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Multilingualism to put an end to ‘English monopoly’ in globalization 3.0

Author  :  SHEN QI     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2017-08-23

A foreign teacher teaches third grade English class at Xincheng Primary School in Zhecheng County, Henan Province.

In the era of globalization 3.0, characterized by increasing interconnectedness via the internet, China has stepped up its efforts to participate in and promote global governance reform. In its ever-expanding interactions with the world, China urgently needs to enhance its international communication capacity. In this sense, language pedagogy is of significance.

Old-fashioned language pedagogy

Under the influence of structuralism, traditional foreign language pedagogy in China focuses on arbitrary linguistic forms of vocabulary, grammar and semiotics, while foreign language tests reaffirm such notions, thus forming a rigid foreign language learning paradigm.

For a long time—from primary school to college, from general English lessons to courses for English majors—almost all syllabus and curriculum guidelines have emphasized basic language knowledge, so language courses mostly focus on comprehensive English, listening, speaking, reading and writing. There is no doubt basic language skills are the foundation of foreign language study, but it should not stop there. 

However, driven by instrumental value orientation, language is regarded as an independent object divorced from ideas and the humanities. When it is regarded separate from literature and the social context in which it is widely used, foreign language education becomes an isolated island in the era of globalization.

It is safe to say that this form of language pedagogy meets the basic needs of language acquisition, and it is also easy to evaluate through testing, but it ignores communicative competence and the acquisition of conversational skills. 

When speaking of a foreign language, many would say the objective is to achieve the ability to put what one learns into practice, which spells out its instrumental value.

From the perspective of instrumentalism, foreign language learning also has quite a lot of exchange value, which explains why people often want to invest in it to obtain better economic returns.

Therefore, we see students flock to foreign language majors or other foreign-related disciplines in college.

In addition, the standardization and measurement of language education have spawned a variety of popular examinations and professional qualifications that people seek to improve their earning potential. 

It is worth noting that language instrumentalism is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is true that practicality and exchange value should complement each other to realize the instrumental value of a language.

In reality, however, the former is largely neglected, while the latter is over-emphasized and abused, leading to a distortion and deviation from its instrumental value. 

When people tend to care more about degrees and use them as a means to achieve economic success, less attention is given to the need to comprehensively enhance one’s language ability and cultural erudition.

High-level talent shortage

At present, globalization is characterized by fluidity and diversification and we should see that the traditional foreign language pedagogy fails to keep up with this trend.

Basic language skills cannot meet the needs of in-depth communication. Anyone who has lived abroad will understand the complexity of a foreign environment and recognize the need to truly improve communicative competence. 

In this light, contemporary language pedagogy should take advantage of the internet-related modern education technology to create a user-friendly people-machine learning environment.

With the aid of independent learning and effective teaching tools, learners can develop applied language skills and devise their own personalized plan to improve themselves in different categories of learning on the foundations of basic knowledge.

Foreign language ability here refers not only to learning, speaking, writing and even translating but also to use a foreign language in accordance with a different social context. 

Though China has a total of 800,000 foreign language students in college, we face an awkward situation in which high-level professionals are scarce while mediocre learners are abundant.

To change the status quo, educational departments and higher education institutes need to take concrete measures to carry out foreign language school reform based on the various features and niches of each institute.

No more ‘English monopoly’

On the other hand, in the era of globalization 3.0, global governance is no longer led by the West but is mainly driven by the emerging economies that are not English-speaking countries and have distinct cultural, social and historical features.

As China has more interactions with these nations, either officially or in people-to-people exchanges, we will be hindered by insufficient understanding and knowledge, so a keen mastery of their language is a basic but crucial step to construct strategic ties. 

Language security is one of the important value demands of foreign language education in globalization 3.0, which permeates and manifests in different practical fields. The formulation and implementation of foreign language education policy must put national security interests first to enhance the national capacity to manage and prevent conflicts.

Language security does not mean the security of the language itself, but the usage and communicative approach of language to examine how language affects, restricts, guarantees and maintains security in different areas. 

In addition, China’s foreign language education planning can be oversimplified, resulting in imbalanced foreign language planning and layout. For example, when China’s foreign policy tilted toward the Soviet Union, there was a “Russian monopoly” but that gave way to an “English monopoly.” There is no question that English, as a commonly used international language, is rather important, but an “English monopoly” will have negative outcomes.

Today, Chinese higher education offers fewer than 80 kinds of foreign language courses, while renowned Western institutions, such as Harvard University and the University of London, have each set up more than 100 language divisions. 

It is not hard to imagine that it will be problematic to study some countries and regions that our language education does not cover.

What’s more, for individuals, it is also essential to take a look at the national strategic transformation and the internationalization prospect of cities when choosing majors and planning personal careers. In the face of an ever-increasing number of external relationships, Chinese cities are bound to have growing demand for multilingual talent. 

New paradigm

Some scholars pointed out that China will be the main driver of globalization in the future. Against this backdrop, the focus of foreign language pedagogy needs to shift to a form of “two-way balance” from “one-way” input, to avoid the cultural worship of the West while raising local awareness and the voices of Chinese discourse.

Chinese foreign language education once borrowed Western teaching concept, methods and content as well as their discourse system, while the Chinese discourse is stuck in a state of “aphasia,” or inability to express itself, in terms of cultural communication and interpretation.

At present, a number of foreign language textbooks in the market still adhere to copyism, and some publishers have blindly introduced textbooks that the United States and United Kingdom used for second-language acquisition, rather than English textbooks designed for native speakers.

Pedadogy or pedagogical theory and targeted audience aside, we are hindered by a lack of local consciousness in the perspective of cultural orientation. When we seem to fully appreciate the excellence of the Western culture and are able to talk about Western festivals and customs in fluent English, we need to ask ourselves how many of us can introduce traditional Chinese culture to our foreign friends and how many of us can tell good Chinese stories, which is exactly the primary task of current Chinese foreign language education. 

In the era of globalization 3.0, communication and interaction among nations must be built on the basis of equality and mutual respect. Neither going out of one’s way to please others nor blind worship could bring us success in foreign language learning.

As American linguistics Claire Kramsch said, language learners should acquire the ability to see themselves from the outside, which Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin termed “transgredience.” Through transgredience, they learn not only to use language correctly and appropriately, but to reflect on their experience. They occupy a position where they see themselves both from the inside and from the outside–a “third place” of symbolic competence, which is the state foreign language learners in China should aspire to. 


Shen Qi is a professor of the Research of Foreign Language Strategies at Shanghai International Studies University.

Editor: Yu Hui

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