Two years ago, a linguistic and political Pandora’s box was opened in China. Under new rules, tutors were no longer allowed to hold private classes in person or online for students based in China. Though this was not exclusive to English-language courses, it largely affected tutors and education companies that specialized in teaching English as a second language (ESL).
The crackdown not only restricted the raising of foreign capital by tutoring companies, it also had an impact on tutors thousands of miles away. Private tutors across the globe, including young Americans who taught English as their second job, found themselves without work. Chinese students — and their parents — eager to sign up for English courses in person or online suddenly had to resort to private lessons on the black market. This was only the beginning.
“Suddenly, this crackdown of no more online teaching appeared,” Katie, a teacher based in Hampshire, England, who taught independently after the ban was implemented, told New Lines. “So, yeah, I would say it was quite unexpected for a lot of teachers.” Advertising her services on Chinese platforms like WeChat and Xiaohongshu, China’s version of Pinterest, she said, there was still a lot of demand from students and parents looking for solutions despite the ban.
The restrictions on private tutoring led VIPKid, one of the biggest online education companies, to halt private courses offered in China while other companies shut down completely. VIPKid, once valued at $3 billion, had been backed by a hefty lineup, including Tencent, Sequoia Capital and Jack Ma’s Yunfeng Capital.
“As a foreigner, former teacher, and person living in the modern global economy, I cannot agree with or even understand the thought process of neutering an entire generation’s ability to communicate with the world. It seems absolutely insane to me,” said an American former ESL teacher, currently based in Henan, China.
Foreign language teachers in the central region of China were summoned by the Entry and Exit Bureau and hit with a series of questions: “What is your religion?” “Do you like China?” “Were you a teacher back in your home country?” That was two years ago. Around the same time, the government also began removing English from common areas, such as maps and metro station signs. Instead of English, the signs were updated to include Chinese characters and the pinyin or transliteration of such names, which one scholar told New Lines was a superfluous and expensive move made for optics. The small power move signaled to foreigners that change was coming.
“It’s really quite complicated to do signage with pinyin,” said David Moser, an associate professor at Beijing Capital Normal University and the author of “A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language,” in a Zoom interview. “There are so many rules that are not adhered to or very well understood. And all over Beijing, there are outright mistakes with pinyin now that weren’t there before.”
It was a move that upset multiple groups, including linguists and tourists, said Moser, who specializes in Chinese linguistics and philosophy. Locals, on the other hand, didn’t pay much attention to the subtle change in scenery.
In more recent months, China further reinforced its message that English is no longer a top priority. Xi’an Jiao Tong University — ranked one of the top 20 universities in China and located in Shaanxi province — previously required students to pass the College English Test to enter or graduate from the university, but nixed these requirements in September based on “current developments.”
That same month, a video of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro went viral when he asked a Hong Kong reporter to speak Mandarin and not English as they did not have an English interpreter on-site. “It’s a new world,” Maduro said in Spanish with a laugh.
It’s not that English has been retired, but China now sees the language as a separate track, according to Moser. Yet despite China’s waning official interest in the English language, Adam Lu, who lives in Dalian, Liaoning, recommends everyone study and practice the language because of the natural opportunities that come with it.
“My viewpoint is that, without a doubt, Chinese people should learn English,” he said via WeChat, a Chinese social messaging app that combines elements of Facebook, Messenger, Venmo, TikTok and Uber into a robust catchall application. “Because English is a language used by everyone around the globe, even more Chinese people should use English to understand and have awareness of the world.”
Lu, 29, hopes to move to Texas next year to work in trade or continue working as a Mandarin Chinese teacher. Even though he is passionate about English — noting the importance of speaking and listening exercises — he understands there is a lot of pressure that comes with the requirement to take tests.
He said that he thought English would be better as one element of the tests for entry and graduation in universities, without carrying the weight that it had in the past. “If it’s a super big test quota that has to be met, then that indeed could hurt talented students a bit. So, I don’t support removing the English exam altogether, but I support making English exams or other language exams just a subcategory.”
To better understand China’s complex relationship with language, it’s crucial to understand the cultural and political history of the nation and how, for decades, they’ve sought unification via a common language, or “putong hua” (普通话). Chairman Mao Zedong — who led the Communist Party up until he died in 1976 — was a key player in China’s initial quest for such unity. In the late 1940s, he declared the creation of the People’s Republic of China, and thereafter “language unification continued to be of vital importance to the nation-building agenda,” as Moser wrote in his book on China’s search for linguistic unity.
Though the exact number is disputed, linguists argue there are at least seven to 10 main language groups in the country. Within those groups, there are around 300 spoken dialects. “China has all these things that they call dialects, right? But actually, many of them are not dialects. They’re really languages,” Moser said. “They’re different.” They are as far apart as English is from French, he added.
To unify its people, the nation encouraged more people to speak standard Mandarin, but there was also a question as to whether or not people who spoke other dialects, such as Sichuanese — which is spoken mostly in Sichuan and Chongqing — could come together and think of their identity as Chinese, as opposed to Sichuanese. And that goes for those speaking minority languages as well, such as Uyghurs — a Turkic ethnic group native to Xinjiang — and Tibetans native to Tibet or nearby regions.
“The government really believes that national unity depends on everyone not only being able to speak a common language and to understand it, but also to be sort of identified only within that language,” Moser said. “So, they feel that they’re not a different ethnicity or nationality, that they are Chinese and speak this one thing called Chinese.”
Despite China’s gradual movement away from languages and dialects that detract from the goal of unification, the underground ESL tutoring market remains open for business both online and offline, with students in China eager to learn English — even if that means they have a few more hoops to jump through.
“English is very important because it’s a tool to communicate with the world outside of China,” said Emily, a parent based in Shanghai. In her eyes the language remains relevant due to the global possibilities that accompany it, from watching movies and obtaining information online to communicating with others. For now, her son, 10, continues to learn English in school.
“I feel other parents around me are more eager to learn English because China is connecting to the world more and more,” she said, adding that a majority of parents thought the same way, just as they had before the crackdown came into force.
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