Beating the drum for Chinese New Year, on Valentine’s Day this time, how learning English is regarded as essential for China’s participation in the world and, about a method of doing so known as ‘Crazy English’ or ‘English as a Shouted Language’.
Maria Zijlstra: In Lingua Franca this week, how learning English is regarded as essential for China’s participation in the world and about a method of doing so known as ‘English as a shouted language’, ‘crazy English’, invented by a former engineering student there, a kind of a local hero actually, who lots (and I mean possibly millions) of tertiary students identify with because of the struggle he had learning the language of the ‘long-noses’. Dr Li Jingyan has researched the somewhat controversial ‘crazy English’ methodology, giving it the thumbs up. And she’s met and interviewed its inventor, Li Yang, on a number of occasions, also making an in-depth study into how it’s worked for a number of specific individuals, concluding that its amazing popularity all really comes back to how China is becoming more and more open these days.
Li Jingyan: Yes, I can say that it is used today in a way that is beyond your imagination. Like taxi drivers in public areas, policemen, with all these people involved English is also used.
Maria Zijlstra: Do you mean to say that taxi drivers and policemen use English as a lingua franca, or people just generally, shopkeepers and so on, not just to tourists but in the Chinese population.
Li Jingyan: There are two factors involved. One is, as you mentioned, for the sake of tourism, in order to provide better service, and secondly for promotion. The government has decided to include the proficiency of foreign language competency at mostly the English language as one of the crucial factors to decide whether or not someone can be promoted. So that is one of the reasons why ‘crazy English’ could be so popular.
Maria Zijlstra: Right. And you’ve made a study of that method of learning English. It was invented by a man named Li Yang when he was a student having trouble learning English himself while he was at university, and that’s when he invented it. Can you describe how it works?
Li Jingyan: Yes, this man used to be a failure at college, but another policy in China is that if a student couldn’t get the certificate for CET-4 (CET refers to the national College English Test) then the student couldn’t get the bachelor degree.
Maria Zijlstra: So you have to be competent in English in order to pass overall.
Li Jingyan: Yes, so English could fail you, even though you passed all the other subjects. And English for most students was the hard nut to crack. Then this man failed several times, so he was given another try.
Maria Zijlstra: A last shot.
Li Jingyan: Yes, and so he decided not to follow the university teachers’ suggestion or way of teaching, and at that moment he couldn’t concentrate on learning, on doing exercise, he had to force himself to read aloud. And the way he read aloud is something like shouting, not the common kind of reading aloud as we normally do. Every day on his campus he held his book, the exercise books, and shouted out like ‘concentrate on’…if you want to say you’ll focus on something, the teacher would always tell us that you can only use the preposition ‘on’ to collocate with the verb ‘concentrate’, so we say to concentrate on something, concentrate on, concentrate on, again and again. So by and by he found out where he did multiple choice or fill in the blanks automatically he said he didn’t really need to think hard, when he noticed ‘concentrate’ he picked ‘on’ and he got it.
And also he noticed that his pronunciation was too inaccurate, he couldn’t understand what the native speaker said. Actually if you put it down on the paper he could recognise it, oh, it’s this word, I know this word very well, and he said I must change myself, and he followed the tape recorder, reading silently, and then shouting out. So his pronunciation improved a lot. And actually only four months later he said he followed this special method he invented and he did not just pass it, he achieved the second highest score in his university.
So it was a surprise to everyone, to his teachers and to his fellow students. And they all came up to him, ‘How did you do it? Did you do anything like plagiarism or whatever?’ But actually at that moment most students call him an idiot or something wrong with his mind, only because he always shouted on campus. But in the end all the other fellow students who had a similar experience came up to him, ‘What’s your secret to pass the test? Please share with us.’ And in the beginning he only described it in the dormitory, to the fellow students in his dorm, and then later on the students said, well, why not tell the whole class?
And he was a very timid man, he didn’t dare speak in front of too many people, but he was encouraged to do that. And the student union advertised for him to ask him to give something like a lecture but not that formal, only to the students. And he was trembling, but they pushed him onto the platform, onto the stage, and he made a little bit of money, very, very tiny money, because if you want to go to this lecture you needed to pay two yuan. Actually he called it the first bucket of gold he made.
Maria Zijlstra: So he discovered that he could make money out of it.
Li Jingyan: Yes, he could: ‘My method could not only help me to pass the test but also help me to make money.’
Maria Zijlstra: So he must have been a bit of an inspiration to all those struggling students then.
Li Jingyan: Exactly.
Maria Zijlstra: Dr Li, there’s another aspect of the ‘crazy English’ methodology that I’d like to ask you about, and that’s its inventor’s, Li Yang’s, his belief that ‘we are what we are because we first imagined it’. And I wondered when I read that, is that a foreign idea or does it rest on Chinese tradition?
Li Jingyan: Thank you so much, Maria, you’ve mentioned another important part of this program. This is not a typical Chinese thinking or mentality at all, I think it is really very westernised. But this is exactly his belief, and I think young people today use him as a kind of idol.
Maria Zijlstra: Guru.
Li Jingyan: Yes, some learners followed him or sustained the program because of different reasons, and the six learners I investigated, they more or less all mentioned they want to be international Chinese, they don’t want to be left behind the contemporary China, or they don’t want to be left behind by the world. This is the quotation actually I quote from the learners themselves. For Li Yang, as you mentioned, what he meant is…just say that you have to believe in yourself, you will be what you think you are.
So he wants to encourage Chinese English learners to be international Chinese. Who are international Chinese? What kind of people are international Chinese? And there are different factors, and he said that one of the important factors is that we have to be confident in the world. We are no longer like we were in late Qing dynasty or whenever, we are contemporary Chinese people entering globalisation, entering the world stage.
He proposes something because patriotism is another theme of my investigation, and he encouraged a kind of thing like how scholars imagine the community. He didn’t use this term at all, but later on when I did my research, I think many of his beliefs fall exactly into this concept of imagined identity or imagined community. His ‘crazy English’ class just produced this kind of community to encourage learners to imagine their future, to be confident in themselves, and he encouraged who you want to be.
Can you imagine the kind of person you want to be? So the learners name their idol or, for example, ‘I want to be Michael Jordan,’ and then the teacher would ask the students again, ‘What are the key qualities of Michael Jordan? Why do you want to become Michael Jordan?’ And by and by, in the end, the teacher would lead the students finally end up with the importance of learning English, to help learners to do that. If you want to become Michael Jordan, first of all you have to have a very clear aim of life and you just work for it. Michael Jordan has to practise a lot, or Michael Jordan has to do this and that, has this quality or that qualification, and you have to meet these qualifications.
Maria Zijlstra: And then it’s not just daydreaming then.
Li Jingyan: No, not daydreaming because the program, the CD was played several times, I noted down, and then the teacher would point out, ‘Well, I think now you are closer to this part of Michael Jordan but you are too far in this…but not impossible.’ So they have very, very motivating strategies to help the students to be positive.
Maria Zijlstra: It’s very interesting to note then that all that you’ve told about this fascinating method of learning this ‘crazy English’, all in all it comes together in a way that for Chinese people it’s a way for them to be patriotic, to advance their country, to advance themselves socially and in a way that it always has been for people everywhere in the world that when you learn another language and you learn to speak it well, you kind of become a new person yourself.
Li Jingyan: Yes, before now it has been a typical widely-accepted concept that if you thought for yourself you were a selfish person. How could you do anything or think up anything for the country? Well, Li Yang was courageous to claim that to do something for the country we have to first start doing something for ourselves. So now to learn English better (this is his quotation and of course his belief)…to learn good English is to show your love of our country.
Maria Zijlstra: Talking about the new kind of Chinese people, crazy about English, Dr Li Jingyan, on the phone from one of the coldest places on Earth this time of year, Harbin in north-east China, where she teaches English in the foreign language college of the Harbin University of Technology, recently returned after completing her doctorate here in Australia at the University of Melbourne.
(via Crazy about English)