Though the word "promontory" may sound unfamiliar to many native English speakers, Luo Jia, a 13-year-old Chinese student, knows its meaning, spelling and the exact sentence in the textbook where it appeared.
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"I know the word even better than the uncommon Chinese character with the same meaning," said Luo, as he located the synonym for "cape" while flipping through "New Concept English," a textbook widely used in China's English training programs.
Though he is more interested in biology and chemistry, the middle school student in Fujian Province attends English classes every weekend upon his mother's order. The class teaches advanced English with a rich vocabulary containing words like "bedraggled," "outlandish" and "parquet."
Luo's mother made a strong case for enrolling her son in the class. "English is very important, whether he stays in China or goes abroad, so I prefer he spend extra hours on language study, no matter whether he likes it or not."
In China, English is among three compulsory "major subjects," along with Chinese and mathematics, given equal importance in major exams. It is perhaps the most influential subject, considering the ubiquity of its exams and the gigantic market it has generated.
Every year, millions of college students take the country's many standardized English tests, hoping to boost their resumes with language certificates. College graduates applying for post-graduate programs are all required to pass an English exam, even if their subjects are Chinese literature or organic chemistry.
Those exams are usually difficult, and the ensuing demand to pass them has created a lucrative industry of test-prep schools and English training programs, which also profit from a rising middle class willing to send their children to overseas universities or invest in their early education.
The country's English fervor has aroused much controversy. Last month, Wang Xuming, former spokesman for the Ministry of Education, called for canceling English classes in primary schools to make way for Chinese classes. The Chinese zeal for learning English, he argued, was so strong that it has come at the neglect of their mother tongue.
It was also reported that the eastern province of Jiangsu was mulling a reform to exclude the English test from the college entrance exam, and to classify the students' English levels using letter grades or a similar system, rather than percentile marks, as a reference for college admission.
The news has unleashed a torrent of support from netizens who have long complained about the huge burden brought by excessive English tests.
"Chinese students spend too much time learning grammar, but this kind of test-oriented English is of little use in real life," microblogger "Youyouzi" commented on China's Twitter-like Sina Weibo.
Like Youyouzi, many Chinese are now questioning the effect of the country's English learning craze on improving students' English skills other than in exams. Research by the Shanghai International Studies University shows that of China's foreign language learners, fewer than 5 percent are capable of using the language proficiently in transcultural communication.
Zeng Zihang, an office worker in Beijing, said his English classes in school involved little oral English training, and he could hardly utter a word when he first met his foreign business partners.
"My English study in college was all about memorizing CET-4 (College English Test) vocabulary and writing mock exam papers. It would have been a waste of time if I found a job that had nothing to do with English," Zeng said.
But despite the widespread opposition to the excessive focus on exams, many experts and members of the public agree that China should not slight English education as it goes through rapid internationalization.
"English learning can broaden children's horizons and help them understand a different culture," said Chen Weiping, father of an eight-year-old in Beijing, who opposed Wang's call to scrap English classes in primary schools.
"It's totally fine for primary school students to study English. Just don't give them too many exams," he said.
Li Dazhi, educator at the China Association of Higher Education, said China began to stress English learning after the Cultural Revolution, when the country, plagued by low domestic productivity, aspired to learn from the Western world.
"The English fervor is not a bad thing. It illustrates the ambition and the open minds of the Chinese people and that we hope to embrace the world and learn from foreign countries," he said.
But Li also said that China's test-oriented English education was hardly successful in making young students more internationalized.
"I found many college students had good scores in English exams but were actually 'deaf and dumb' in English communication, and many of them knew little about Western culture," Li said.
Last month, the Ministry of Education issued the second draft of a regulation on reducing students' academic burden. It suggests banning unified English examinations in primary schools in an attempt to make English education less test-oriented.
Experts and the public have generally hailed the initiative, saying it will help lighten the students' burdens while freeing English classes from exams so they can focus on cultural and practical aspects.