“the growth of the use of English as the world’s primary language for international communication has obviously been continuing for several decades” (David Graddol, English Next, 2006)
It was David Graddol who identified China as an early adopter of the practice of teaching English in primary school. China began requiring English be taught to students in Grade 3. As can be expected, more competitive schools started even earlier, in Grade 1. The idea was to get a “head start” on the schools that waited until the mandatory Grade 3 start date.
In an interview at last year’s annual IATEFL conference, held in Glasgow, he mentioned the results. From his own personal experience of living and working in China, he can testify to having conversations in English with children aged 10 and 11. Anecdotally, these are the children who began learning English in Grade 1…a decade ago.
In China, people are not asking the question of which English is best, British English or American English. They have taken the attitude that the best English to speak is Chinese English, which I’m calling, “Chinglish”. In China, it seems, there is a consciousness that speaking English as a global language, for international communication, does not require anything more than “intelligibility”, the ability to be understood. In most cases, that means another person who has also learned English…as a foreign language.
The Situation in Chile
Around the world, other countries quickly followed China in requiring English to be taught in primary school. English taught to primary school students is a vastly different pedagogy than teaching English to teenagers. In most cases, younger children have not even begun to read yet. Thus, oral English becomes important. Further, the teacher needs to be someone who has the patience and energy needed by younger children. In sum, a teacher of English to high school students may need to develop new skills and a new knowledge base to be successful.
In the case of Chile, English is mandatory at Grade 5. When one compares that with China, it is quite obvious that Chile is behind and is playing catch up. China has more than ten years “head start” in teaching English to young learners, however. In all honesty, Chile may well never catch up to China.
In language learning, ten years is like 100 years. While Chile was still working on the question of British English, American English, or a national variety, China had already developed the self-confidence to advance an international variety, Chinglish.
While Chile was still working on how best to teach beginner students, in Middle School, age 10, China was working on the same question for students in Primary School, age 6. The Chinese knowledge base on best teaching practices, from the experiential level, taken from the actual classrooms where teaching and learning took place, is well developed, and mature.
That is not a casual statement, but based on how highly English is regarded in China. It is instrumental in the future of the country. For instance, English is a required subject on the Chinese university entrance examination, the Gaoko (高考), pronounced “gow cow”.
On the other hand, making English obligatory on the university entrance exam in Chile is unlikely. If it happened today, it would be called discrimination, as the best teachers of English teach in private schools. Thus, students from private schools would have an unfair advantage over students from public schools.
In sum, Chile has a long way to go with the teaching and learning of English to catch up with China. Progress is being made. This year English is being taught to students in Primary School, Grade 1, in Chile.
It is not an obligation, but when one compares Chile with a country like China, it is clear that Chile could not afford to wait any longer to take the step that China took more than ten years ago, to require English be taught in Primary School. The Chinese example is a model for Chile and the rest of the world about what you can accomplish when you get serious about teaching and learning English.
Yes, it is difficult, but not impossible. We know we are lacking in many resources in Chile. Qualified and competent teachers for primary school children are in short supply. Our national knowledge base is basically non-existent in the public schools, and in the private schools, knowledge of best practice (what works) is a jealously guarded secret in a school system that is fundamentally competitive between schools.
To conclude, we have a lot of learning to do in Chile, both teachers and students, about how to best teach English to young learners. There is no doubt about that. It may be many more years before Chinglish (Chilean English) is spoken in Chile, but undoubtedly Chile will at some future time take ownership of English, and develop our own unique brand of International English.