This sounds like a silly question. But I have seen somewhere on the interwebs people saying “China has more English speakers than the entire United States population, therefore it’s the largest English speaking country”. I assume the speculation is based on the fact that English language is a mandated subjects in almost every Chinese school. But lengthy training in English language doesn’t necessarily translate into language capability.

How long exactly does an average Chinese have to study English? The answer might be shocking to some readers of this post. In 1980s generation, a Chinese student normally start taking English lessons from the first year in junior high, and conclude training by the end of college. 3 years in junior high, 3 more in high school, and lastly 4 years in college, that would be a whopping 10 years in total. And test score matters. English language is considered one of the most important tests in Chinese standard high school and college entry exams. No matter which stream you take, as we’ve mentioned before in the Gaokao post, English language is always a must-pass exam to secure you a seat in high school or college.

But if you believe that means marketing collateral and casual English speech could just work on Chinese consumers, you will meet remarkable failure very soon. Chinese people’s abnormally long study of the language more often than not end up fruitless, largely for three reasons.

First and foremost, the language hasn’t been taught in a right way in Chinese schools. If spent several months in any random Chinese school listening to their English courses, an English speaker will probably be much surprised to find that English as a language is taught as if it’s some kind of science. Chinese teachers non-exceptionally emphasize the memorizing of vocabularies and grammar rules. As a result, most students, to my personal knowledge, find it much easier telling the different usage of a dozen prepositions than understanding a short passage. That means excellent students in school may not understand an English brochure well enough, but can effectively pick out grammar mistakes inside nonetheless. That’s hardly effective marketing.

Secondly, please note that the English training is mandatory. Even if a high schooler wants to pursue Japanese study in the college, still he has to finish a whole 3 years of English learning, and pass the entry exam. It might sound ridiculous but is true. High schools teaching other foreign languages do exist, but barely makes a minority. Unreasonable policy inevitably invoke repulsive reactions, and as a result, a large number of Chinese people choose to stay away from English as much as possible outside the classroom, except language happen to be their true love, or the source of daily bread. Some choose to turn blind upon any combination of Latin letters. Aside from those keeping an active interest in the study of foreign language or the consumption of English cultural products, few would pay much attention to a flyer entirely in English.

The third factor is nature taking its course. Like any other skill, language mastery degrades with time when completely abandoned. In a country where over one billion people speak Chinese, there’s hardly any chance to keeping one’s English language honed, unless he/she works in a foreign enterprise, or finds a living in the language service sector. That doesn’t apply to most people. Therefore it’s common to find people not quite being able to read two paragraphs out of an English children’s book after several years out of the campus. Personally I know such examples, one guy after years of working in a government office can no longer spell “apple” with confidence. Unless you are trying to market only to translators, interpreters, foreign enterprise executives, or students, English is not an option.

The prosperity in China’s commercial English language training services also sheds some light on the problem. Nowadays you can find commercial English courses everywhere, especially in big cities. People, usually working for some time already and suddenly found English capability actually useful, are paying premium prices to retrain the language they have spent 6 to 10 years with, sometimes from simple daily conversations. That says quite something about the matter.

In short, most of the younger generations of the Chinese have gone through substantial training in English, but not in a practical way. The acquired ability degrades fast when no longer required for academic progress. And emotionally people tend to stay away from the language unless reading in it is absolutely necessary. For this very reason, we will always suggest preparation of fully localized or bilingual marketing collateral, even if the deadline is extremely pressing already.

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