Thursday, June 28, 2007

Crazy about English in China by Pallavi Aiyar

In The Hindu, 28th June 2007.

The collective roar of the 10,000-odd youngsters gathered in the football field is overpowering. They clutch little books, waving them in the air in unison, sweat pouring down their foreheads in the muggy June afternoon. But rather than discomfort, their faces are screwed up in an almost ecstatic determination, as they shout out aloud. Up front, on a raised stage, the source of their adulation hollers into a mike, masterfully whipping up passions among those assembled.

There is a quasi-religious quality to the mood of the meeting, reminiscent of images from China’s Cultural Revolution when massive crowds would gather and wave little red books in affirmation of their loyalty to Chairman Mao. However, this particular gathering is neither a political rally nor a spiritual meeting.

Li Yang’s “Crazy English” class at the Beijing Science and Technology Training Institute.

It is, in fact, an English class. The youngsters are clutching English language textbooks and what they are shouting out aloud are phrases in English that their teacher Li Yang believes will help them interact with foreigners during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. “Chinese People are friendly and kind,” shouts out Mr. Li from atop the stage. His chant is instantly echoed by the devotees gathered on the grounds of the Beijing Science and Technology Training Institute where the lecture is being held.

Mr. Li’s method of “Crazy English” teaching involves persuading learners to shout out short phrases in English, a strategy he claims helps people overcome their inhibitions while simultaneously instilling passion for the language. “The Chinese must get over their reluctance to make mistakes and sometimes even make a fool of themselves in public. That’s the only way to learn a language,” he insists.

Thus amongst Mr. Li’s favourite “crazy” phrases is the slogan, “I love losing face,” which he encourages millions of his country-wide fans to shout out as often as they can. The author of over 400 books, Mr. Li gives around 800 public lectures a year and claims to have helped at least 50 million Chinese learn some English through his lectures, books, and DVDs.

But “Crazy English” is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the business of English in China today. Over 350 million Chinese, more than the entire population of native English speakers, are estimated to be learning the language. But despite the enormous effort this staggering figure represents, the country’s English skills or rather the lack of them remain an Achilles heel when it comes to China’s projection of itself as a major global player.

Several recent articles in the official Chinese media have singled out public signs in “Chinglish,” as a particular source of national embarrassment.

Indeed, notwithstanding a concerted effort to be rid of the scourge, Chinglish continues to reign supreme even in the capital. Thus for instance, a plaque in front of a museum dedicated to the cultures of China’s over 50 ethnic minorities in north Beijing, welcomes visitors to “Racist Park.”

In recent years, many government policies have attempted to redress this language lacuna. Since 2004 most provinces have made it compulsory for English to be taught from grade three. Previously, children had only begun learning it in grade five. All university students also have to sit for compulsory exams in English to gain admittance.

In Beijing, the Olympic Games have given the English drive added urgency with “Olympic English” classes mushrooming in virtually every neighbourhood. Armies of senior citizens armed with an official textbook, rousingly titled, “Don’t be shy, just try,” have been enlisted to take English lessons every weekend. Regular English-speaking competitions are held in parks and English song performances are televised. Taxi drivers and police officers have been handed tapes and textbooks and ordered to learn 100 common English phrases.

The idea, according to the Beijing municipal authorities, is to have four million of the city’s 15 million inhabitants familiar with their ABC by 2008.

By rote

However, despite the ambitious targets and determined mobilisation of resources, the majority of the government’s efforts have resulted in little more than memorisation of set phrases that are as easily forgotten as learnt. Learners remain unequipped to deal with situations outside of those set out in textbooks and complain that even after weeks of hard work they are unable to hold an actual conversation in English.

Zhao, a 47-year-old taxi driver, moans about how after having spent almost two years memorising his English phrase-book most foreigners don’t understand his accent. “No one understands me when I speak English,” he confesses mournfully. “After a while I just stopped trying and then I forgot everything I had learnt.”

But it’s not only “Olympic English” learners such as taxi drivers who are struggling with the language. The majority of the thousands of students at Mr. Li’s lecture have been studying the language from middle school onwards. Yet despite a decade or more of English classes they find they still cannot speak it.

Shi Chao, a 20-year-old student of journalism, says it’s her dream to learn English because she wants one day to study abroad. But after 11 years of struggle she is unable to answer even simple questions in English.

“I hope by using “Crazy English” I can improve somewhat by the time of the Olympics,” she says in Chinese, before rushing back to join the army of Li Yang devotees.

But not everyone is as enamoured of Mr. Li. Zhong Dao Long, founder of the “step-by-step” English method, is scornful of the “short cuts” to English learning that “Crazy English” espouses. “Most Chinese today, even those in the best universities, have lousy English because they have lousy basics,” the 72-year-old says. “There are no short cuts to learning a language. You must start from the very beginning,” says Mr. Zhong, whose 80 books have sold some 400,000 copies.

Unlike Mr. Li who promises quick and easy results, Mr. Zhong emphasises hard work and patience. But his “step-by-step” method cannot provide the quick-fix Beijing is looking for to meet its Olympic goals next year. It is thus likely that despite its questionable utility, the fever of Olympic English will only burn hotter in the Chinese capital, over the next few months.

Back on the platform at the science training college Mr. Li yells out, “The Olympics are a great chance for China to show itself to the world.” The crowd goes wild cheering almost drowning out his next catchphrase. “I will make China better and stronger,” Mr. Li screams, “I will make Chinese people feel proud.”

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