Monday, January 16, 2012

"English Mania": Why the World (Especially China) Wants to Learn English

Here's an interesting TED video on the "mania for learning English." In this short video, Jay Walker mentions that two billion people are learning English, most of all in China. Why English, he asks? Better opportunity. "You can become part of a larger conversation...a global conversation." He continues, "English is becoming the language of problem-solving."

I witnessed "English mania" firsthand when I was teaching English in China. In Walker's TED talk, he shares audio and photographs of students in China yelling English statements such as, "I don't want to let my parents down...I don't ever want to let my country down...Most importantly, I don't want to let myself down...I want to speak perfect English...I want to change my life!" These clips feature the approach of Chinese superstar Li Yang, and his method is called "Crazy English." (Learn more here and here.) When I was teaching legal English in Guangzhou, China in 2003, one of my Chinese hosts took me and two other fellow native English-speaking teachers to a large convention center where we witnessed Li Yang's method demonstrated in front of a huge group of English-hungry students. As the token Americans in the audience, Li Yang surprised me by having my colleagues and myself individually come to the front and participate in his "Crazy English" instruction. My job was to teach the students how to say the word "fantastic" using his signature yelling into the microphone and hand motions to encourage correct pronunciation of the vowel A. I admit that I felt a bit like I was in the "Twilight Zone" (I know that at the least, I was out of my comfort zone), and I don't know that I would promote his approach as being 100% effective. But the students ate it up. This was "English Mania" in action. Li Yang's colleagues afterward approached me with a document that I signed allowing the segment to be shown on their website.

A month or so later while traveling in another part of China (Lijiang), some students approached me and my colleague traveling with me and asked if we would join them that evening for an English conversation class. We consented, and we spent an hour visiting with students and conversing in English. One of the students in attendance finally mustered up the courage to tell me that I looked familiar and that he thought he had seen me on the "Crazy English" website. I'm not sure how I feel about that, by the way, but the point is that I have seen "English Mania" in action as "Crazy English" has swept across China.

Regardless of the methods employed to learn English, let's hope that learning English does lead to "better opportunity" and "becom[ing] part of a global conversation" to problem-solve.

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