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By March 25, 2015Education
Nanai/Hezhe children (Source: Wikipedia)

Nanai/Hezhe children (Source: Wikipedia)

We have often examined here on Language on the Move how ‘English for all’ educational policies entrench inequality rather than alleviate disadvantage (e.g., here or here). But how does this play out in the real-life experiences of real people? Today I would like to introduce Wei Ru to you, a young woman from China. Wei Ru is the pseudonym of a research participant in Jenny Zhang’s PhD research.

In 2004, Wei Ru was in her final year of senior high school in a rural area of Heilongjiang province in northern China and preparing for the gaokao (高考; ‘big test,’ China’s national university entrance exam). Wei Ru is a member of an ethnic group called Nanai or Hezhe. These are an indigenous people of Siberia and have traditionally lived along the middle reaches of the Amur River Valley, an area where, today, the Amur River constitutes the border between China and Russia. Consequently, the Nanai, as they are known in Russia, and the Hezhe, as they are known in China, have been divided between these two countries and today constitute a very small minority in both countries: in 2000, there were about 12,000 Nanai in Russia and 4,500 in China. Of these, only around 5,000 speakers of the Nanai/Hezhe language remained in Russia in the first decade of the 21st century, and only twenty in China. All twenty were elderly, and Wei Ru was not one of them.

Wei Ru has spoken Chinese all her life and has been educated through the medium of Chinese. Additionally, Wei Ru has spent many years learning Russian both formally and informally. Throughout her childhood and youth there were many Russian language learning opportunities available in Wei Ru’s home town: there is a brisk cross-border trade and Russian visitors to the town are a regular occurrence, as are visits to the Russian side of the border. In school, Russian was an important part of the curriculum. Russian teachers were highly qualified and the students enjoyed learning Russian because it was well-taught and was of obvious relevance to their lives. Furthermore, for Wei Ru, who is passionate about her Hezhe heritage, Russian carried additional significance as the language that allowed her to connect with the Nanai on the other side of the border. To her, it is almost as if Russian had become the ethnic language of the Nanai/Hezhe.

Throughout her schooling, Wei Ru had been an outstanding student: she scored on top of her class in most subjects and expected to gain university admission in a prestigious university and in her preferred major. However, when China became a member of the World Trade Organization in 2001 and won its bid to host the 2008 Beijing Olympics the same year, university admission regulations in China changed dramatically. The English language component of the gaokao, became much more important than it had previously been and the value of test scores in other languages, including Russian, decreased dramatically. Furthermore, English became an entry requirement for the most desirable majors, such as those in business, law, science and technology.

The 2004 cohort of high school graduates in Wei Ru’s area was hit particularly hard: they had invested many years into studying Russian but English language instruction had not even been available to them. As Wei Ru said wistfully:


It [learning Russian] has become such a disadvantage. An absolute disadvantage! We could have scored 130 or 140 [out of the full mark of 150] on the Russian test in the gaokao. Actually, 120 was only an average score for us. But in English we would only be able to get a score of 50. That is the fact. (Quoted from Zhang, 2011, p. 198f.)

Given these odds, many of Wei Ru’s classmates decided to repeat the final year of high school in order to catch up on English. Wei Ru and her family felt that repeating a year just to learn English was not worth it, particularly as the quality of English language teaching in Wei Ru’s hometown was low: when the high school curriculum changed from Russian to English, the only way to meet staffing levels was to deploy Russian teachers as English teachers. In the process, highly qualified Russian teachers in a well-resourced Russian language program were turned into poorly-qualified English language teachers in a poorly-resourced English language program.

As an outstanding student and given a bonus rating for ethnic minority students, Wei Ru still managed to secure admission to a minzu (民族; ‘nation’) university, i.e. a university specifically dedicated to the educational advancement of ethnic minority students. However, majors for which English proficiency had become an entry requirement were not available to her, and she enrolled in an anthropology degree.

When she spoke to Jenny Zhang in 2008 about her experiences of learning and using English in China, Wei Ru was still bitter about the way her lack of English proficiency had shaped her educational trajectory. Furthermore, as she pondered her future, English continued to loom large: English was an important part of her studies as many textbooks were in English and some of her classes were taught in English by foreign teachers. So, doing well in her studies depended on improving her English, an effort she considered an arbitrary imposition and consequently resented. Despite her best efforts it was almost impossible to catch up to the English level of her class mates, who had studied English throughout junior and senior high school.

After graduation, Wei Ru was hoping to return to her hometown and enter the public service. It is obvious that proficiency in Russian would be highly useful to a public servant in the Russian-Chinese border area but in order to achieve her ambition Wei Ru would have to sit yet another English test, as English – in contrast to Russian – is also a test subject on the public service entrance exam.

Chinese educational authorities have announced that, from 2017 onwards, the English component of compulsory testing will be reduced or even removed. Wei Ru’s case shows why this is a good thing.


Zhang, Jie. (2011). Language Policy and Planning for the 2008 Beijing Olympics: An Investigation of the Discursive Construction of an Olympic City and a Global Population. PhD, Macquarie University, Sydney.

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Paul Desailly

    A sad sad tale professor Ingrid. Thanks for sharing.
    Life can be long and things can change.
    During my decade in P. R. China I occasionally lifted the spirits of my victims cum students who’d encountered the same difficulty with this aphorism coined in Rome: “Something learned is never a load to carry.”

    The past indicates how quickly the international language situation changes. If I’d been teaching English in Beijing about half a century ago a prison for spies awaited me because Soviet Russian was endorsed in China at that time. What happened? Nowadays few Chinese study the widespread language of Tolstoy and its poetic lilt. The popularity English enjoys in China at present nearly met the same political fate in 1999 when NATO’s bombs destroyed the Embassy of China in Yugoslavia. A targeting error, a CIA maverick amok…? For many Caucasian-looking foreigners, but not for Esperanto-teachers working in China I’m happy to say, ‘twas a frightening week of living dangerously until Jiang Zemin finally accepted Bill Clinton’s public and private apologies. When the American empire sets, as all empires must, who in China will persevere with English given its meagre outcomes vis-à-vis tuition, especially in the active parts of language – speaking and writing?

    Peni Voss’s Talking to the Whole Wide World professionally illustrates how teachers may successfully transition from teaching a language they are au fait with to an unknown lingo.

    Have a look at Manchu usage up to 1912