Wealth in Asia

China is losing interest in learning English

Yanbian University of Science and Technology students listen to their professor during their first English language class of the semester. The class is taught completely in English and is for advanced students on September 10, 2011 in Yanji, China.
Benjamin Lowy | Getty Images

China is losing interest in learning English, sending its proficiency in the global language of business falling ten places in a worldwide ranking.

According to language training company EF Education First, which conducted the 70-country ranking, the Chinese government has "questioned how much emphasis should be placed on English training in the public education system," said EF's Hong Kong-based Director of Research and Academic Partnerships, Minh Tran, in an email.

Schools in some parts of China have lowered the weighting of English language in scores counting toward the national college entrance exam while increasing the importance of the Chinese language component.

The decline in China's grasp of English comes as the country sets to assert its position as a global power not just economically but also culturally, driving a rise in the number of Confucius Institutes worldwide.

Established for the promotion of the Chinese language and culture, the non-profit organizations—named after the influential ancient sage—are affiliated with China's education ministry. There are about 100 such Institutesin the United States and about 400 in total across the world.

China's official stance to dial back from English language learning however does not reflect a decline in interest on the part of individuals. Asia's largest economy has been furiously learning the language for years, particularly after the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

"China's private English learning centers, however, have only gained popularity among students and professionals, who seek to gain a competitive edge outside of the public system in order to work in an international setting or study abroad," said Mr. Tran.

Estimates vary but about 300 million Chinese—nearly as many people as there are in the U.S.—are English language learners, according to Chinese media reports. The industry is worth RMB30 billion (US$5 billion).

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EF estimates the number of English online learners in China to grow from 67.2 million in 2013 to 120 million by 2017. Private English training companies are also expanding their reach into second-tier cities and remote provinces.

Recently, Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan impressed with her fluency in English on an official visit to the U.S. Her husband, Chinese President Xi Jinping, used an interpreter.

In contrast to China's slip down the English proficiency rankings this year, Latin American countries including Chile, Mexico, Brazil, Costa Rica, Uruguay and Guatemala moved ahead of the Asian giant. On top of the list are Sweden, the Netherlands,Denmark, Norway and Finland.

EF's Mr.Tran said China needs to reconsider the importance of English as the lingua franca between China and its trade partners as the country sets to develop its ambitious new Silk Road—the "One Belt, One Road" initiative.