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Pandemic seen as factor in nation's declining English proficiency

Updated: Jan 6, 2023 By Zou Shuo chinadaily.com.cn Print
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A file photo shows a student preparing for the IELTS exam. [Photo/IC]

English-teaching insiders in China said the COVID-19 pandemic could be one of the reasons for the decline in China's ranking in English proficiency, though such proficiency is still important in telling China's story to the world.

According to Swedish company EF Education First, China's ranking in English proficiency continued to decline last year, with the country coming in 62nd among 111 non-English speaking countries and regions.

In the company's 2022 English Proficiency Index, China scored 498 points out of 800, dropping from 49th place last year with a score of 513, and 38th in 2020 with a score of 520.

The country's English proficiency has slipped from moderate to low level, according to the company.

EF Education First defines moderate level as an ability to participate in professional meetings in one's area of expertise, understand song lyrics and write e-mails on familiar subjects. Low level refers to an ability to navigate as a tourist in an English-speaking country, engage in small talk with colleagues and understand simple emails from colleagues.

Wu Peng, an English professor at Jiangsu University's School of Foreign Languages, said he is skeptical about China's continued decline in the proficiency ranking, as there has been no change in the country's English education system and he has seen no apparent decline in his students' English levels in recent years.

However, he acknowledged that the country's English level is still relatively low compared with other countries, which he said is mainly due to its exam-oriented English education system and English teachers in the country failing to adapt to the latest global English teaching methods.

Moreover, Wu said, the COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on people's English levels, as there have been fewer international conferences and competitions held in the country, offering fewer opportunities for people to communicate in English.

EF Education First has produced the report for 12 consecutive years. This year's report analyzed data from 2.1 million non-native English speakers, who were tested on their ability to understand written and spoken English.

The median age of participants was 25, while 97 percent were under 60 and 55 percent were women.

Adults from the Netherlands were ranked as the best non-native English speakers, with a score of 661, followed by those from Singapore (642), Austria (628) and Norway (627). Laos had the lowest score, with 360 points.

Within China, Hong Kong was ranked first at 561 points, followed by Shanghai and Beijing, both at 549, Tianjin at 528 and Zhejiang at 509.

Zhu Shenhai, an associate English professor at Guangxi Normal University, said the atmosphere for English learning has been declining in China in recent years and that some people have called for reducing the importance of English in education and important exams. "Such shortsighted views and misunderstandings have influenced students' English levels," he said.

Learning English well has helped China to achieve rapid development in science and technology, and it has also made more people receptive to foreign cultures, he said, adding that telling China's story well to foreign audiences requires English proficiency.

Wu said, "Chinese people have always been inclusive regarding foreign cultures and languages, and we absorb what's best in them," he said. "Learning English well can also help us appreciate the beauty of Chinese."

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