Chinese-English bilingual education in China: A critical analysis of research

Chinese-English bilingual education is on the rise in China, particularly at the university level, with some trials in K-12 education in the form of (i) bilingual private schools and (ii) experimental public schools in socioeconomically elite areas. In this post, I summarize an article about this educational trend by Prof. Guangwei Hu, a Hong Kong professor who is the author of 110 peer-reviewed articles and the editor of Journal of English for Academic Purposes. Hu’s classic article about bilingual education in China is a critical literature review that (1) compares types of bilingual education in the West and China, (2) discusses second language acquisition theory to explain reasonable expectations for academic English learning in bilingual programs in China, and (3) critiques popular but low quality research promoting bilingual education that does not adequately address the challenges of such education, nor give a balanced account of costs and benefits.

Hu, G. (2008). The misleading academic discourse on Chinese–English bilingual education in China. Review of Educational Research78(2), 195–231.

What is known as “bilingual education” in China (i.e., learning academic content in English with Chinese instruction) is roughly equivalent to CLIL (Content Language Integrated Learning) for English in Europe, or EMI (English-medium instruction) in postcolonial contexts like Hong Kong, Nepal, and Singapore. Hu describes this type of education as having “gathered momentum” since 2002 (p. 195) in China, but it is nothing new in that country. In the late 19th century, there were foreign language schools, military-technical schools, and missionary schools (Cheng, 2003), yet the current situation is linked to contemporary globalization. Hu describes it in four parts:

  • How “bilingual education” is defined differently in China, compared to the West;
  • How there is an assumed connection between economic prosperity and a nation’s English proficiency, even if this is not true;
  • How the “success” of bilingual education in other parts of the world has been misrepresented by some Chinese scholars to promote bilingual education in China; and
  • How these Chinese scholars have published flawed experimental studies to promote EMI/CLIL, which is also a criticism made by a European scholar in the context of Spain (Bruton, 2011, 2019).

In this post, I summarize each of these sections of Hu’s article one by one.

How does bilingual education in China compare to bilingual education as it has been understood elsewhere?

Hu summarizes program design research by the great British bilingual education scholar Colin Baker (2006), an early proponent of translanguaging, and others who have studied bilingual education, including Feng’s (2005) research in China. Bilingual education scholars call programs “strong” versus “weak” depending on whether bilingualism is likely to be promoted.

Strong or Weak?TypePopulationLanguage Use in the ClassroomGoal
InternationalStrongHeritage language maintenance bilingual educationLanguage minority, e.g., Welsh speakers in the U.K.Both languages (e.g., Welsh & English)To preserve the group’s language, cultural enrichment
StrongDual/Two-way immersionLanguage majority and minority, e.g., English and Spanish L1 children in the U.S.Curriculum time equally divided between the two languages For both groups to learn both languages, cultural enrichment, promote social cohesion
StrongImmersionSocioeconomically elite children from the language majority, e.g., English-speaking children in CanadaTotal French immersion to help them learn French, even if they do not use it outside classBilingualism, cultural enrichment, get to know the target culture (e.g., French Canadian), economic advantages
WeakTransitional bilingual educationLanguage minority, e.g., Ilokano-speaking children in the PhilippinesIlokano in the early years, but gradual transition to Filipino, the national language, in later gradesTo transition students to the national language; take away home language (subtractive bilingualism); common in many countries in Africa, Southeast Asia, and South Asia
WeakForeign language teachingLanguage majority, e.g., British people learning GermanGerman as a foreign language class with English explanationsLimited bilingualism; limited cultural enrichment (found around the world when students learn foreign languages)
ChinaAEnglish language teaching in mainstream educationLanguage majority (Han Chinese)Chinese is used to teach English as a languageIt is the same as “foreign language teaching” above.
BTransitional bilingual instructionLanguage majority (Han Chinese)Chinese is used to teach academic content in EnglishLimited bilingualism/biliteracy, limited cultural enrichment, elitism
CImmersion bilingual instructionLanguage majority (Han Chinese)Total English immersion from the start to learn academic subjectsBilingualism/biliteracy, limited cultural enrichment, elitism
Hu (2008), p. 198

Let’s take a closer look at the last three. We know what “typical” English as a foreign language instruction looks like (Type A). In Type B, you still have Chinese as the dominant medium of instruction. In most cases, you can only have Type A or B because of the limited curriculum resources for using English as an instructional language (for academic subjects) and students’/teachers’ limited English proficiency. So both A and B will be “weak”; however, B is still elitist, because you still need to have money to attend that type of school. C schools are “offered by a small number of well-resourced elite schools in socioeconomically advantaged regions and metropolises” (p. 200). They may indeed foster the desired English acquisition targets, because they are internationalized schools, but with limited cultural enrichment (i.e., the curriculum will not be Western in ideology… countries around the world do not want English-speaking countries to colonize their citizens’ minds, quite understandably, though the drawback would be limited cultural enrichment). In short, if a school cannot succeed in pulling off high quality EMI pedagogy, it begs the question of whether it is worth attempting… especially since making the whole population speak English is not necessary for a nation’s socioeconomic advancement.

The myth that everyone in the country needs to speak English for it to prosper

Hu points out that some bilingual education supporters in China argue that everyone should know English for China to be economically successful. This is a blatant misrepresentation of facts. One study argued that China lost out to India in the tech export industry in the 1990s due to India’s greater overall English proficiency, when it was in fact due to India’s better technology (p. 203). Now, China is a world leader in the tech industry, and its English proficiency relative to India’s remains the same.

When it comes to the gazillions and gazillions of middle-class Chinese graduating these days from Type B and C university programs that are conducted in English, Hu (2008, p. 203) writes:

Even the majority of the elites produced by the education system—the millions of university graduates—have not landed a job requiring the use of English beyond a minimum level (N. Xie, 2005; J. Yang, 2006). In this regard, it is particularly important to point out that much of the perceived demand for English has been created artificially. To appreciate this point, one needs only to look at the multitude of English proficiency tests that millions of Chinese take every year to secure employment or professional promotion in lines of work that do not require substantial, or even any, use of English (Y. J. Jiang, 2003).

English certifications are required to get a good job… even if English is not used, or hardly used, on the job. And what about Hu’s job?—Professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University with 84 papers and 26 book chapters, which requires that he be academically fluent in English? He writes:

I have studied in various language programs (of both the traditional and the bilingual/immersion type) and have acquired a working knowledge of English. However, I am in no way convinced that I have a perfect character, that I have had my intellectual and creative powers boosted by the bilingual and immersion programs I attended, that I have been civilized and enlightened because of my command of English, that I am more politically aware as a result of learning English, and that I have English or the bilingual programs that I attended to thank for my way of looking at the world. (p. 206).

This brings us to the claimed “benefits” of bilingual education in China’s public discourse—which tends to ignore drawbacks that have been documented by many high-quality studies in the countries where EMI is more prevalent.

“A rosy picture of bilingual education elsewhere”

In this section of the article (pp. 206-207), Hu criticizes Chinese scholars who have connected English-medium instruction (EMI) in India, Singapore, and Hong Kong to their economic prosperity in the late 20th century. Hu cites respected scholars from those countries in that time period who lamented the negative effects of EMI on society (e.g., Pattanayak, 1986; Tsui, Shum, Wong, Tse, & Ki, 1999; Gopinathan, 1998; Tan, 1998). Some Chinese scholars falsely present EMI in those countries “as enjoying universal support and smooth implementation” (p. 207). There are also rosy pictures of bilingual education from English-dominant countries; for example, Chinese scholarship made false claims that students who had undergone French immersion in Canada outperformed others in academic achievement by one school year (p. 209). This Canadian research actually showed that French immersion programs in Canada were imperfect. They created children who could understand French but could not speak it fluently—as it was spoken to them by the teachers, yet they did not have enough opportunities to practice extended stretches of talk themselves (Baker, 2006; see also the work of Merrill Swain on the Output Hypothesis). Respected scholars of bilingual education like Colin Baker, Fred Genesee, Merrill Swain, and Guadalupe Valdés have extensively published about the limits and drawbacks of bilingual education in their countries, for example:

  • In “transitional bilingual education” (see above chart), students may end up with underdeveloped literacy skills in their first language (L1) AND in their second language (L2);
  • The efficacy of a bilingual education program depends on quality of pedagogy, not the so-called “immersion.” If a native English speaking teacher with no teaching experience, or a Chinese teacher fluent in English who was taught never to use Chinese, just talked to the class nonstop with students not understanding much or not doing much, it does not make for good learning. Good learning only happens when (1) students are actively learning, and (2) whatever they are doing is designed to be educational. See my post on this here.

A common misinterpretation is that an “immersive” English classroom experience leads to better English acquisition. This is generally true in an English-speaking society, but it isn’t true in a FOREIGN LANGUAGE SITUATION. That point was settled a long time ago by a study that compared child and adult language learners in EFL and ESL settings (Krashen, Long, & Scarcella, 1979). The study, which was a meta-analysis (i.e., a synthesis of the findings of many studies) found that if a family immigrates to an English-speaking country, the children will outperform the adults in English acquisition, but if a family remains in a country where English is a foreign language, immersion outside of class is extremely limited in any case, so children do no better than adult learners—both have strengths and weaknesses in learning styles/strategies—but the actual acquisition results are not visibly stronger for either group. In fact, adults may be the better learners in a foreign language context, as they can study well and manage their learning (e.g., finding conversation partners, doing extensive reading).

The only area in which child learners outperform adult language learners—even in a foreign language setting—is in pronunciation/accent because there is a critical period for that. As for fluency, that is difficult to attain for both groups in a foreign language setting, regardless of the pedagogical approach. If you have an “immersion” class for primary students, it still doesn’t fix the problem of how little input and interaction they have in the language outside of class time, and you might end up with a situation similar to French immersion in Canada. If you have a CLIL/EMI class in an academic subject for secondary or university students, again, it still doesn’t fix the fact that they have little use for the language outside of class, and never really did in their whole lives (hence, they are not conversationally proficient in English, as they never needed to become so). Therefore, you can bet that they will use their native language extensively to teach and learn the academic material in English—but what else would you expect them to do? You can’t force a learning approach on people that is inauthentic for their context and situation.

Another drawback to EMI at the secondary and tertiary level that Hu (2008) discusses, and one that is very serious, is that is students will miss out on learning those same subjects at an age-appropriate level in Chinese, resulting in lack of academic literacy in their first language (p. 213). Academic literacies are not like everyday conversation; they have to be learned and taught, even in one’s native language (Cummins, 2000; Gee, 2004). Living in China, there is no chance these Chinese-English bilingual education students will forget Chinese for everyday purposes. But will they develop Chinese for academic purposes? The loss or underdevelopment of age-appropriate Chinese academic language skills is possible:

What Chinese-English bilingual education puts at stake… is not students’ interpersonal communicative competence in Chinese or literacy in vernacular varieties of Chinese but their advanced L1 academic literacy. The latter comprises the abilities to use “academic specialist varieties of language” that are “integrally connected (actually “married’) to complex and technical ways of thinking (Gee, 2004, p. 3) and academic content areas (Cummins, 2000). It is “the most significant gate to economic success and sociopolitical power in our society” (Gee, 2004, p. 91) and takes a great deal of situated use in academic contexts to develop…. Opportunities for such use can be reduced considerably by bilingual instruction, especially by the immersion type. (Hu, 2008, p. 213)

[Blogger’s note: If EMI is not that successful either, despite how much families pay for it to give their children an “educational advantage”… then wealthy Chinese may be paying to send their children to highly-resourced schools to undergo certain academic disadvantages that poor linguistic minority students in the U.S. suffer for free due to enforced English-medium immersion in low-resourced schools (i.e., underdeveloped academic literacies in both English and their home languages), even if the schools are very different in other respects.]

Questionable research promoting bilingual education in China

Hu next comes to faulty experimental designs promoting bilingual education in China. He notes that most studies are theoretical, rather than collecting real data on the subject, and those that collected data “were egregiously flawed in design and ostensibly aimed at finding favourable results” (p. 214). The flaws in study designs included:

  • Use of discrete language tests (e.g., vocabulary and grammar questions on worksheets) to measure English fluency before and after the bilingual/CLIL instruction, rather than holistic assessments of students’ ability to use English for academic communication (e.g., essays, presentations);
  • Failure to establish reliability and validity of criterion measures;
  • No control of confounding variables like social class (i.e., Did the bilingual education group of socioeconomically privileged children have better English as a result of bilingual education, or would they have had better English anyway regardless of what type of program they went to?);
  • Use of “whole schools” (experimental groups) that were not comparable to other schools (control groups), with no statistical testing to check if the groups were or were not comparable (e.g., in terms of social class);
  • Inappropriate use of statistical procedures;
  • Over-interpretation of results.

In many studies, the experimental schools contained high-caliber students, ample resources, and better trained teachers. Of one study, which was typical enough, Hu writes:

Little information was provided about the various tests used, let alone psychometric information about the reliability and validity of the criterion measures. … Secondly, intact classes [rather than randomly assigned groups] were used as experimental and control groups… no pretest was administered to establish the equivalence of the groups, let alone the use of statistical procedures to control for possible differences between the groups. (p. 216)

What this implies is that more well-designed studies might not yield such positive results. [Blogger’s note: In fact, such a study WAS done, in Hong Kong, over 20 years earlier. Marsh, Hau, and Kong (2000, as cited in Tsui, 2004) conducted a longitudinal study of 12,784 students’ achievements in Chinese, English, geography, history, mathematics, and science from S1 to S3 and found that EMI had a positive effect on students’ English language skills and even their Chinese language skills, but a slightly negative effect on their math skills, and “incredibly” negative effects on achievement in non-language subjects like geography, history, and science—across all ability groups. You can read this study here in the Harvard Educational Review. Thus, they found that learning one language helps you learn others, but the language gains were still rather modest compared to the subject area losses, so the point is that you will be putting all your educational eggs in the basket of language development.

Some of the silliest research by Mainland Chinese scholars promoting bilingual education was done in collaboration with American and Canadian researchers. One study asked kindergarteners in experimental groups to respond to two statements: (a) “I like learning English” and “I think that my English is pretty good” (p. 216) and presented this as data of the programs’ effectiveness. Hu states:

One cannot but ask, how reliable were the self-reports given by preschool children? How much did they know to asses their English proficiency reliably? Other types of evidence provided to show the effectiveness of the program were also highly questionable. For example, parents “frequently reported” that their kindergarteners “spoke English even in their dreams” (p. 217).

Another study that was more rigorous in data collection measures stated that “effort was made to ensure the experimental and control groups were comparable in terms of family background…”, but Hu responds, “to what extent could comparability of this nature have been achieved with intact groups [i.e., School A vs School B, or Class A vs Class B]? … [N]o pretest of any kind was reported to have been administered to establish whether there were initial differences between the experimental and control groups in the abilities and knowledge to be measured later, to say nothing of statistical control of possible intergroup variation” (p. 217).

In any case, when you simply give a battery of tests of discrete grammar and vocabulary knowledge, as the vast majority of these studies did, this is still not addressing functional proficiency, much less academic functional proficiency. The study that Hu most criticizes is one that went so far as to say that immersion children left behind their control group counterparts in non-language things—and here he quotes the original authors, translating their Chinese writing into English—in “L1 proficiency, motor skills, life skills, self-expression, basic knowledge, behavior, and willingness to explore new things” (p. 218). He also quotes the study as stating: “the research team generally felt [italics added] children in the experimental groups were quicker in response, stronger in understanding, more intelligent, and more confident than children in the control groups” (p. 218); one experimental kindergarten group was even found to be taller and heavier than its control group. Hu writes: “It really stretches one’s imagination to see the connection between English immersion and physical development” (p. 218).


Hu concludes with a statement that he is not against bilingual education, and “is well aware of the benefits that thoughtfully designed and carefully implemented bilingual education can produce, especially those for language minority students” (p. 219). But for the large majority of Han Chinese from working class and rural backgrounds, schools simply do not have the resources to implement such education. And as for professional-class families spending so much time and money to get the necessary credentials for desired jobs, or jobs parents see their children going for in 10–15 years’ time, regardless of whether those jobs require English, Hu argues:

By implementing and promoting English-medium instruction as the best way to correct the evils of ‘costly and ineffective’ approaches to English teaching, the academic discourse has contributed to the scramble for bilingual education across the country and has been a main culprit in making instruction in other school subjects costly and ineffective. (p. 219)

This brings us to the bigger issue: research ethics. Hu ends with an argument applicable to any research topic in education:

Educational research is entrusted to inform policy makers and the public with respect to edcuational issues of importance. To live up to the expectations, academics must represent the very best spirit in advocating for the public good. That is, they have an ethical responsibility to discuss matters of importance in a balanced and comprehensive manner, to resist various bandwagons [跟风], to guard against biases arising from their own vested interests, to interpret existing research critically, to conduct their own research with rigor, and to recommend policy options that are grounded in a sound understanding of macro and micro contexts. (p. 219)


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Published by annamend

Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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