English: A Driver of Social Mobility in China?

– Wadeisor Rukato

In many countries across the world the ability to speak the dominant language, the lingua franca, can determine the kinds of opportunities that one has access to, effectively separating the haves from the have-nots. The “Great English Divide”, a term popularised in an article published in the Business Week in 2001, describes the notion “that English is not only helpful but is becoming increasingly necessary for success in the working world, leaving those who do not speak it behind”. In China, a country with a population of over one billion people, it is estimated that only 0.83% of the total population is able to speak at least a very basic level of English. With the status of English as the “de facto international language of communication today”, the value of the language in China has been gradually increasing.

The literature on English Language Teaching (ELT) is split on the exact correlation between English proficiency and social mobility. While some researchers have acknowledged the value of English as a “means to greater educational access and social mobility”, others have raised concerns about the effects of variance in the quality of English teaching, which puts into question the direct value of English for improving social mobility.

According to a 2012 article in the Harvard Business Review, “English is now the global language of business”. China’s opening up has played a significant role in shaping the country’s contemporary trends in English learning. The economic reforms that started in 1978 made English an essential requirement for China’s ability to engage with the rest of the world, especially after its years of isolation during the Cultural Revolution. The government has now come to see English as “paramount to the nation’s economic competitiveness in the global market.

The new English curriculum in China requires that “English be offered as a required school subject starting from the third grade through college, to graduate school”. In most large cities in China, there is a huge market for supplementary English classes and a considerable demand for extracurricular English lessons. The effect of market forces on English learning in China is such that it expands to levels below grade three, even though this isn’t compulsory. On countless occasions I have read and shared adverts that have floated around WeChat groups calling for potential English teachers for 1-year-olds. It is seemingly never too early to kickstart English learning.

Across the literature, it has been generally established that English proficiency has become an important factor for those seeking decent employment, social status and financial security. Therefore, college graduates who have expertise in their field of study and are proficient in English are “more likely to find employment in foreign enterprises, joint ventures and cooperatively run enterprises than those who lack such skills, and are therefore positioned to demand the highest starting salaries”. In terms of the influence of English on social mobility,  “in present- day China, English is the language of symbolic capital, socio-economic value and power”.

When a group of 15 Chinese Masters students at Peking University were asked questions in a survey about the importance of English proficiency for social mobility in China, their responses were in line with what had been found in the literature. One question required respondents to state their reason for learning English. Both the nuances and similarities in the given responses  (see box 1) are interesting.


Having to learn English in primary school is one of the key reasons why some respondents started learning the language; it was “compulsory” or “mandatory”. Factors like a better life, a better job, access to better opportunities, and desires to study abroad appear to be important motivations for respondents’ continued learning of the English language. This largely reflects the cultural capital-turned-economic capital character of English proficiency, where the ability to speak English has implications for access to opportunities and income levels.

This is in line with a study conducted in 2007 on undergraduate non-English majors which indicated that the majority of students in the sample held an instrumental orientation towards English learning. For example, the potential of getting promoted in career development or getting a good job.

When asked whether the ability to speak English is a driver of social mobility in China, of the total respondents who took the survey, 14 answered ‘yes’, and one respondent answered ‘no’.As a follow up to this question respondents were asked whether the level of English proficiency amongst Chinese people can be a driver of inequality in China. For this question, respondents were required to justify their responses. The majority of respondents answered ‘yes’.

“Yes, people who can speak good English always have more opportunities,” wrote one respondent. Another had this to say; “I think it is a driver of inequality but not the most important one. Because English is involved in the educational system and people with high status have more access to advanced education. So it is a driver or a reflection of other factors that cause inequality but on its own, it cannot dominate”.

Other justifications generally touched on how people with higher English proficiency can access better opportunities than those with lower proficiency, how disparities between the resources in different cities influences learning opportunities, and how income inequalities reinforce educational inequalities. Of the respondents who said they did not agree that the level of English proficiency amongst Chinese people can be a driver of inequality in China, one justified their response as follows; “Inequality is rather caused by the distribution of wealth. People from richer family generally have better education resources. The level of English can be related to inequality. However, it doesn’t constitute a sufficient ground to establish a causal relationship.”

On whether English will become more important in China as the country becomes more integrated into the international system 14 respondents answered ‘yes’, and one answered ‘no’. The final question of the survey asked respondents whether the ability to speak English well is important for their future aspirations. All respondents answered ‘yes’.

According to a 2012 report, of the total proportion of people in China who had studied a foreign language, 93.8% had studied English. “That is to say, among the almost 415.95 million Chinese foreign-language learners, 390.16 million had learnt English”.  However, only “1.8% of those that have studied English claim to be able to act as interpreters on formal occasions”. Of all those who have studied English, in stating their self-rated proficiency in spoken English, the majority (61.54%) claims to be able to only be able to “say some greetings”. This makes one wonder how important English speaking ability is for the average Chinese person, suggesting that it is not particularly critical for accessing opportunities.

China’s education gap is vast, and while for some learning English is a critical concern, for many more, simply getting access to education is the primary concern. Even if English proficiency is important for social mobility, this is only the case for a limited proportion of the Chinese population. It would be hard to imagine, for example, that for the migrant worker who has come to Beijing to run a fruit stall in order to make money, knowing English is among the fundamental factors for this individual’s social mobility. To this extent, the Hukou system would be a more important factor when considering what factors influence social mobiity in China. This is one thing to consider.

It is also important to consider the actual causal relationship between English proficiency and social mobility in general, as well as what fundamental factors allow for English proficiency to even matter (education, wealth, income levels etc.). While a case can be made that in some instances English proficiency can drive social mobility in China, the extent to which this is the case for individuals is contingent on more fundamental drivers of social mobility such as  wealth, and access to quality education.


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