarin has surged past French and German to become the second most popular foreign language taught in the country, after English. But Chinese still ranks a distant second, and English learning is increasing. According to government statistics, in 2005 there were some 3.6 million high-school students studying English, and just 22,000 studying Chinese. And last year Tokyo created 100 "Super English High Schools," where core classes are taught exclusively in English.

Farther afield, Mandarin also trails far behind English in influence. Prominent language researcher David Graddol, the author of last year's British Council report, says that in the U.K. Chinese has started to "challenge French as the foreign language of choice." But he's skeptical it will ever weaken English's hold over the EU.

"It won't happen," says Graddol flatly. "English has become the lingua franca of Europe … it's the language of integration."

The statistics are telling: from 2002 to 2005, the numbers of German primary-school students studying English soared from 16 percent to 47 percent, and in Greece they've doubled from 44 percent to nearly 90 percent. And throughout the EU, more and more universities are now offering instruction in English to make themselves more attractive.

Of course, none of this guarantees that English's current importance will last forever. Graddol, for one, predicts that after peaking at 2 billion in 2010, the number of English students worldwide will begin to drop sharply. Eventually, other languages like Mandarin could replace it.

But the operative word is "eventually."

"Chinese will not challenge English any time soon," says David Nunan, a Hong Kong-based expert on teaching English as a second language. "English will remain the dominant global language for at least the next 50 years because of its pre-eminent position as the language of science, technology, tourism, entertainment and the media."

If study patterns are any guide, even many Chinese seem to agree with this assessment. Back at New Oriental's classroom in Beijing, Wang Ming-ju and the other parents give silent encouragement as their kids wrestle with new vocabulary.

"What do you use to listen to the radio?" the instructor asks. "Eyes?" ventures a girl named Kitty. "Foot!" insists John. After some fidgeting and murmuring, Anny finally pipes up with a tentative "Ears?"

No one said learning English would be easy. But these preschoolers, at least, have got a running start.

With Nick Hayes in London

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