English for Everyone

By Adams, Jonathan; Hirsch, Max et al. | Newsweek International, August 20, 2007 | Go to article overview
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English for Everyone


Adams, Jonathan, Hirsch, Max, Hayes, Nick, Newsweek International


Byline: Jonathan Adams and Max Hirsch (With Nick Hayes in London)

China's recent rise has brought with it a new conventional wisdom: that everyone must learn Mandarin. But no one's told South Korea yet. Though Chinese is increasingly popular here, the nation seems to be suffering a profound case of English fever. South Korea now boasts at least 10 "English villages"--mock Western communities complete with post offices, pharmacies and the like where kids can practice their language skills. An entire English-only town is due to open on Cheju Island in 2010. And one Internet-based company here even offers English courses for fetuses in the womb.

Next door, mighty China itself seems to have caught the English bug. Beijing guesses that more than 40 million non-native speakers now study Mandarin worldwide. But that pales next to the number of those learning English. 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 it 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 English is--and, for the foreseeable future, seems set to remain--essential 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 fewer 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 peril," says James Oladejo, an expert in language acquisition at Taiwan's National Kaohsiung Normal University.

In recognition of this fact, numerous countries are 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 use it as a language of study in secondary school. This model is much evident in Europe; Eurydice (an EU education unit) reports that more than 90 percent of primary-school students in Austria and Norway study English, as do more than 80 percent in Spain. In South America, Colombia and Chile have implemented ambitious programs to boost English skills. And the Philippines mandated in 2003 that English be the medium of instruction for math and science beginning in the third grade, and for all subjects in secondary school.

But no country compares with China, which has the world's largest number of English students. In 2001, Beijing ordered that English classes start in the third grade, rather than in high school as before. In big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, such instruction now begins in grade one. And many Chinese parents try to accelerate the process by sticking their kids into English buxiban --cram schools--as early as possible. New Oriental, one company that runs such programs, 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 annually and to be growing at some 12 percent a year.

Driving that growth is China's rising standard of living. Middle-class parents feel intense social pressure to enroll their offspring in buxiban so they can keep pace with their peers.

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