The Functionalist Account of English in China:

A Sociolinguistic History


Stewart Cole © 2007


1.1 Introduction and Areas of Focus


Rationales for learning English in China have often been couched in what David Crystal calls “a functionalist account” (24) of the language, according to which English will afford certain benefits, primarily economic, to those who learn to command it. This report examines the history of such a functionalist account in China, from the first Chinese engagement with English in eighteenth century Canton to contemporary China’s national fixation on widespread English proficiency as a necessary aspect of modernization.


This report pursues three primary areas of focus. The first sets out a theoretical framework to help explain the connections between language and economics, and the persistent linkage of the English language with visions of economic prosperity. The second presents an historical overview of this linkage in its specifically Chinese manifestations, from the emergence of Chinese Pidgin English as the major language of commerce along the southwest coast of China over 250 years ago to the increased pedagogical emphasis on ESP (English for Specific Purposes) in the years since China’s 2001 accession to the WTO. And the third investigates the extent to which the functionalist account of English in China is undermined by the emergence of China English as an international variety bearing unmistakable lexical and discursive imprints of Chinese culture beyond the sphere of economics.


2.1 Language and Economics


Economic analyses of language serve the primary function of helping to guide policy by weighing the costs incurred against the benefits afforded by a given language. Francois Grin employs the concept of “linguistic environment” to refer to the object of language policy, the state of linguistic stability that policy works to achieve (“Language Planning” 28). Generally speaking, economic analyses of language aim to help authorities choose between possible linguistic environments by working to determine which combination of languages and uses provides the greatest benefit at the least cost.


In order to be effective, such analyses must proceed on both the macro and micro levels. On the macro level, the economic analysis of language serves primarily to guide policy, with issues of national or regional identity and international trade receiving the most attention, often at the expense of minority concerns (see Yang for a Chinese perspective). On the micro level, economists attempt to assess the value of language by examining the impact of language skills on individuals’ quality of life. For example, micro level studies commonly measure the relative wage differentials – with all other factors being equal – of those who do and those do not possess certain language skills. Conclusions drawn at the micro level are often applied back to the macro level to assist in policy formation. Of course, much of the data relevant at both levels is not strictly quantifiable, and so the economic analysis of language requires that unusually loose conceptions of cost and benefit be adopted.


2.2 Language and Money


In his book Language and Economy, Florian Coulmas draws an analogy between language and money: “Words do not derive their meaning from their material substance,” he writes, “but from the purposes they serve in transmitting nonmaterial content, and likewise the value of money is not based on its material embodiment, but on the function it fulfills as a common means for the exchange of goods” (4). In other words, language – like money – becomes valuable only in transaction.


Seductive as this analogy may be, however, it does not hold up to scrutiny. As Grin notes, the exchange of money takes place in the context of markets, which emerge from the interrelations of supply and demand. Producers decide how much they will charge for their limited goods, while consumers decide whether or not to use their limited funds to purchase those goods. As prices rise, supply tends to rise as well, while demand drops. Because transactions in language do not conform to this dynamic, they cannot be said to resemble monetary transactions in any more than a metaphorical sense (Grin “Language” 26-7). Furthermore – and most importantly – language, unlike money, is not lost in the transaction. Barring catastrophe, fluent users of a language retain its use for life.


Nonetheless, Grin does admit to the analogy’s usefulness, albeit in slightly altered form. Rather than draw a direct parallel between language and money, he claims – following Carr (1985) – that the essential similarity between the two lies in the fact that there exist different languages just as there exist different currencies. Therefore, “in the same way as the use of a common currency facilitates exchange by reducing trading costs, so does the use of a common language” (“Language” 27). Of course, in order to assess the validity of this analogy, several factors must be assessed (all of which require further situation-specific research): for example, the actual costs of trading, the extent of trading partners’ reliance on linguistic communication, and, less quantifiably, the relative esteem in which each partner holds the common language.


2.3 Two Measures of a Language: Usefulness and Value


Scholars of language economics tentatively agree that a language increases in value in proportion to the number of its speakers (Coulmas 63; Grin, “Language” 21), though Grin’s account of linguistic value adds a twist of nuance, highlighting the relatedness of value and use: “One intriguing dimension of languages, which sets them apart from other ‘commodities’ in an economic sense, is that when more people use a language, the more useful it becomes, all other things being equal, to other people” (“Language” 21). Therefore, the most useful languages are those with the largest speech community.


Though related, however, use and value are distinct, and should not be conflated. While usefulness accrues to a language according to the sheer number of situations in which it may be used, value in an economic sense accrues to those languages whose speakers benefit in some way from their use. Taking second or foreign language use as the basis for his analysis, Grin distinguishes social from private value, with the former (roughly corresponding to the macroeconomic sphere) being the “aggregate” of the latter (the microeconomic sphere). To this distinction is added that between market and non-market value, so that attempts to measure linguistic value may proceed along (at least) two axes (Grin, “Language” 36-37). 


Generally speaking, private market value is easier to determine than any other combination, as access to markets or wage increases gained as a result of language skills can be firmly quantifiable. Determining other values often involves taking account of intangibles which may be difficult to quantify. The case of social non-market value, for example, involves weighing the effects of alternate linguistic environments on aspects of well-being such as cultural health and happiness, which become especially difficult to gauge when isolated from the economic variables by which they are always impacted.


2.4 Chinese vs. English: Determining Market Value


While hoping to avoid (often Eurocentric) comparisons of the relative primitiveness or complexity of languages, Coulmas attempts to specify various ways in which the market value of languages can be determined. Beginning from the premise that the market value of a language must bear some relation to the size of its speech community – that is, to its usefulness – Coulmas nonetheless concludes that in some cases the two are almost entirely distinct. The Chinese language, for example, is spoken by over a billion people (Coulmas 74), home to a vast literary and cultural tradition, and rooted in a country of great political importance in today’s world. Furthermore, it serves as an official language in several other countries and as a minor lingua franca in the region. And yet, claims Coulmas, “there is no great demand worldwide for Chinese as a foreign language, because the potential for its economic exploitation is limited” (76).


What ultimately emerges from Coulmas’s analysis is that the best measure of a language’s market value is the level of demand for it as a foreign language. So although speakers of Chinese constitute one of the world’s two largest speech communities, the Chinese language is not particularly valuable in market terms. English, on the other hand – the other largest speech community – stands as the most widely learned foreign language in the world. In purely pragmatic terms, English allows communicative access to more people in more regions of the world than any other language, and so therefore commands the highest market value.


Of course, this equation fails to separately account for social and private value, but rather takes “value” as a homogenous and baldly quantifiable entity. Grin would argue that questions of value can only be asked of specific languages as they impact linguistic environments (on the macro level), or the lives of specific users (on the micro level). Nevertheless, because the demand for English undeniably exceeds that for any other language, even those studies which proceed along these more specific lines usually begin from the premise that the surge in demand for English has arisen out of some perception of its value (Grin, “English”; Pang, Zhou, and Fu).

In his book Linguistic Imperialism, Robert Phillipson criticizes the tendency to accept English as valuable without acknowledging the historical inequities which have led to its “structural favouring” (273). Classifying arguments for English’s value into three categories – rooted in what English is, what it has, and what it does – Phillipson argues that English is often falsely cast as a neutral tool to be used regardless of the ends pursued, a point of view which ignores the ideological and cultural freight borne by the language (287). Phillipson’s insights are particularly relevant to the use of English in China, where perceptions of English’s value have often been mitigated by a sense of its imperialistic power. The next section looks to summarize such conflicting perceptions of English’s value throughout Chinese history, from the emergence of Chinese Pidgin English in the eighteenth century to the present post-WTO milieu.   


3.1 Chinese Pidgin English


a. Language Ecology at First Contact


The earliest British contact with China of which we have any substantial record occurred in 1637, when four ships commanded by Captain John Weddell arrived in Canton (Guangzhou) and the Portuguese colony of Macao (first established in 1560). A narrative of these first encounters can be found in the diary of Peter Mundy, a British trader who accompanied Weddell’s expedition. Mundy’s account not only vividly describes the British amazement at the richness of Macao and the otherness of the Chinese, but also contains a veritable lexicon of early Asian English. Kingsley Bolton has tabulated the Asian English words used in Mundy’s account, adding glosses, dates of attestation, and source language information (140-3). Cataloguing lexical borrowings drawn from 22 different languages, Bolton’s table depicts the language ecology of southwest China in the 17th century as rich with convergences, as East Asian languages (Chinese, Fukien, Japanese) met South Asian (Hindustani, Malay, Persian) and finally European influences (especially Portuguese).


b. The Emergence of Pidgin English


At the time of the first British arrival in China, various forms of pidgin Portuguese had long been established as lingua francas between European traders and Asians from India eastward (Bolton 135). With the gradual decline of Portuguese sea power and the rise of the British East India Company, however, the linguistic environment shifted to favour English – but the process was a long one. Although the first British East India Company ship landed in Macao in 1644, it took until the middle of the eighteenth century for the British to establish regular trade in the region. By 1757, however, foreign trade on the southwest coast had become invasive enough – with the British at the vanguard – for the Chinese government to decree it forbidden to trade with foreigners in any port other than Canton. Also by this time (and perhaps as early as 1730), pidgin English had firmly supplanted Portuguese as the language of commerce in the region (Van Dyke 80-1). 


From 1757 until 1839, with Canton the only open Chinese port, the emergence of pidgin English was highly localized. Known at first as ‘Canton jargon,’ it only gained the name pidgin – from the Chinese pidgin English word for “business” (OED Online) – in the 19th century. The commercial origins of the word pidgin provide an indication of the commercial nature of the language as a whole. Bolton identifies five primary uses for the nascent dialect in the first century or so of its existence, all of them limited to foreign traders’ communications with Chinese locals: merchants, administrators, servants, shopkeepers, and prostitutes (157). Each of these uses was both intercultural and decidedly commercial, and these facts – along with the limited geographical area in which it was used – worked to inhibit the pidgin’s development. 


c. Linguists


During the years of the Canton trade, Chinese officials communicated with foreign traders through interpreters called linguists, who charged a fee to every ship they serviced. The first linguists came from Macao in the early days of the European trade in China, and spoke their native Cantonese, Portuguese, and usually Mandarin. As English supplanted Portuguese, however, linguists were drawn from elsewhere in the region. The strange etiquette of the linguists’ trade lends considerable insight into early Chinese attitudes toward the Europeans and their languages. Strictly speaking, linguists were more mediators than interpreters, so that negotiating skills were of greater importance to their careers than fluency in languages. Authentic communication between Chinese and foreigners was looked down upon, with distant cordiality seen as ideal. In fact, as Van Dyke notes, it was “dangerous” to know a foreign language well enough to bring accurate complaints to the authorities, as both the complaints themselves and the linguist’s fluency could arouse distaste (92). Furthermore , “it was a capital offence to teach a foreigner Chinese, and in the same light it could just as easily be a capital offence for a Chinese to become fluent in a foreign language if it resulted in problems for the officials” (92).


d. Expansion and Decline


Only later, when the 1842 Treaty of Nanking opened more ports to foreign trade, did pidgin English spread northward and assume more diverse communicative roles. At its peak around the turn of the 20th century, Chinese pidgin English was employed not only between the English and Europeans and their Chinese trading partners and servants, but even between Chinese speakers whose dialects were mutually unintelligible. Despite being a minor lingua franca, however, Chinese pidgin English never transcended its status as a purely pragmatic means of transacting business. Part of the reason for this was the increased missionary presence in China. By the first half of the 19th century, there were missionaries in the region who were fluent in Chinese, and with the opening of the treaty ports, several were permitted to take over the linguists’ duties (Van Dyke 91).


Missionary education will be the focus of the next section, but it is important to note here that by the mid-19th century, alternatives to pidgin English began to become available from Chinese sources. Tong Ting-kü’s six-volume The Chinese and English Instructor, first published in 1862, represents the first attempt at a comprehensive Chinese-English, English-Chinese dictionary and grammar, and mainly consists of a fleshed-out ‘English,’ with space devoted to the pidgin only as an afterthought. Despite its attempt at comprehensiveness, however, the Instructor still tended to place English in a commercial context, combining vocabulary with lessons on trade, weights and measures, and exchange rates (Bolton 176). Nonetheless, Bolton speculates that the Instructor’s very existence calls into question the assumption that pidgin English was the target of Chinese learners at this time (195).


3.2 Missionary Schools


One of the primary reasons for the decline – and by the mid-twentieth century, extinction – of Chinese pidgin English was the introduction of missionary education to China. The first mission school opened in Malacca in 1818; schools in Macao and Hong Kong soon followed, before finally in 1851 the American Episcopalians opened St. John’s Academy in Shanghai as a school for Chinese boys. From mid-century onward, the number of schools increased exponentially, so that by the time of the Republican Revolution western missionaries operated 3,145 schools and some dozen colleges in China (Deng 31-2). This expansion did not come easily, however. Because of the pride taken by the Chinese in their old and illustrious culture, early missionaries found their pupils utterly uninterested in scripture. So in order to fulfill their conversionary mandate, mission schools needed to bribe potential converts with free education in the fundamental Chinese subjects, and then faced the choice as to whether to also teach English, or to offer religious instruction in the students’ native language.


This choice became a matter of fierce debate within the missionary community. The proponents of English teaching claimed that it was better that Chinese students acquire the language in a Christian setting than a secular one. Those opposed, on the other hand, thought that if texts were translated into Chinese, the conversionary force of their ideas would be greater. They also worried that too-thorough a knowledge of English would lure their converts away from the church. Calvin Mateer, a prominent Presbyterian missionary and founder of one of the earliest Protestant universities in China, was not atypical in worrying that English knowledge would tempt students to use their education purely for economic gain. “The young men of China are mad to learn English,” he wrote in 1908, “because there is money in it” (qtd. in Bolton 235).


In a sense he was right: as Peng Deng notes, by the turn of the twentieth century, more and more parents were sending their children to schools in the treaty ports with English as the language of instruction “because they realized that a command of the English language would give the youngsters more opportunities in the business world on the China coast” (33). By the time of the 1911 revolution, missionary education had been so long associated with success among China’s elite that reformist leaders such as Sun Yat-Sen and  Wang Dao (themselves educated at mission schools, and fluent English speakers) extolled the western “trinity” of Christianity, democracy, and industry as the solution to China’s distress (Bolton 230; Deng 33).


3.3 The Nationalization of Education


With the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, China became a republic, and as is often the case at such times, many of the era’s policies reflect a resurgent nationalism. As early as the turn of the century, government-funded schools began to crop up in the major cities, directly competing with the mission schools for the minds of Chinese students. While the mission schools were still considered the best places to learn English, these so-called ‘modern schools’ won much support for being nationalist endeavors (Bolton 241-42). It was around this time that the issue of values  – not in the economic sense, but in the cultural and moral sense – came to the forefront of debates about education, and this issue is still hotly contested in China.


By the 1920s the mission schools were increasingly seen as venues of imperialism which led Chinese students to undervalue their own culture. In 1919 nationalist awareness reached unprecedented levels during the May Fourth incident, when students in Beijing protested the handover of German territory in Shandong to Japan. Similar student protests reverberated throughout the 1920s, concerned not only for China’s territorial sovereignty, but for its educational autonomy as well. The Chinese authorities, long wary of the missionary schools’ privileged position in society, took advantage of the negative shift in public opinion by passing a law in 1927 which required all foreign schools to register with the government, and to appoint Chinese administrators to oversee them. (Adamson, China’s 30; Bolton 238; Deng).


It should be noted that the value of learning English, though often questioned by the more fervent nationalist elements, was not ultimately undermined during this period. Debate centred mainly on nationalizing the educational venue and the pedagogical philosophies behind it. The national schools still placed much emphasis on foreign language teaching; in fact, the Republican period marks the first time that English was institutionalized in the Chinese education system (Adamson, China’s 32). Although the curriculum emphasized reading and translation rather than composition and conversation, the ability to speak English was regarded as important and invested with much prestige. Tellingly, when the two sides in the civil war of the 1940s were lobbying the United States for support, both leaders – Zhou Enlai of the CCP and Chiang Kai-Shek of the Nationalist Party – were able to communicate with American officials in English (Adamson, China’s 31).


3.4 The Maoist Era and the Cultural Revolution


This emphasis on reading and translation – a sort of rote-learning approach to English – was to continue after the Maoist revolution of 1949. Initially, Russian supplanted English as the primary foreign language, a logical step given that Russia as a fellow communist state had close diplomatic and economic ties to China. By the 1960s, however, Soviet influence weakened, and English was reinstated as the major foreign language in schools.


This lasted only until 1966, when the ideological purification period known as the Cultural Revolution outlawed everything foreign. Large numbers of school and university staff were beaten and imprisoned. When summarizing this period, some commentators simply claim that English teaching ceased altogether (Bolton 246; Adamson and Morris 15-16), but according to Ji Fengyuan’s study Linguistic Engineering: Language and Politics in Mao’s China, such claims are misleading. The fact is that all schools closed down entirely from 1966 to late 1968, and when they reopened, they were under the control of what Ji calls “workers-soldiers-peasants propaganda teams,” who ensured that all schooling was ideological.


So from 1968 until Mao’s death in 1977 paved the way for what came to be known as the ‘Open Door Policy’ of re-establishing global diplomatic and economic ties, English language education was guided by Mao’s personal belief that foreign languages were important to learn – a sort of functionalism divorced from any notion of function, since the Maoist regime ensured that almost no Chinese learners ever had the chance to use their foreign languages. The absurdity of Mao’s language policy can be summed up in the following detail provided by Jin: “Before students were taught how to say hello or goodbye, they were taught how to say things such as ‘Chairman Mao leads us in the socialist revolution and socialist construction, and in the struggle against imperialism and revisionism” (274).


3.5 The Open Door


a. Public Education Since 1978


Since 1978 official curricular justifications for the teaching of English have always been phrased in functionalist terms. Syllabi have de-emphasized the bald ideology of the Maoist era in favour of more global economic, political, and most recently cultural elements, so that more recent textbooks will have sections on, for example, the significance of Christmas in America. Yet still, while English has come to be seen as important for individual socio-economic status, and crucial for national modernization (Chang 518; Pang, Zhou, and Fu 203) – it is not acknowledged as having value in and of itself. An examination of successive curricula demonstrates this: the 1978 English syllabus features a definite political emphasis, praising the usefulness of English “for international class struggle” and the nurturance of “Chairman Mao’s revolutionary diplomacy” (qtd. in Adamson and Morris 17). Such doctrinaire rhetoric is all but absent from the 1982 syllabus, which focusses more on foreign language learning as an expedient to modernization and the reformation of “economics, politics, technology, and education” (qtd. in Adamson and Morris 19). The 1993 English syllabus continues this trend, emphasizing economic goals above all:

A foreign language is an important tool for interacting with other countries and plays an important role in promoting the development of the national and world economy, science, and culture. In order to meet the needs of our Open Door Policy and to accelerate socialist modernization, efforts should be made to enable as many people as possible to acquire command of one or more foreign languages. (qtd. in Adamson and Morris 21)  


 b. English as Big Business


The national push for modernization has made English a hot commodity. With over 600 million people in China learning English – double the population of the United States (Qiang and Wolff, “English” 2) – privatized English teaching has become an enormous industry, drawing students in with promises of financial prosperity. Qiang and Wolff note that ESL has become a 10 billion Yuan per year business, and that ESL takes up as much as 25% of the 37 billion Yuan spent annually on books in China (“Chinglish” 30). This mania for English has even created a whole new kind of pop-cultural icon: the English teaching guru – of which Yu Minhong and Li Yang are the most prominent examples. 


Yu Minhong’s Beijing New Oriental School is a relatively conventional operation which began in by offering test training (TOEFL, GRE, GMAT, TSE, LSAT, etc.) and his since moved into other areas such as spoken English. Despite its straightforwardness, however, the New Oriental has established an “unshakeable” influence on the east coast, making Yu a well known public figure and a very rich man (Labao 157). Less conventional and far more famous, Li Yang runs the aptly named program “Crazy English,” the three primary strategies of which are “speak as loudly as possible,” “speak as quickly as possible” and “speak as clearly as possible” (Bolton 253). Li’s method consists of shouting at audiences varying in size from small groups to full stadiums, exhorting them to chant aloud everyday sayings like “How’re you doing?” and “I have been looking forward to meeting you!” along with more motivational slogans like “No pain, no gain!” and “Make money internationally!” (255). Not surprisingly, Li’s massive commercial success has been met with much cynicism in academic circles; Wang Labao is not atypical in lamenting that “American culture is fast globalizing its cultural consumption, thanks partly to the help of comprador programs like ‘Crazy English’” (166).


c. Backlash


There are nascent signs of anti-English backlash in the Chinese popular media as well, and not just due to issues of linguistic imperialism. In a representative article published in September of 2006 in The People’s Daily, Guo Haiying laments the “waste of human resources” resulting from the excessive time spent memorizing English vocabulary and grammar: “Even if China is completely internationalized in the future, it would be impossible for the country to provide enough English-related jobs for all the English language professionals it presently aims to produce.” That such voices are only getting louder may be an indication of an increasingly widespread dissatisfaction with the functionalist approach to language learning, a sense that the benefits to be derived from  English by the average Chinese learner have been largely exaggerated (“Education,” “Intellectuals,” Zhou).


d. English for International Communication


Recently, however – and especially since China’s 2003 entry into the WTO – some commentators have begun to grant the nationwide project of learning English a significance beyond its function for economic modernization. The more ephemeral objective of international communication is increasingly being evoked as one of the primary benefits of English language learning (Pang, Zhou, and Fu 21; Yun and Jia 43). Contributing to this discursive shift is the increasingly widespread recognition that Chinese learners are far more likely to use their English with non-native than with native speakers (Kirkpatrick and Zhichang 278; Pang, Zhou, and Fu 212). No longer only (or even predominantly) the language of imperialistic western powers, English is now seen by many as a truly international language, facilitating not only business transactions but diplomatic goodwill as well. As Wei Yun and Fei Jia put it in the case of China: “The primary purpose of study has switched from being a valuable tool for gaining access to western science and technology to serving the needs of society better: that is, mutual communication with people from different cultures” (43). Such emergent changes in the perception of English’s function have led many to call for pedagogical reforms to reflect the language’s increased use as a medium of extra-economic cultural interchange. One of the driving forces behind such calls is the concept of China English, discussed at length in the next section.


4.1 China English


Since its first coining by Professor Gi Chuangui in 1980 to describe an English increasingly sprinkled with Chinese concepts and lexis (Yajun 6), the term China English has been much further refined. It is now generally accepted that China English, although incorporating elements of Chinese lexis, phonology, sentence structure, and discourse style, is still sufficiently rooted in a standard British or American model as to be intelligible to speakers of other world Englishes (Kirkpatrick and Xu 269, Hu 2004 28-29). Despite just such a wide intelligibility, however, China English has not yet been granted any official recognition or support, as both the national government and the regions responsible for education continue to posit – at least implicitly, through the teaching materials they endorse – a British or American model as the ideal for Chinese learners (Xiaoqiong 2004, 2005).


The rationale behind the government’s failure support China English is extremely unclear. China’s 2003 entry into the World Trade Organization and Beijing’s hosting of the 2008 Olympics are the two most often cited reasons for the country’s increasingly enthusiastic English language policy. But China English would function perfectly well in both of these situations. The problem may rest more in what China English can communicate than what it cannot. The cultural freight borne by Chinese elements imported into China English attests to the difficulty of employing a language for purely pragmatic purposes, devoid of cultural content. But as Bob Adamson suggests, this is precisely what China’s language policy has always attempted: “China has had a strategy to mitigate undesirable cultural transfer in place since the mid-nineteenth century: a policy of controlled and selective appropriation, to use English for the purposes of state building, while maintaining cultural integrity” (“Barbarian” 231). Any official acceptance of China English, then, might be seen as a definitive admission that the function of English in China has expanded beyond the pragmatic sphere of economics to include social and cultural interchange for their own sake – not necessarily with native speakers, but with fellow non-native speakers, mostly in Asia.


Because it is easier both to teach and learn, China English may eventually predominate, regardless of whether it gains official recognition. Indeed, many linguists and teachers are coming to believe that its ascendancy is inevitable (Kirkpatrick and Xu 276, Yun and Jia 46). Although one may only speculate what might be the consequences of this ascendancy, it seems likely that any admission on the part of the authorities that English has indeed become nativized in China would make government censorship of English-language media (including music, film, and websites) more difficult to justify. As Adamson notes, even now such campaigns are “generally ineffective,” as the both the status of English and its range of functions are on the increase (“Barbarian” 241). So whether China English is recognized or not, the fact may simply be that a nativized variety of English is developing in China at a rate that cannot be stopped. And while English continues to be associated primarily with visions of economic prosperity, it seems inevitable that as English becomes more firmly ensconced as China’s second language, its cultural costs and benefits will be increasingly taken into account.


5.1 Conclusion and Directions for Future Study


Two facts emerge most conspicuously from this report: first, that English in China has usually been viewed as a means to economic gain; and second, that despite the predominance of this view, very little evidence is available (at least in English) to confirm or deny its validity. On the basis of the overview provided, however, some tentative conclusions can be drawn. When Grin’s categories of social, private, market and non-market value are used to examine the various historical periods discussed above, it appears as though speakers of English in China rarely benefit in one type of value without losing in another. The linguists of the Canton trade era, for example, though they gained a livelihood through their (often meagre) knowledge of English, had to suffer the fate of stigmatization by the authorities; thus English possessed a positive market value which was countered by a negative social value. In the mission school era, too, the persistent associations of English with economic opportunity were always tempered by a suspicion of the conversionary and imperialistic intentions of the missionaries. This apparent trade-off has continued down to the present day, with the “waste of human resources” evoked by Guo working to counterbalance the country’s economic successes. It would seem if the broad sweep of China’s English language policy is to be justified –the emergent backlash in both academic circles and the media countered – further research into the precise benefits and costs of such widespread English language learning must be conducted.


For the proponents of China English – those who see the nativization of English in China as advantageous from both a pedagogical and an intercultural perspective – the task will be to convince the authorities that the social value of English outweighs its cost. Further studies will need to investigate the degree to which the increasing predominance of English in China works to devalue Chinese languages in both a market and non-market sense, and the extent to which such a devaluation can be limited by bracketing off the functions for which English may be acceptably used. As of yet, English holds no official place in Chinese society beyond that of a mandated second language in schools, but the gradual nativization of the language (along with its increased use as an Asian lingua franca) may eventually allow for an increase in its functions. Whether such an increase will ever be desirable is a matter for further research; in order to plan for the future of English in China, a clearer picture of its precise uses – by whom, with whom, and under what circumstances – must be obtained.



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