November 13, 2022

Debate about dropping English as a mandatory course

The debate in China about keeping or dropping English as a mandatory course in middle school and high school has been going on for at least two decades. The support of keeping English is based on the fact that English is the de facto lingua franca in the world, although, contrary to a common misconception in China, English is not a mandatory course in all countries; among the 41 where it is not are France, Finland, and Poland. The opposing side claim that some college majors such as Chinese philology or research of ancient Chinese archives require no or very little English in future studies or work. Both sides got the basic facts correct and have strong arguments, leading the debate to a deadlock, while the government takes no action in changing the current policy that happens to be what the supporters want.

In fact, the solution is a simple one: attach a weight that varies between 0 and 100% depending on the major, to the English test score on the college entrance exam. For example, since high-impact work on Chinese philology is still mostly written in Chinese, the Ministry of Education or individual universities or colleges can assign a value of 0 or slightly higher to this weight. (If the weight is only 5%, who is willing to take time to study English? Well, imagine a high school student who grew up bilingual or speaks English as the first language.) For the major of ancient Chinese history, how about 20%? For modern Chinese history, 80%? Obviously, for any major other than these or a specific foreign language other than English (say, Spanish), the weight should be 100% or close to that. Assignment of the weight should be exclusively the work of the professionals and practitioners in this field, free of any lobbying influence from the general public and interference from politicians.

There are still lots of debates or disputes in the world that are zero-sum or nearly zero-sum. A relatively good solution is one that seeks compromises among contenders and balances their degree of satisfaction, to achieve an approximate equilibrium in this satisfaction. The advantage of my solution is that both sides are somewhat satisfying with it and complain the least, and the satisfaction and complaint are about the same in intensity on both sides.

Note: By no means am I suggesting categorically dropping English as a mandatory course. That would lead to total ruin of our future generation. It's the undeniable fact that some Chinese students are so incapable of a foreign language in spite of an extraordinary amount of time of study and that English is truly nearly useless in certain fields of study as of 2022 that prompts me to propose this practical and realistic solution for this year and some years in the future.

(The Chinese version of this article is scattered in Weibo 2022-11-06 and 2022-10-07 postings.)

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