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The Great Wall of China is Moving away: the Social Construction of Ideas about English in China

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Ewa Illakowicz.

In this presentation, I will talk about my PhD project on the social construction of ideas about English in China, which aimed to gain a grounded understanding of the complex mechanisms whereby economic, political and social constraints filter through to Chinese peoples’ conceptualisations of the values of learning English; and to provide an insight into the ways individuals orientate themselves to the learning and use of English given such conceptualisations. My research approach is an integration of Bourdieu’s theory from a network and historical perspective through ethnographic investigation. It allows me to do full justice to the ongoing, contingent and practical dimension of ideologically framed concepts of language and language learning. In this way, my study explores ideas about English in China as the product of a long history of ideological build-up and economic dynamics both locally and on a nation-wide scale. It documents the transformative change in the conceptualisation of English in China from distancing it away as a barbarian/ foreign language towards embracing it as a second language. Such social processes result in four myths about English which derive from the historical image of English established by successive governments as a practical tool/skill and as superiority, reinforced in contemporary China through the selectivity of the education system as distinction and upward mobility, and thus attract individuals to the learning of English. They serve as four ‘pillars’ supporting the construction of English in China today as a must in life – a necessary second language rather than an inessential foreign language. Such a change results from the shifting educational policies from a functional view of English to cultural integration at two levels: collectively, English is considered to be international literacy which helps to guarantee social and economic development of Chinese society; individually, English is one attribute which is necessary to self-improvement, spiritually and economically. This tendency of cultural integration constitutes a boundary-crossing effect and produces the possibility of a transformative change towards bilingualism and biculturalism in China. In other words, it is likely to result, over time, in a restructuring of the socio-cultural, sociological and sociolinguistic landscape of China and a reconstruction of the relationship between China and the rest of the world.

This talk is part of the Second Language Education Group series.

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