Students at the No 4 Primary School in Changxing county, Zhejiang province, perform during the school's English drama festival.Xu Yu / Xinhua
Language proficiency in China remains at a low level, despite record investment in school programs
Liu Jian started learning English while in middle school at age 13. It was a compulsory subject, and he took classes in it every day.
He continued to learn the language in high school and college, until he began a master's degree program in 2009.
Now, at age 30, he says he is still not confident in his English ability.
"To be honest, I worked very hard when learning the language at school and got satisfactory test scores," said Liu, who works at a State-owned petroleum company.
"But I still need to look up words in dictionaries when I read English books. I can't speak fluently and confidently when I have to talk with a native English speaker. And what's more, I sometimes can't understand the English news on TV."
Liu's feelings are typical for people his age. In the sixth English Proficiency Index, recently published by Swedish education company Education First, China ranked 39th out of 72 countries and regions.
The level of English proficiency among Chinese remains at a low level globally and lags behind a number of other Asian countries such as South Korea and Japan, according to the report.
Younger starting age
Despite China's low ranking in the Education First report, Chinese have historically spent a lot of time and money on learning English.
A report by Shenzhen-based consultancy CIConsulting showed that with almost one-fourth of its population learning the language, China is the world's largest market for English education.
The report said Chinese people spent 30 billion yuan (.3 billion) on learning English in 2013, a figure it projected would increase by 15 percent each year.
A series of regulations released in 2001 by the Education Ministry called on the nation's primary schools to start teaching English in the third grade. That is earlier than Liu and his peers began learning, but in reality, many schools in first-tier cities such as Beijing begin English courses even earlier, from the first grade.
Parents are also keen on having their children learn beginning at younger ages.
A survey by First Leap, an English-language education institute for Chinese children aged 2 to 15, showed 88 percent of parents choose to send their children to study English before age 5, because of the belief that children are better at picking up languages between 3 and 5 years old.
Why, then, has China had such seemingly low returns on its investments? It is a question Chinese educators have pondered for years.
Han Baocheng, an English professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, who is also deputy director of the National Research Center for Foreign Language Education, has called for a closer look at the textbooks and teaching materials used in schools.
He said most textbooks teach only "survival English", such as introductions, shopping and asking for directions, which are useful for studying abroad.
But for students in China who seldom have the opportunity to practice such English in their daily life, this content is impractical, according to Han.
Learning from others