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Human capital and China

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By Ezra Klein

Matthew Yglesias posted last night about our tour guide at the Forbidden City: A guy with a curious accent (Australian? Scottish?) who, it turned out, had "learned English from a native Chinese speaker who himself had learned from a native Chinese speaker who in turn had learned from a guy from Leeds in the UK." As Matt notes, this wasn't just a wacky story of language acquisition: China has made English classes a major priority. But what's striking about Shanghai and Beijing is that few people -- even in the hotels that cater to Westerners -- actually speak much English. Or even a bit of English. It's a noticeable difference from other major cities (like Rio de Janeiro) where English is not the native tongue, but there's nevertheless a longer experience with it.

The reason for this is that there's no one to teach English to a nation of 1.3 billion. The people who are proficient in both Chinese and English have better job opportunities than public school teacher. So you've got a lot of English classes, but fairly few English teachers, and so not much in the way of English proficiency. Maybe computer software will eventually make up the gap, but settling on a program and rolling it out across the country is a major project.

I spent some time tonight with some ex-pats who run a small company trying to spread Western educational techniques. Their argument was that the quality of China's schools was, even more so than in the United States, dependent on the quality of China's teachers. Competing in the new Chinese economy doesn't mean learning about as much as the average person in your town, as it does in much of America. Instead, it means learning way more than the previous few generations, as the 20th Century saw a razing of China's human capital.

In practice, that means learning up to the educational level of your teachers, as your parents and neighbors won't be able to compensate for their failings the way they can in America. But how many good teachers are there? For that matter, how many good teachers can there be in a country where there's enormous demand paying Western-influenced prices for the most skilled and educated workers?

This is the big difficulty as China tries to transition from an economy based mainly on cheap labor to one powered by innovation and knowledge industries. The country has enough humans to do it. What they need is the human capital. But it's hard to go from having few workers ready to participate in the global economy to having a lot of workers ready to lead it. The hope is that the foreign firms will provide a kind of secondary schooling for China's workforce, giving employees skills and perspectives that will allow them to strike out on their own. But the foreign firms are still mainly using China for cheap, low-skill labor, and that translates into a much slower form of economic advancement. China's offering a lot of incentives for foreign investors who want more than that, but they don't have the natural advantages in that area that they had when it came to offering a massive labor force.

By Ezra Klein  |  May 31, 2010; 1:19 PM ET
Categories:  China  
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Comments

"very few people -- even in the hotels that cater to Westerners -- actually speaks very good English"

Very few people speaks? Oh Ezra! In an article about the imperfect English of others, surely you could at least coordinate your nouns and verbs. "Very few people speak". Now, write it out a thousand times, or no Beijing kaoya for you tonight!

Posted by: palarran | May 31, 2010 2:55 PM | Report abuse

Palarran beat me to it. For a second I wondered if Ezra was perhaps being ironic. Perhaps proximity to Yglesias is rubbing off on Ezra.

Posted by: Isa8686 | May 31, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse

"Speaks" was probably a typo. But the post did not show a good command of written English, aside from that. "...fairly few English teachers..." Fairly and few do not belong together. "...razing of human capital.." What is that about? "Razing" is a bad word choice here. Bloggers don't get edited and that's why some of the writing is rough.

Posted by: truck1 | May 31, 2010 3:45 PM | Report abuse

"'Speaks' is a typo" - you know there may be one more reason why such things could be happening to Ezra. I am just speculating...

Sometime back I had a Chinese Boss. He was naturalized in USA for long, his father migrated to Berkley and he was professor there. My boss was born in China but came here at the age of 3. But despite all these years, he was not very good in English. (He was very kind and good to all of us.) What happened is he used to mix 'he & she' and 'talk & talks' and so on. Instead of we correcting his English, we started to take on his 'bad English! That is the same phenomenon in Silicon Valley too (especially Cupertino where Chinese population dominates). You happen to pick up 'bad English' after communicating with many of these folks instead of you improving theirs. I think that is what might be happening with Ezra. (As for me, I am totally illiterate when it comes Mandarin and do not have any decency / urge to learn nor stamina needed before I comment on proficiency of China folks in speaking foreign languages. I am still at work in mastering the language of our old masters - British Raj.)

This aside, as for the main point of China not finding English Teachers - I think Chinese President Hu has a great opportunity to 'walk the talk' when he says he wants to increase the domestic spending. He should pay solid salaries to Teachers who teach foreign languages (English, Spanish, Hindi, Portuguese, etc.) so that Chinese pupils are prepared for the brave new world of 21st century (where China wants to rule the world so badly). Hu needs to understand wages of 'global power' means 'wars in so many different corners' of the world like how the declining Super Power is doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those Pushtun translators make 200K plus per year. So bottom line - China needs to spend some of the silver accumulated on teachers teaching English and other foreign language.

Oh and it can be a great trade if American, British and India 'English language teachers' are imported in China for few years. All these sinking economies (except Indian) will be glad to earn few Yuan by this export.

Posted by: umesh409 | May 31, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse

Maybe they could get Google to set up some sort of cloud based facility to teach English to a broad audience .... oops!

Posted by: bdballard | May 31, 2010 5:48 PM | Report abuse

Typos aside, Klein has always been in need of remedial writing instruction. Or, to put it more bluntly, in order to write well, one needs to think well, and Klein has always been in need of basic logic and ethics instruction.

The "actually" before "speaks" is a flag that the person doing the writing is more interested in filling space than conveying information or meaning. Klein does it a lot. One doesn't teach English to a "nation". Only individuals can learn and speak. Klein is a master of imprecision. "previous few generations"? How few? It's nonsensical. Etc. But that's just nuts and bolts.

Here's the funny part: "[H]ow many good teachers are there? For that matter, how many good teachers can there be in a country where there's enormous demand paying Western-influenced prices for the most skilled and educated workers?"

Gosh, those are simply wonderful questions, Klein, but aren't they like... high school questions? There are as many "good" teachers in China as the market will bear. If there are gobs of people clamoring to acquire new skills, then one of the skills that people will realize is valuable to others is how to others the skills they wish to acquire. Teachers will naturally become more valuable in a culture that needs to upgrade its skills.

The question becomes: Will the government allow the free association of students and teachers, with all the contractual freedom that used to be the ideal in other parts of the world?

Naturally, you, Klein, won't rustle through that thorny bush, instead dwelling on the tinny soap opera of collectivist policy making, as though the world runs by collectivist government fiat.

Posted by: msoja | June 1, 2010 12:54 AM | Report abuse

ps. I thought it was customary among the big league bloggers to flag one's edits and modifications. Different ethics at the WaPo, I guess, where stories and links change on the fly.

You've still got typos in there, Klein, you moron.

Posted by: msoja | June 1, 2010 1:16 AM | Report abuse

America dealt with this by restricting women's access to jobs to nursing and teaching for the better part of this history. Thus, half the population, no matter how qualified, was essentially forced into teaching if they wanted to do anything with the natural skills, abilities, and knowledge.

I'm surprised nobody had mentioned this.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | June 1, 2010 8:51 AM | Report abuse

@Kevin_Willis - what you say is true but the reason nobody has mentioned it is that this article is about how it is hard to find quality English teachers in China, not how America had better teachers once upon a time and why. That's a fine subject but for a different article.

Posted by: JeffRandom | June 1, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

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