Chinese use the word “fever” to describe whatever is popular. And in China, “English fever” took hold soon after Deng Xiaoping launched the economic reforms that would eventually roil and reshape the country.

The first sign of that fever came one evening in 1982. The few Chinese who had a television set, mainly in large cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, saw a red-haired London woman and two Chinese men teaching English. Dull and pedantic, perhaps, to many in the western world — but it was electrifying to Chinese at the time.

The BBC crash course program called “Follow Me!” was the first foreign broadcast imported into a impoverished nation that had been closed off to the world for the better part of a century. Television was still a novelty. Oftentimes, entire villages would crowd around a single TV.

Kathy Flower, the British teacher in the program, recalled:

“For a while I shared with Mrs. Thatcher the role of the most recognized Brit in China, a position now held by David Beckham.”

Beijing’s National Center for Educational Technology bought the broadcast rights very cheaply, but the impact of “English fever” was unprecedented and continues to reverberate well beyond China today.

In an increasingly interconnected world, the ability to penetrate foreign markets is an advantage. And China’s English-centric push for foreign language instruction as part of Deng’s economic reform remains an important pillar of the nation’s economic ascendency in today’s English-dominant world markets.

Consider: China now has a population of English speakers — some proficient, some still learning — that matches the entire population of the United States.

Starting in the third grade, Chinese are required to study English. Now, China is the world’s second largest economy, and its laptop computers, shoes and car parts are shipped around the world. In the U.S., by contrast, only 18% of Americans has any experience in a language other than English. American students are not required to learn a foreign language.

A widening gap

Only in recent years have Americans have begun to recognize that America’s “national language gap” has emerged as a competitive weakness.

In 2010, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan predicted that “China will soon have the world’s largest English-Speaking population.”

“The United States is a long way from being the multilingual society that so many of our economic competitors are,” Duncan said: “Our country needs to create a future in which all Americans understand that by speaking more than one language, they are enabling our country to compete successfully and work collaboratively with partners across the globe.”

China’s economic ascendancy is a relatively new phenomenon. But China is an ancient culture that has put a value on education for many generations — irrespective of trade flows or competitive advantages. Seeing their country being outrun by English-speaking nations, the Chinese recognized the importance of foreign language even before Deng began his experiments in opening the Chinese coastal cities to the world.

When Deng’s programs began in 1978, almost no one was able to teach English in China. But starting in 1984, China began to recruit foreign teachers, and soon the number of English learners in China grew explosively.

By 2009, the number of English students in China reached more than 300 million (the U.S. population is 307 million). China has 50,000 English language schools. It has created standardized systems of testing in English proficiency. And outside of school, having proficiency in English is now a prerequisite for winning scholarships, awards and jobs.

Change has come quickly in a nation that could hardly pay foreign language instructors 30 years ago. By 2008, most English teachers in China have at least a master’s degree in English education. Some top universities, including Peking University, require English teachers to have doctoral degrees. Under official edicts published in 1984 by the Ministry of Education, English became one of the three required main subjects in most middle and high school entrance exams.

An expensive proposition

With the hope of competing both in China and the world, Chinese parents are passionate about paying for English language classes. This is true even though sometimes tuition for a Chinese high school with strong language instruction can equal or exceed the cost of college. At Oxford International College (which is unrelated to Oxford University), located in Changzhou, annual tuition and fees are $41,700. Changzhou Senior High School in Jiangsu Province, one of the top government-run high schools, required $5,205 for one year of study.

Even so, the volume of students is staggering. According to Nicholas Brummitt, managing director of the International School Consultancy Group, the number of registered international schools in mainland China increased from 22 to 352 in the past 12 years. The enrollment has reached 184,073 students.

The ancient cultural emphasis on education now translates into the tens of thousands of Chinese students who study abroad, honing skills in engineering, math, computer science, business — and of course, languages. And America is usually the top study destination. They prepare to take U.S.-style standardized tests, including the SAT, and they fly more than 20 hours to America with the expectation of a better education and a better life.

In 1978, Deng sent the first 52 students as visiting scholars to the United States with the funds from the Chinese government; in 2011, China sent 339,700 students abroad, and is now the world’s largest source of overseas students.

For wealthy Chinese families, sending kids directly overseas for high school is even a better choice.

At Leman Manhattan Preparatory School in Manhattan, 30 out of the 40 international students are from China, a school that costs $68,000 a year to attend. The average costs for boarding schools in the New York metro area is $46,875 a year. In 2010-2011, there were 6,725 Chinese students studying at private schools in the U.S.; back in 2005, the number was only 65.

Chinese spent $4.8 billion in 2012 on English language instruction, and languages themselves have become a big economic driver. China’s biggest study-abroad education group, New Oriental Education, was registered on the New York Stock Exchange in 2006. Its 2015 annual revenue: $1.139 billion.

China’s rise

It’s probably not a coincidence that China’s globally driven economic boom and the outbreak of “English fever” took place at the same time.

And there is no question about the enormity of China’s ascendency.

Nicholas Lardy, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington D.C., said China’s growth since the reforms of 1978 is unprecedented in global economic history.

Lardy noted that China’s economy is 25 times larger than it was in 1978; China’s share of global GDP grew from under 3% to 12%, and China became the world’s largest trading economy and the second largest recipient of foreign direct investment.

Martin Jacques, a columnist for The Guardian newspaper in London and a visiting scholar at the London School of Economics, says China is changing the world in a profound way.

“China is nearly certain to become a major power in its own mold, not the ‘status quo’ power accepting of Western norms and institutions that many policy makers in Washington hope and expect it will be.”

Jacques boldly asserts: “The future belongs to Mandarin.”

The importance of foreign language learning seems obvious in an increasingly interconnected world. Policy makers in the U.S. may soon need to consider that fact.

Xue Yan grew up in Changchun, Jilin province in China and currently is a junior at Lawrence University in Appleton, majoring in philosophy. Email: