The Rise of English in China: A Threat to China’s National Unity?

Currently between 440-650 million Chinese citizens are learners of English. This is a staggering statistic, not only because it implies that thirty to fifty per cent of China’s population of 1.35 billion is currently learning English, but also because this number surpasses the English-speaking population of the United States by between 100 and 300 million people. While it is questionable whether those who learn English in China will become active users of the language, these figures demonstrate that English has become an increasingly influential language in the country. This raises questions about what impact the rise of English will have on existing languages in China, and particularly the languages of the country’s fifty-five ethnic minority groups. Of the 275 indigenous languages of China, Mandarin Chinese, China's national language, is spoken by 70% of China’s population. Many of the indigenous ethnic minority languages are already under threat by the Chinese government’s promotion of Mandarin Chinese. One recent report indicates that more than 40% of China’s ethnic minority languages are currently under threat of extinction, while another reports that 126 of these languages are currently under threat and a further 32 are nearing extinction. The increasing prevalence of English is further challenging the linguistic identity of China’s ethnic minority groups.

English permeates many facets of Chinese culture. It can be found in advertisements, brands, and business names as an indicator of international prestige. English is also increasingly used in both local and national television and print news. For example, the national television broadcaster Central China Television (CCTV) replaced its 30-minute daily programming in English with a channel offering 24-hour English programming.

The dominant role of English in China is perhaps most visible in education. In 2001, when China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO), the country adopted a policy of mandatory English education for primary school children starting from grade three (age eight or nine).  English is also a key component of college admissions and matriculation in China, as it is one of three compulsory subjects in the National University Entrance Qualifying Exam along with Chinese and Mathematics.  All university students must also pass Level 4 of a standardized English examination called the College English Test (CET4) to graduate from university. English proficiency is tied to employment opportunities and in some cases employees must pass the higher level of CET6 to advance to a better post. This increased emphasis on proficiency in English has generated a booming market for private English language schools and the development of private bilingual preschools and kindergartens that introduce English to children at the age of three or four.  The English language market in China is the largest in the world, worth an estimated worth 4.5 billion USD with growth at a rate of 12-15% over the next two years.

Despite the growing impact English is having in China, there is no evidence that English is replacing Mandarin Chinese for intra-national communication. However, as proficiency in English is increasingly tied to economic, social, and educational success, the greater time and resources English is afforded may ultimately negatively impact proficiency in Mandarin Chinese and other languages and dialects in China. The use of electronic devices such as mobile phones may also negatively impact children’s ability to read and write traditional Chinese characters, particularly those who are in the beginning stages of developing literacy skills in Chinese. The fear that the use of English is negatively impacting Chinese is already being publicly expressed in a continuing ‘English language threat discussion.’ There is already some evidence that Chinese writing skills may be adversely impacted by greater attention to English proficiency. In 1995 it was reported that some university graduate students in the sciences failed a Chinese proficiency exam.

The real impact of the prioritizing English, however, can be seen in the reinforcement and deepening of social, economic, and educational divides within China. There are visible geographic, economic, and ethnic disparities correlated to differences in access to quality English education in China. A notable example is that of the 106 million ethnic minorities living in the country. These ethnic minority groups constitute 8.4% per cent of China's population, the rest of which is made up of the majority Han Chinese ethnic group. Many members of the 55 different ethnic minority groups in China speak another Chinese dialect or language as their mother tongue and may not learn Mandarin Chinese until year three of primary school. For them, English is yet another school language to be mastered in addition to Mandarin Chinese.

Because Mandarin Chinese is the national language of China, it has priority within the locally administered bilingual, and in some cases trilingual, language curriculum for ethnic minority children. Mandarin often becomes the sole language of instruction from a young age, often effectively replacing other minority languages. The importance of Mandarin Chinese as a political tool to unify and build a national identity as well as a means of economic mobility within China means that there is less time for English instruction in many schools for ethnic minority children. In addition, schools in ethnic minority regions often lack resources and qualified English teachers. The situation is worsened by geographic and economic factors, as many ethnic minorities live in geographically isolated regions with fewer financial means. This further marginalizes their opportunities for educational, and thus economic, advancement, as attendance in senior secondary school, the gateway to university, is cost bearing. This also creates inequity within ethnic minority groups as only those with the financial means can afford to send their children to senior secondary school. Even access to Mandarin Chinese teachers is not always guaranteed in rural areas, and there are reports of parents from ethnic minority regions such as Uyghurs from Xinjiang sending their children to more prosperous regions to attend secondary schools to have a better chance of gaining Mandarin proficiency. Not surprisingly, reports indicate that the majority of the 55 different ethnic minority groups in China lag behind the secondary and tertiary education levels of Han Chinese.

In short, ethnic minorities need to master two other languages in addition to their mother tongue to gain access to educational and economic resources. This is often at the expense of their mother tongue and a loss of their cultural and linguistic identity.  For ethnic minorities, the rising influence of English for economic and educational advancement continues a process of marginalization that the dominance and spread of Mandarin Chinese has already begun, and creates further divisions—linguistically, economically, and culturally—between them and the majority Han Chinese. The prioritization of English proficiency deepens social inequalities and in the long term may pose a threat to national unity and harmony within China.

Jette G. Hansen Edwards is a professor of applied english linguistics at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. She writes on language, identity, and politics. She is currently working on a book, The Politics of English in Hong Kong: Attitudes, Identity, and Use (forthcoming 2018).