BEIJING - The standards of spoken and written Chinese have taken a hit among students who have embraced English learning as a ticket to a better future.
It is a problem that is noticed by language teachers and students.
Mr Kevin Huang Xi, 23, an English major at the Beijing University of Technology who graduated this year with a bachelor's degree, feels it in his daily usage of the Chinese language.
The marketing representative from Shanghai, who as a school student won a prize for Chinese essay writing, thinks his Chinese language ability is weaker after concentrating on English.
'I feel that now, when I speak with other people, I speak rather directly and in rather dull and dry fashion, unlike some who give you a sense that their language is of a high standard or is very rich,' he said.
While he regrets that he cannot speak or write Chinese as well as he once did, he is resigned to it, saying: 'It cannot be helped.'
What was important was that his proficiency in English secured for him a job in a foreign company.
But language teachers are less sanguine about falling language standards.
'In some places, English learning is over-emphasised and some teachers are now asking if this will be a threat to the Chinese language,' observed Beijing Normal University professor of modern Chinese Zhou Yiming.
Part of the debate was whether there was a need to learn so much English, as it was not useful locally in some instances, he said.
What is more, because of a lack of an environment for learning English in most places, the result of hard work by the students is often not good, he added.
'It is useful to know some English but the Chinese language should come first,' he said.
Since the 1990s, Chinese students have been starting to learn English formally from the third year in primary school, but in many cases children start earlier.
Kindergartens have started teaching English, showing that demand is high for English-language training from an early age. In Shanghai, for example, about a fifth of kindergartens provide English-language lessons.
Earlier this year, some kindergartens even advertised themselves as English-only, prompting the Shanghai education authorities to step in.
The education commission made it clear that 'the mother tongue is still the basis for teaching in kindergartens'.
The enthusiasm for English learning and the effects on the Chinese language have come to the notice of the state education authorities.
'It is a problem that is becoming more obvious,' admitted Mr Yuan Zhongrui, who heads the Ministry of Education department that is charged with popularising the use of putonghua throughout the country.
He added that there was a need to strengthen the teaching of the Chinese language to counter the problem.
But he did not think that there was any reason to fear the intrusion of foreign languages.
Noting that through history, the Chinese language and culture had come under other cultural influences, he said: 'Without foreign cultures, the Chinese cultural development would have been dull.'
He also did not think that putonghua was under much threat from foreign languages.
This was because the environment for English learning was inferior to that for modern standard Chinese. For one thing, there was only one nationwide English-language TV channel, he said.
Also, usage of putonghua would grow as China developed as a market economy and lateral exchanges increased, thus boosting demand for a common language. At the same time, the government has in recent years also strengthened measures to popularise putonghua, writing into law for the first time in 2001 the status of putonghua and Chinese script as the 'national common language'.
To enter the civil service, candidates must pass a putonghua test, while teachers must obtain certain levels of proficiency in the language before they are allowed to teach.
Putonghua must also be used in government operations, the mass media and at public events.
Mr Yuan acknowledged that dialects were likely to suffer from the government policy and the increasing popularity of English.
'The final outcome most possibly is that the market for putonghua will continue to grow bigger while that for dialects will shrink, but it can't be helped, it's a social trend,' he said.
'They will finally be preserved in museums as history and as research material and research objects for language scholars,' he added.