I sometimes envy my Zimbabwean friends for their fluent English. God knows how many hours I have put in and how many gruelling tests I had to pass to be able to speak and write in English the way I do today.
For the Chinese who are from a completely different language family, learning English is a tough and sometimes painful experience. And yet we all understand its critical importance. Hence the double pain.
The English learning rush started in China in the 1980s when the country was gradually opening its doors after a prolonged period of isolation. In the five years after 1984 when self-funded overseas studies were allowed by the government, the number of people who took the TOFEL test increased by 63 times from 285 to 18 000.
In the last two decades of the 20th century, those who could speak English and had overseas degrees were among the most highly-paid in the country.
This resulted in the explosive growth of the English tutoring market. It gave birth to New Oriental Education and Technology Group, an education giant. Its founder, Yu Minhong (Michael Yu), started the company in a shabby 20 square-meter room with a leaky roof for the purpose of making enough money for himself to study in the US.
He wanted to earn 100 000 RMB by the end of the year and get on his plane; but the final tally was three times what he wanted. He decided to stay. Five years later, his revenues were in the tens of millions of RMB. In 2006, New Oriental became the first red-chip Chinese company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. By then, its net profit had soared to 23,8 million RMB.
It was a time in China when the most-coveted jobs were in the big western companies, who were flocking into China for its huge market, offering salaries ten times as high as the Chinese employers.
When I was still in college, getting an offer from IBM, Motorola, or Microsoft was the best thing graduates could imagine happening to them. Even an internship in their sleek offices were much sought after. We students were not alone.
Civil servants and employees of state-owned companies were finding their way into the multinational corporations. A good command of English was almost a sure way to a decent job and life.
In the 2010s, however, English tutoring began to lose the market. Years of vigorous language education has greatly improved the English literacy of the ordinary Chinese. Being able to chat casually with a foreigner in the street is no longer an enviable skill.
On a deeper level, the economic landscape in China is changing. China’s sustained growth, in contrast to economic and social challenges in the West, is tipping the psychological scale in the Chinese job-hunters.
In 2018, foreign companies became the least preferred employers in a survey of college graduates. In 2021, 135 Chinese companies made it to the Fortune 500, against 122 from the US.
Today, Chinese graduates generally prefer civil service and the SOEs for job security or domestic Internet giants for high salaries.
The Western companies find it difficult to compete on either front.
Naturally, English language education has suffered a heavy blow. Some are saying with tongue-in-cheek that fitness training and learning English used to be the top two choices for a young person if he or she wanted something of a change; now it seems there is only fitness training left.
If you really want to learn a “language”, programming languages like Python is a much better choice. If not that, short video editing skills is also a worthier investment than learning English.