Point of View: Chinese fascinated with ‘crazy English’ ways

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Westernization of China? Yes, to a degree. You can feel the changing atmosphere in the big cities.

According to the media, the Chinese, old and young, are obsessed with the so-called “crazy English” as Westernization is gaining a foothold in the world’s most populous country. The English mania perhaps has no parallel in any other country.

What’s “crazy English?” It’s a phrase coined by a young man who has been trying to motivate the Chinese masses to learn and speak simple English phrases such as “good morning,” “thank you” and “how do you do.”

Li Yang, who is in his early 30s, is usually invited to make such demonstration in front of a large group of people ranging from hundreds to thousands, then ask them to echo two dozen times what he articulated. His charisma and unconventional way of teaching captivate the crowd.

It’s ironic that Li, a national idol these days, flunked several times in his English examinations when he was a student at an unknown college in China. Those failures had obviously prompted him to work harder, and in a few years he has become the nation’s No. 1 English coach of the ordinary folks. The instant fame is beyond his imagination.

Li spends much of his time criss-crossing the country to keep the “crazy English” momentum going. Although his unorthodox techniques baffle experts, his notoriety is the envy of college professors and linguists.

Why are the Chinese so crazy about the English language?

Well, after Chairman Mao’s death three decades ago and the establishment of diplomatic ties with the United States, the Beijing regime has apparently modified the definition of Communism.

China has gradually opened its doors to Westerners, especially Americans. Its people are fascinated with things American — from fast food to lifestyles. As a result, English has become the most popular course in schools. Even kindergartners can utter “A, B, C, D.”

Those who can speak fluent English command a great respect among their fellow citizens.

Since China’s entry into the World Trade Organization last December, foreign investors have gone to that country in droves because of its huge market. More than 4,000 American corporations have branched out there. Companies like Revlon, McDonald’s, Gap, Motorola, Allstate and Ford have already set up shops in China’s big cities. Disney World is expected to make its debut in Shanghai in a few years.

English is the international language. Therefore, China needs thousands of translators and interpreters as well as graduates with MBAs to deal with foreign businesspeople and tourists. Besides, China is the host country of the 2008 Olympics, which would draw sports lovers from all over the world.

As private tutors are in short supply, the remuneration is attractive — about $12 an hour. The currency exchange rate is about 8-1. To the average Chinese family, $12 is a lot of dough. But parents are willing to cut their budgets for other necessities so they can send their children to cram sessions in English. Many Americans studying in China moonlight as tutors, making money to cover their expenses.

Teaching English is now a very lucrative vocation in China. Some retired American visitors have taken advantage of the opportunities brought on by the growing demand for English lessons.

When I was visiting Shanghai a year ago, I saw local college students conducting an English seminar at a street corner for those eager to learn the language. It attracted a lot of curious people, including my wife and me. To keep up with the fad, some bookstores in town devoted a third of their floor spaces to reading materials and CDs in English.

President Bush’s recent state visit to China surely boosted Chinese enthusiasm in English study. At a news conference with Bush in Beijing, Chinese President Jiang just couldn’t refrain from speaking a sentence in flawless English: “President Bush has more experience than I” (in fielding questions).

Almost eight out of 10 Chinese college graduates set their sights on American colleges in their pursuit of advanced studies. Children of many ranking government officials are doing graduate work at American institutes of higher learning. However, as the American recession lingers, quite a few Chinese intellectuals with American degrees have responded to their government’s call to return home to build a brighter future for themselves and their country.

According to the latest data, about 388,000 Chinese college graduates have come to the United States to work on their advanced degrees since 1972. About 130,000 of them have already returned to their native land.

Shanghai is changing at a quick pace. It is an impressive capitalist city in almost every aspect. Ultramodern high-rise commercial and apartment buildings are everywhere. In a couple of years, the world’s tallest building will be erected to grace this westernized city of 14.19 million people.

It is likely the Chinese will soon be oblivious of the orthodox Communism as Westernization or Americanization winds are blowing across the country with a population of 1.3 billion. It’s a trend the younger generation wants to continue.

Reach columnist George H. Tsai by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 140.

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