File photo: CGTN
It’s been 38 years since the first TOEFL test was held in the Chinese mainland. On December 11, 1981, 732 students took the exam. Over the past 40 years, millions of Chinese who dreamed of studying abroad took the test that later changed their course in life.
Preparing for TOEFL has become a shared memory of generations of Chinese. Learning English shifted into a new lifestyle.
TOEFL, which stands for Test of English as a Foreign Language, was the first standard language test that entered China.
The first exam was only held in three cities —Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.
It also marked the first time that answer sheets were used in the tests, and the beginning of listening tests being incorporated into the English exams.
There is no doubt that TOEFL has coincided with a more open and inclusive China, after the country’s reform and opening-up policy, in an increasingly interconnected world. China has long encouraged and sponsored many students to pursue degrees overseas. In the 1980s, youngsters were curious about the outside world and many held an “American dream,” fantasizing about school life in the Ivy League and other top universities in the United States. Hence, the introduction of TOEFL paved way for many Chinese students to start their journey of studying abroad.
Starting in the 1990s, overseas education increasingly turned into a new option for Chinese students, with TOEFL gaining presence on campuses.
The popularity of TOEFL also spurred a craze of learning English, and kicked off the boom of training schools and other educational start-ups over the past three decades. English corners are common in city squares and on college campuses around the country. In 1993, New Oriental, an English training school, was founded in Beijing, specializing in preparation for the TOEFL and other international tests. It later developed into a giant group. Over the years, numerous education start-ups sprung up in China, with English training a necessity for people of different ages, because English has been increasingly used in the workplace as well.
The changes in the format of TOEFL also reflect the shift of focus in English learning. TOEFL has undergone multiple reforms in the past 38 years. By changing from a paper-based test to an internet-based test, and incorporating a speaking section, the exam has adapted to evaluate language ability in a real-life situation.
Many Chinese students excelled in reading and multiple choice, which required them to memorize material. But when they entered colleges, their communication skills were proven to be inadequate. The reforms of TOEFL created higher expectations for language learners to better equip themselves for daily communication and academic applications.
It should be noted that English tests shouldn’t be overrated. There was a time when people had to take different English tests in every phase of life — PETS, CATTI, CET, TEM and various international tests as well. Even when professionals and technical personnel applied for job titles, they used to be required to take an English test.
Now, the requirement is no longer mandatory, and the National Education Examinations Authority, an institution affiliated with China’s Ministry of Education, has released China's Standards of English Language Ability (CSE), a full-range English proficiency scale designed for Chinese English learners and users. The introduction of the scale will save the trouble of Chinese taking countless English tests, and its recent link to TOEFL scores is also a step for CSE to become more internationally recognized.
The development of TOEFL in the past 38 years is also a history of millions of Chinese students chasing their dreams across the globe. The craze of English education should be further encouraged but limits should be set so that language learners can better allocate their time and energy in both schools and the workplace.