Why Are Chinese Kids Learning English Online

Every day this week on Instagram, i am posting the stories of the creators of China’s most popular language schools. These include elite-level language academies that teach students thousands of hours of English every year.

Right now, nearly half of all the children in China are learning English online, according to speakers of the language in that country, citing data from state education officials. Chinese parents are feverishly importing English tutors and other online, “online” tutoring services.

Parents are suspicious of their young students’ academics, but the theory is that learning English online will benefit their children when they reach older school years. Online tutoring, coupled with English itself, means that Chinese children will be a bit more worldly by 2019, says China Academy of Digital Languages director Hu Shuli. In China, the foreign language portion of school textbooks is supplemented by coursework and English lessons.

With dozens of programs available, users from as far away as Hong Kong browse online reviews, check down to the age requirements of the programs, and choose the program that suits their child’s needs. A popular choice is the The teacher rate, a rating of the specific teacher online. This rating is the best indication of a teacher’s quality, Hu says.

Though these internet-based children’s English programs are generally not evaluated like a coursework, Hu believes it’s better for children to learn the language online than in the classroom, where a student may not interact with other children or adults in real life. It will also allow some students, which are at an age where English doesn’t have a lot of adult vocabulary, to become faster learners in a less stressful environment, he says.

“If you build English on the web, it’s a seamless experience and the technology becomes so much more flexible,” Hu says.

That flexibility includes wireless internet, so that children can work on their own time. English programs on the web also mean that parents don’t have to pay the attention of a professional to influence the curriculum. Virtual coursework in small batches is more convenient for teachers; it’s also convenient for parents, as online courses are much less time consuming, and feel more like “every day events,” Hu says.

In order to take advantage of China’s rampant demand for the language, however, online tutoring services are adding language programs that only can be accessed online. An example is Luhong, a China-based video game developer that announced earlier this year a new video game (available only online) that focuses on English learning.

“The advantage of a video game is that it’s more consistent than the online learning,” says Chinese student Emily Zhao, who has been able to live in the online Luhong community through the virtual Chinese video game Pico-Pico. Zhao, 17, who just completed a Pico-Pico and video game in English, “enjoys this time to learn.” When the video game is done, she can take a class in real life, unlike traditional, Chinese-language courses, where students typically take a 9-week course that ends with a final exam. Instead, Pico-Pico lets students transition directly to a Chinese-language course.

Once a student makes the transition, online program help can help with homework and help them through the English level of their courses.

“It’s really easier to pass classes in the online world,” Zhao says. Her friends are traveling in Europe or the U.S., and she’s studying in China. “Many people use the web as homework help. You don’t need physical or written materials. They help you with your English so you don’t have to go to a teacher.”

Though a growing trend in China, virtual languages programs vary according to the country. Shanghai is more like Hong Kong, with more English-language friends, fewer English courses offered online, and a much more intensive virtual course experience. Xi’an, where Zhao has been living in school, has a low ratio of online courses to students in the classroom. (About 700 students take Pico-Pico in Xi’an, while only 30 live at the Pico-Pico online community.) Though Xi’an’s challenge is making up for international students who leave for the U.S. and Europe, Xi’an’s virtual languages program also makes the city more global, Zhao says.

“It’s really like a second life in China. It’s an exciting experience,” Zhao says. “Learning languages is always fun. I want to keep [growing in English].”

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