In 1987, China's Ministry of Education launched its College English Test (CET) - the exam which most students in China now have to pass to graduate. Few countries in the world are like China in making English a compulsory second language in schools.
In China, most students have to study English from primary school or even earlier. They learn English for the nine years of compulsory education. Students who go on to university have to continue their English studies there. Masters' graduates might have studied English for 18 years by the time they complete their degrees.
But critics of this system are now pointing out that even after 18 years of study, many graduates do not have a realistic grasp of English and cannot use it in their daily work or studies.
In July, Shanghai, one of the first cities in the country to make English a compulsory subject in schools, began to consider major reforms to the established teaching methods.
For 28-year-old Shen Dong (not his real name), studying English at university was the last thing he needed. A graduate of East China Normal University, Shen was a Grade-A student in information technology and computer science, and he won prizes in computer science competitions. On the strength of his academic performance, Microsoft offered him a job even before he graduated.
But once in the workforce, his lack of English proved a major obstacle. "I have no talent for languages," he said.
At work he stumbled over simple English words and struggled to translate sentences. He couldn't communicate easily with foreign colleagues. Every time he lunched with his boss, the only English words he could say with certainty were "beef" and "lamb."
His lack of English cost him the opportunity to work at the company's headquarters in the US and he eventually decided to leave the company. He's now running his own business.
Zhang Haimeng comes from a family of migrant workers. She is a fluent English speaker and was accepted for a place at the United World College in Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina this year. She will study for two years there alongside students from more than 40 countries.
Zhang told the Global Times that she believed the rigid examination system in China was the reason why the teaching of English education at universities here was failing. "Chinese students study English but most never speak it, which is weird. Language is all about speaking. You have to learn until the day you can think in English, dream in English and have fun with English," she said.
The real meaning
One of the experts pushing for reform in this matter is Professor Cai Jigang from the College of Foreign Language and Literature at Fudan University. He has nearly 30 years' experience in teaching and researching English and in July he was appointed director of the Shanghai College English Teaching Steering Committee by the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission to plan and implement the college English education reforms.
"What is the real purpose of learning English? We must ask ourselves this question," Cai told the Global Times. He had just met a group of visiting teachers from University of Science and Technology Beijing, who had wanted to talk to him about the teaching reforms. "Frankly, up till now our students have just been studying English to pass exams."
China started teaching English in universities in the 1960s but this was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). English teaching returned in the 1980s and in 1987, the Ministry of Education launched CET as the national standard English exam for college students. Since then passing the CET seems to have become the sole purpose for studying English in college.
It is not an official policy but in reality, most universities in China link students' CET results with their degrees. If a student fails the CET, it is unlikely that he or she will be given a degree.
The CET is now the largest single-subject test in the world - every year sees more than 10 million candidates taking the test, the CET website reports.
Cai used to be a member of the national CET examination committee and had pushed for the end of the CET in its current form, but for many reasons this had not been possible until now. "There are many interested parties involved in the CET," Cai said.
He said one of the reasons why college English education was failing students was because there was not an effective link between pre-university and university English studies. "We found that many of the incoming students at college had already achieved college English standards in vocabulary and grammar based on our current teaching syllabus. We were just repeating what they had already learned. No wonder they are not interested in studying English."
What's worse? According to a 2010 and 2011 survey of 1,615 graduates from 12 universities in Shanghai, as many as 25 percent said that their English skills became poorer in college than during their high school days. And another 50 percent said they couldn't really learn anything useful from the English classes in college.
"It is wrong. We can't just make up an exam to justify the existence of English teaching in universities and ignore the reality that students learn little and find it disappointing. I think we must really think clearly about why we should study English," Cai said.
For Cai the solution is obvious - the purpose of studying English in college should be to serve students in the future in their work and help them professionally.
"With economic globalization, we hope that students will be able to use English in their professions. With the internationalization of higher education in Shanghai, English, as a tool, is more and more important. If we can't meet these needs, then studying English is no longer a necessity," Cai said.
The professor said students should be able to discriminate and assess English academic papers when they are doing research.
According to a 2008 survey of more than 1,600 graduates in Shanghai, the top 10 abilities that they felt would make them valued by employers included English language abilities, computer skills, professional knowledge, logical thinking and interpersonal communications. But many said that they found the hardest part of study was improving their English language skills.
"Not only did students complain about college English, but teachers from different faculties blamed students' poor performances on them being barely able to understand English papers," Cai told the Global Times.
Another survey Cai and his team did among 927 students from Fudan University, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Tongji University and the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, found that 51 percent could not understand or take notes when foreign speakers gave lectures, 67 percent had difficulty reading foreign-language textbooks or professional papers, 85 percent said they lacked specialist vocabularies, and 68 percent had difficulty in participating in discussions or delivering spoken presentations in English.
Cai would like to see English teaching divided into different areas like English for General Purposes and English for Specific Purposes, which could be further split into academic English and workplace English. Cai believes that the current exam-oriented English teaching mode should be changed to suit academic requirements.
"Academic English should deal with the common language shared through a range of subjects and should help students so that they can use English in their research and professional work," he said.
This approach was widely used in universities in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan, according to Cai. "If we can't train students to be adequate in using English for their studies and be able to communicate and be competitive in international fields, we are failing them."
United World College student Zhang Haimeng said that from her personal experience in learning English, making changes in primary and secondary school education would be thousands of times better than doing this in universities because learning patterns are formed in secondary and high school.
Zhang said she believed it would be better if there were more chances to practice talking in English, having more debates, and adopting more dynamic and diverse ways of teaching.
Fu Jianqin is the deputy director of higher education at the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission. He told the Global Times that the Shanghai College English Teaching Steering Committee was now serving as a platform for discussion and reform.
"Although we might have different opinions on how to improve our college English teaching, the one thing we don't need to discuss is the need for reform," he said. "Twenty years ago when I was a student I was using the same English textbooks for CET as they do today. This must be changed."
Cai is aware that there is considerable opposition to his reforms. "This affects a lot of people and some teachers will have to change and are afraid of losing their jobs. But if we do nothing, we will lose everything, for sure."
Cai said his committee so far has undertaken a citywide survey and drafted a framework of reference for English teaching for discussion. For the next step, a few experimental programs are planned for some universities. Meanwhile new textbooks have to be developed and teachers retrained.
"We need more professionals and energetic teachers who want to make a change," Cai said. He plans hundreds of lectures throughout Shanghai to promote the reforms and gain support from the public.
"However big the obstacles are, I will not give up. I believe the vision of a scholar should be like a searchlight, not showing what has happened in the past or present but revealing the future," Cai said.