18 August 2003 2003 nian 8 yue 18 hao

Culture: The Cult of English

Todd walks into the local MacDonalds and finds one of the staff.

Todd: I've heard that children can come here and learn english with Uncle Maidanglou (Ronald MacDonald). Is that true?
Her: Yes, it's usually 6pm on Thursday. But we're not running the class at the moment because we don't have a foreign teacher. Would you like to take the job?
Todd: No.
Her: Do you have any friends who might be interested?
Todd: Er, I'll ask them. Goodbye.

In China, learning english has become almost a religion. Undoubtedly, as China's contact with other countries grows (especially in the areas of business and trade), so too will its dependence on english as a language of commerce. But to me, faith in english seems to have surpassed the reality of what it can offer to its disciples.

On the other hand, opportunities for social advancement here are so slim (when divided by 1.3 billion) that the effort spent on studying english might be justified even if only a small percentage will ever need to use the language. And what are these coveted opportunities that learning english can prepare you for? The main ones are studying overseas, or working in a foreign company in China. Most people I've spoken to agree that a Western university degree is valuable. This could also be the first step towards migrating permanently overseas, although certainly not all chinese consider this desirable. Landing a job at a foreign company in China usually offers better pay, more perks, and a better working environment than any other job outside the civil service.

Even if you miss out on these opportunities, english skills are thought to be valued by chinese employers too, presumably because they either do business with foreign companies, or have aspirations of one day doing so. Or maybe it just looks good on your resume. Of course, there are other valid reasons for learning the language, such as access to information in your field that is written in english. But to tell truth, after 6 months in China I don't recall anybody ever mentioning this reason. Finding a good job is the number one anxiety hanging over the heads of most students.

On top of all this, english is a compulsory component of the national tertiary entrance examination, along with chinese and mathematics (except in a few cities where Japanese or Russian take the place of english). Under all these pressures (extrinsic motivation), you might wonder if anybody in China can actually enjoy learning english (intrinsic motivation). I'm glad to report that some do, and some also appreciate the study of english as a chance to learn about other cultures.

Studying english in China generally involves a lot of rote learning, but interest and fun aren't entirely ignored. For example, there are a whole range of glossy magazines available (with names like English Salon, or New Oriental English) which aim to provide interesting, authentic material. However, the format is inevitably much like what students are used to in their textbooks. Each article is more like an intensive reading lesson, with emphasis on language points and new words.

The amount of material published in China for students of english is massive. In the educational section of any bookshop, english is bound to take up half of the shelf space. Most of those titles will be textbooks with the "intensive reading" format I just described. Even oral english textbooks have this format, except that they present dialogues rather than passages! I think it's clear that the concern these publishers have for the youth of China is sometimes focused more on the contents of their wallets, than the contents of their minds, because quality varies considerably: sometimes not even the title of the book would pass the scrutiny a native speaker. Having something of a sweet tooth, I couldn't resist buying one thin volume entitled A Chocolish Program (that's "chocolate english"). Lesson one is the letters of the alphabet. Lesson two is a list of english words borrowed into chinese (qiaokeli for chocolate, kaola for koala, etc). Several of the other lessons are motivational articles by the book's compiler (an english teacher called Bai Xiaoqi), and lesson sixteen is a simplified excerpt from Genesis followed by this joke about the creation of man!

That's market economics for you. If people are willing to pay for it, then there will be somebody willing to supply it. What an odd coincidence that in the West the demand for herbal medicine and chinese horoscopes has grown, while here the path to enlightenment is english.

And according to chinese parents, the earlier you set out on that path the better. With China's competitive education system, children are accustomed to studying harder and from an earlier age than in my country, and it seems that english is the ultimate example. Mothers are brushing up on english in order to coach their children, while those who can afford it hire tutors for children who are still in primary school, sometimes even grade one! In the classroom, english teaching begins at kindergarten, and the best kindergartens advertise that they have foreign teachers (something that not even all high schools can manage).

There's a DVD aimed at teaching english to young children which is quite well-known in China, and features music and animation. If you haven't already guessed, it's an offshoot from the popularity of karaoke in this country. Mainly, it just teaches isolated words. For example, in the section on food you would see a picture of an apple (pingguo in chinese) and hear: "Pingguo, pingguo, apple. Apple, apple, apple." I was exposed to this while a three-year-old kid was being forced to watch it by his parents. But despite its popularity, even the simple language of this DVD contains both spelling and pronunciation errors. We see a picture of a pear, but we hear: "Li, li,, peer. Peer, peer, peer."

If english is a religion, then its deities are native speakers. If I meet a parent with a child, that parent will usually encourage their child to speak some english to me. One university student told me about the time she visited her aunt in Beijing, and her aunt took her to a nearby school with the sole purpose of pouncing on foreigners as they came out of the door. But the poor girl was too embarrassed to say much at all. As for the learning english at MacDonalds, it's hard to imagine that anything a native speaker could teach children of that age couldn't be taught equally well by a chinese high school graduate with better-than-average pronunciation. Unless the foreigner can speak chinese, it will probably fall to Uncle Maidanglou to lead the class, while the native speaker simply provides a model for pronunciation. In this case, the foreign teacher is little more than a gimmick (from a marketing perspective), or a magical talisman emitting native speaker radiation to these young devotees kneeling at the altar of english education.

The fact that chinese students will pay big bucks to attend one of Li Yang's Crazy English seminars proves only that China is english crazy.


Thankyou to Tie Cheng and Jackie for patiently answering my questions about this topic.

Hi Todd, what a well-researched/well-researched post.

It's all true. I've seen that Crazy English guy all over the south, I haven't heard him speak though. Apparently, his English is self-taught..I wonder how good he really is...

(Ed: Derrick says more about this on his blog here)
Dezza [homepage]
23.08.2003 , 19:39

Ah yes, the cult of English. I've often asked my students if they ever find it strange that pretty much every sign in China now has some sort of English plastered on there.

This whole "worship the language and its culture" is just plain...odd. Will adopting Christmas help you learn English? Nuts, I tell you. But I guess it does give me a job, so who am I to complain.
Patrick [homepage]
08.12.2003 , 21:22

Stephen Krashen, a researcher in the field of language acquisition, calls this phenomenon "English fever". See Dealing with English Fever.
28.12.2003 , 09:55

According to this article, some chinese are seeking tongue operations to (supposedly) improve their english pronunciation. I believe this is even more widespread in South Korea (see this article).
07.04.2004 , 20:57

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