Crazy English in the New Yorker

The latest issue (April 28, 2008) of the New Yorker has an article on the China’s Crazy English (F?ngkuáng Y?ngy? / ????) method: Crazy English: The national scramble to learn a new language before the Olympics, by Evan Osnos.

Li Yang Crazy English (as it is properly known, after Li Yang, the company’s founder, chief spokesman, and head cheerleader) uses untraditional and emphatic but not always proven methods, including shouting and vowel-associated gesticulations, to help students overcome their fear of using English and remember the sounds of their vocabulary words.

Chinese nationalism is also a big part of its approach.

From the article:

A long red-carpeted catwalk sliced through the center of the crowd. After a series of preppy warmup teachers, firecrackers rent the air and Li bounded onstage. He carried a cordless microphone, and paced back and forth on the catwalk, shoulder height to the seated crowd staring up at him.

“One-sixth of the world’s population speaks Chinese. Why are we studying English?” he asked. He turned and gestured to a row of foreign teachers seated behind him and said, “Because we pity them for not being able to speak Chinese!” The crowd roared.

Li professes little love for the West. His populist image benefits from the fact that he didn’t learn his skills as a rich student overseas; this makes him a more plausible model for ordinary citizens. In his writings and his speeches, Li often invokes the West as a cautionary tale of a superpower gone awry. “America, England, Japan—they don’t want China to be big and powerful!” a passage on the Crazy English home page declares. “What they want most is for China’s youth to have long hair, wear bizarre clothes, drink soda, listen to Western music, have no fighting spirit, love pleasure and comfort! The more China’s youth degenerates, the happier they are!” Recently, he used a language lesson on his blog to describe American eating habits and highlighted a new vocabulary term: “morbid obesity.”

Li’s real power, though, derives from a genuinely inspiring axiom, one that he embodies: the gap between the English-speaking world and the non-English-speaking world is so profound that any act of hard work or sacrifice is worth the effort. He pleads with students “to love losing face.” In a video for middle- and high-school students, he said, “You have to make a lot of mistakes. You have to be laughed at by a lot of people. But that doesn’t matter, because your future is totally different from other people’s futures.”

Very soon Sino-Platonic Papers will be issuing a long, critical study of Crazy English. Look for the announcement of that here in Pinyin News.

further reading:

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