Li Lei, a biology freshman, had studied English for years at school. But he was soon at a loss in English class at college when he could not understand sentences read aloud in a listening test.
Li's teacher spent 10 minutes explaining, word by word, the meaning of "rolling stones get no moss", a misstatement of the adage. But at the end, he was still confused.
"I don't think there's a natural transition in teaching English from middle school to college," Li said. A native of Shaanxi province, he attends Qiqihar University in Heilongjiang province, 2,500 kilometers northeast of his home.English teaching in China has come a long way since the first national syllabus for college English was published in 1979, a year into the reform and opening-up initiative. It is now taught, as a requirement, in virtually all Chinese postsecondary institutions.
However, English teaching is designed without coordination for elementary schools, secondary schools and postsecondary institutions. That makes the transition from one stage to the next difficult, especially for students with test-conscious teachers and obsolete textbooks.
College English teaching for non-English majors is divided into six progressive levels, known as College English Test (CET) Bands 1-6. Every non-English major must take 280 hours of English courses - roughly five hours a week for 17 weeks, a semester - to meet the requirements of the twice-yearly CET-4.
Students must pass that test, or risk being disqualified for graduation or a job with the many employers that require a CET-4 certificate. Test results remain the sole criterion of CET assessment.
How valid is it?
In recent years, the exam-oriented structure of English education in China has come under severe criticism as not being able to evaluate or improve a person's proficiency in English. Even at the primary school level and even for native speakers.
The daughter of Rupert Hoogewerf, a British native and the publisher of Hurun Report, which tracks the wealthiest Chinese, was recently found to be among the poorest in her class in English test performance in Shanghai.
"This doesn't mean her English is substandard. It can only reflect the problems in our English exams," the Xinhua Daily Telegraph wrote in September.
Official figures show that some 400 million Chinese have studied English in the past 30 years. But teachers and analysts say the number truly reflects neither the general public's English level nor the limited use of English in real life.
Zhao Yong and Keith Campbell, scholars at Linfield College in Oregon, the United States, observed in 1995 that most Chinese do not use English to communicate among themselves. They only "have to demonstrate their English ability for social mobility and/or promotion". There is little difference today.