|(Illustration: GT/Liu Rui)|
The recent trend toward cutting down English in the gaokao, or national college entrance examinations, isn't all bad. Let's face it, it's a lot easier for rich kids to get good access to English, whether through foreign travel or private tutors.
In a perfect world, the absurdly antiquated single-score exam wouldn't even exist, and colleges, free from corruption and personal influence, would be able to make all-round assessments of students' abilities and extracurricular achievements.
But in reality where resource distribution is quite unbalanced, the gaokao is still the best chance for the poor-but-smart to get a shot.
I wouldn't have any problem with this move if I thought the renewed emphasis on Chinese language teaching was going to be done well. If the curriculum was opened up, new ideas were embraced, linguistic creativity rewarded, and kids given the chance to be rewarded for playing with their own language, that would be a wonderful thing. But all signs point to quite the opposite.
The problem here isn't so much less time for English, as it is more time for a vision of Chinese learning that ends up leaving kids bored, frustrated, and uncreative.
A greater score for Chinese means more time wasted in schools on rote learning of characters that can now be looked up with ease electronically, recitation of the same old classics, and greater weight given to essay-writing styles that rewards conformity over creativity.
It means yet more classroom hours dedicated to a language that is already, in the estimation of renowned linguist John DeFrancis, about "five times as difficult to learn to read as French."
There have been the usual jeremiads about the supposedly declining state of Chinese learning. It's true that many young people struggle to handwrite their own language, more used to the ease of computer-aided characters. It would be a tragedy if the style and grace of traditional calligraphy disappeared.
But at the same time, it points to the fundamental flaws with the character system. Intelligent adults in the West don't blank on how to spell words, whereas Chinese frequently find their memory of even quite common characters failing.
Chinese, like all languages, is in a state of constant evolution, even in its written form. Despite nationalist-conservative fantasies about Chinese schoolchildren being "able to read 2,000-year-old characters," ancient Chinese scripts are as broadly incomprehensible to most people as Latin is to the English.
Due to the simplification of characters, most mainlanders struggle to read texts in their original form, while even those, like Hongkongers, educated in traditional characters, still face the difficulties of grammatical and vocabulary shifts.
By the standards that actually matter, Chinese is thriving. Online, new words and expressions are born every day, competing fiercely in the marketplace of language. Freed from the shackles of linguistic conservatism, Chinese are becoming more playful, inventive, and imaginative in their own tongue.
Part of this is the influence of English and other foreign languages. Healthy languages have always thrived on borrowing from other tongues.
One of the reasons for the vitality of English is its cheerful stealing from every language it's ever come in contact with. The infusion of English words and expressions has reinvigorated Chinese, just as the experience of international literature produced the great Chinese literary boom of the early 20th century.
But school education in Chinese has done little to recognize this. Where students should be following the four rules literary critic and journalist Hu Shi coined in 1918 - "Speak only when you have something to say. Speak what you want to say and say it in the way you want to say it. Speak what is your own and not that of someone else. Speak in the language of the time in which you live." - they're instead being rewarded for the regurgitation of other people's words and ideas.
A dose of English, with all its messy creativity and reinvention, is just what Chinese needs.