Why are many Chinese students, who have learnt English for years, still poor at English?

The teaching method for English in China is poor. The main reason for this is because the examination method is poor. Teachers teach for the exam and nothing else. The exam is based on vocabulary memorization and understanding of grammar rules. There is no need to compose sentences let alone paragraphs or longer essays. There is no need to speak, and there is no need to understand when listening because none of those things are in the examinations of middle or high school.

I teach at a university in China. Every student must have passed the English test in the University Entrance Exam (Gaokao) at the end of high school. They must also pass the CET4 or CET6 (College English Test) which contains a very short writing task but mainly covers listening, reading and translation to a high level of proficiency and a high vocabulary. However, if I go and talk to any of them, they can’t understand me and they can’t reply or ask me anything. Every student knows English, but few students can use English.

The exam papers do not focus on writing compositions or speaking. The majority of the exam marks come from the reading and listening sections of the test paper. As a result, students focus their studies on the sections that gain the most marks and ignore the sections that are worth few marks. Thus they know what a large number of words mean in Chinese but they don’t know how to pronounce them or used them in a sentence.

It then becomes cyclical as teachers who can’t speak English but know the vocabulary then teach the next generation of students.

A few students do break out of the cycle. Typically their parents paid for private English classes after school. Often this will have included classes with a native English speaker, which would solve many problems. I still find that their writing is lacking. Even when they can speak fluently, they can’t write in a structured way. They will never learn to write properly until they decide to move abroad and have to do the IELTS or TOEFL exams. Here for the first time, they meet an exam that requires the full range of skills, reading, listening, writing and speaking. Even after studying English in primary, middle, high school, university and private classes after school for some 14 years or more, they still need extra classes on writing and speaking composition. Why? Because it had never, until now, been in any exam and so they have never, until now, had a teacher who bothered to teach it to them.

In contrast, when I was learning French in the UK, the teachers’ focus was on giving us a usable, working understanding of the language. Speaking was given importance right from the start and grammar only considered after a modest vocabulary had been built and could be used. Exam requirements were ignored until just a month or two before the test date.


In English why can’t I write “sutle” instead of “subtle” when the latter only adds complexity?

It may look like simplifying spelling would improve the language, however, simplified spelling is often more difficult to read. Since people read more than write, the language should be optimised with a balance towards ease of reading rather than ease of writing. Consider the following example:

For example, in Year 1 that useless letter “c” would be dropped to be replased either by “k” or “s”, and likewise “x” would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which “c” would be retained would be the “ch” formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might reform “w” spelling, so that “which” and “one” would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish “y” replasing it with “i” and iear 4 might fiks the “g/j” anomali wonse and for all. Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants. Bai iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez “c”, “y” and “x” — bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez — tu riplais “ch”, “sh”, and “th” rispektivli. Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.

Above passage: author unknown, possibly Mark Twain or M.J. Yilz or not. There were forms of writing created for English that were optimised entirely for the writer, not the reader. These were commonly taught in schools and used in every English speaking business around the world. These simplified forms of writing were used in places where writing speed was paramount, such as a secretary writing a letter dictated by a manager or a journalist taking notes for his newspaper. However, these simplified forms have fallen out of use with the advent of word processors and computers. I am, of course, referring to “Shorthand”

Extract from Matthew from a Bible written in shorthand
Above: This bible might look like it is in Hebrew or some other ancient text but actually this is English shorthand. This is an extract from The Gospel of Matthew from a Bible written in shorthand.
And extract from a Christmas card written in Pitman's shorthand
And extract from a Christmas card written in Pitman’s shorthand.

A Christmas card message written in Pitman shorthand on the left with longhand transliteration on the right. Above: Pitman shorthand with the English longhand transcription beside.


Though shorthand was ubiquitous in businesses and schools worldwide, it was generally only readable by the author as so many ambiguities lie in the word sounds. Thus shorthand was always transcribed, and usually typed, in longhand after the dictation writing was finished. That is why “subtle” will continue to have a “b” in the middle and why other English words are equally, or even more bizarrely, spelled.