Almost two billion people – that’s around one in three people – study English as a second language. Where are the English teachers coming from and how can China attract them?

The English Proficiency Index by English First released statistics on where English is learned around the world and spoken the best. Note that sadly, China is not in the top 15 even though more people in China study English as their second (or third) language than any other country. However, China is trying. In the past, South Korea was the biggest employers of foreign English teachers but nowadays that honor goes to China.

Looking at the English Proficiency Index,  four Nordic countries and the Netherlands are at top of the rankings, with over 65% of their population fluent in English. Other European countries fill up many slots on the list. Surprisingly, the only non-European countries in the top 15 are Singapore, Malaysia, and guess what, Argentina!

Hopefully, China’s State Administration of Foreign Expert Affairs (SAFEA) will take note of these countries. Every year, thousands of foreign English teacher jobs in China go unfilled or filled by Chinese teacher with inadequate oral English skills. I know from personal experience that most of those Chinese teachers can tell you the technical aspects of English grammar such as when to use the past subjunctive but their pronunciation is often horrendous. In my opinion, a fluent English teacher from Sweeden could teach conversational English skills better than most Chinese English teachers.

However, I think one of the most underutilized English teacher resources for China is their own Chinese students who graduated from universities in the United States or other English-speaking countries. If these gems of English knowledge were paid the same salaries as foreign English teachers in China, they could do great as English teachers and would probably be earning salaries exceeding what they’d earn from a job in China in their field of study. Sadly, my Chinese friends who have graduated from Texas A&M University with PhDs can earn more staying in the U.S. as a post doctoral researcher (which can be a pretty menial job) compared to what they’d earn in an industry or government job in China.

Other sources that China could consider for foreign English teachers are countries who’s official language is English. Currently, SAFEA will only approve teachers who are citizens of or who have college degrees from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. However, if they’d open up their doors to teachers from India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Philippines, Tanzania, and Kenya, they’d have plenty of teachers to choose from. Yes, the accents of some citizens of these alternative countries differ from China’s preferred English accents but with proper screening by US, UK, and Australian “accent raters,” China could fill all it’s conversational English teacher jobs with great teachers and even require teachers have Bachelor’s degrees in Education.

However, the issue is racism. Though most Chinese will vehemently deny being racist, the vast majority of Chinese ages 30 and older demand that their children’s schools only have teachers who “look Western” and in their eyes that means no Asian-looking English teachers and no black or Indian teachers.

As a teacher-trainer and recruiter for hundreds of Chinese schools, I often see white Americans without an education degree or teaching experience chosen over African-American, American-born-Chinese (ABC), Mexican-American, and Indian-American teachers with education degrees and teaching experience.

This is in part due to ignorance on the parents’ part. Some of them truly think that other countries are as homogeneous as China, so if you’re black, you must be from Africa, not America. Other parents are negatively biased against black teachers based on American movies that unfortunately often portray black actors as thugs. Interestingly, youth sports programs in China will hire African-American men as coaches and for physical education teacher positions, especially where teaching basketball is concerned.

As the white mother of 3 black children (adopted from Ethiopia) and 3 white children, I pray that teacher race becomes less of an issue in the China of the future and that teachers will someday be judged based on their English and teaching skills. Until then, I’m always seeking out open minded schools in China that are willing to put their Chinese student’s English needs as the number one priority.

The author, Annette Thompson, is Director of and