50 million learning a foreign language in China

I’m amazed to find out that China has nearly 50 million people who are currently learning foreign languages. According to a Chinese Ministry of Education official, 900 colleges offer an English major, and of those, more than 600 can confer a bachelor’s degree and more than 200 can confer master’s degrees.

There are more than 800,000 students majoring in English in China annually!

By contrast, New Zealand produces approximately 21,000 graduates per year across all disciplines, of which approximately 2,000 were classed as “humanities” graduates. I imagine languages, history, geography etc would all fall under this category. As it stands, New Zealand is one of the most monolingual countries in the world. I don’t see this changing any time soon. Perhaps some people reading this article would be thinking why bother with learning a language if everyone is learning English as a second language. Here are some reasons:

1. It seems a little unfair that we expect other people to devote so much time, money and energy to learning English so that they can communicate with us if we’re not prepared to make any effort at all.
After all, it’s just a matter of luck that we were born to speak English and not one of the 6,000 or so other languages in the world.

2. We in New Zealand are reliant upon links with other countries for our prosperity, and the majority of our trade now is with non-English speaking countries. Why should our international partners be keen
to trade with us if we make no serious attempt to understand their languages and their cultures?

3. When you travel in a country without a knowledge of the language, in some ways you only scratch the surface; only when you know the language do you realise how much you would otherwise be missing.

4. If you have never learnt another language, you have missed out on a key experience which millions of other people have had: understanding the ways in which languages can differ, realising that the way your language conveys meaning is not necessarily the “right” way, just one way among dozens of possible ways.

5. If you have never looked at another language, it is doubtful that you can ever really understand your own.

Well, if you’ve always wanted to learn a language, it’s not to late to join Euroasia for the April 08 intake.

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About The Author

Kenneth is Director of Euroasia. He is passionate about languages and cultures.


  1. Ken, I differ with your 50 million student number. I have read as high as 250 million. At Asia Times Online they state “According to Graddol’s research, an estimated 176.7 million Chinese were studying English in 2005 within the formal education sector.” (http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/HI15Df01.html) Thgis article is 2 years old, and I think that the number has increased with the coming Olympics.


  2. kenleong says:

    Richard you could very well be right. My source is a 10-day old official Chinese government press release. Perhaps they have only counted the people who are studying foreign languages at college (university) level. I suppose many would be studying informally and would hence fall through the cracks. In any case, given the passion that the Chinese have for education, before long we would see the majority of Chinese people learning a foreign language.

  3. hamad says:

    its oft-mentioned that china has hundreds of millions of english speakers that, in aggregate, are greater than the population of the USA. however, on my recent trip to guangzhou in guangdong province, I would never have though so since it was quite an effort to find someone that could even say yes, no and ok or to get hand directions to a place. where are all these speakers of english in China? are they being measured accurately and what is their level of english proficiency?

    english, in agreement with some of your other posts, is one of the harder languages to learn given its somewhat convoluted grammatical structure that is highly unintuitive in many cases but it has become the lingua franca (oh the irony) of the business world and increasingly the wider world.

    you have an interesting blog. keep it up.

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