When there’s a frenzy about English

When there’s a frenzy about English
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First Published: Mon, Jul 07 2008. 12 16 AM IST

Updated: Mon, Jul 07 2008. 12 16 AM IST
On regional TV channels in India, there is a language game that resembles the game of “Just a Minute” of our college days. Contestants are required to hold a conversation with the anchor for 3 minutes in the local language without using a single English word. I have watched this programme, and have found that nine out of 10 contestants get tripped up. English is here seen as an unwelcome guest who peeps in on our private moments of mother-tongue companionship.
Today English language teaching has become a national concern in many countries. It is also big business, and has its own brand names. China has a corporate enterprise that represents the largest English school system in the country, New Oriental, which is traded on in the New York Stock Exchange. The British Council and The Straits Times of Singapore have been supporting efforts in developing countries to strengthen English language skills for business or profession.
In India, the business process outsourcing, or BPO, wave that swept across the country created a demand for call centre staff with English language skills. In China, the incentive to learn English has come from Beijing 2008. When the Olympic body met in Moscow in 2001 and selected Beijing as the venue of the 2008 Olympics, China was on fire. There was an outbreak of “English fever”.
In Mao’s time, Russian was the preferred foreign language; but Deng Xiaoping decided that China was destined to be a major player on the international scene, and English should, therefore, be restored to prominence.
On centre stage today in China is Li Yang, founder of Li Yang Crazy English Studio. It would not be a cliché to say Li is a phenomenon. He has taught over 20 million people in China.
Media persons from over 30 countries have interviewed him, and an article in The New Yorker (28 April) spurred worldwide interest in his work.
Here is a typical class session. Nearly 3,000 learners are gathered in a sports arena. Another 2,000 are waiting outside. The teacher steps forward and facing the class, says, “English”. The chorus of thousands of voices shouts back, “English”. The teacher and the learners repeat this several times. Although some of the learners seem shy in the beginning, as the class progresses they become more and more confident, ready to yell at the top of their voices. The learners hold their hands up pointing to the sky, and wave them as they shout. They seem to be under the spell of a magician. “I want to learn English,” they shout after the teacher. “Perfect,” they shout, and then, “I want to learn perfect English.” The scene reminds us of rock concerts, and an interviewer said that Li was China’s Elvis of English. People have been known to burst into tears of excitement, or even to faint when attending the classes.
Traditionalists have criticized Li, saying that such frenzy and populism go against the grain of the Cultural Revolution. Undeterred, Li has conducted classes for soldiers on the Great Wall of China, and for other groups in the precincts of the Forbidden City in Beijing. He set a record in Chengdu, teaching 100,000 students in three sessions in one day! Li evolved his new method of learning after he had failed an English examination in the university. Reading aloud is a practice common among schoolchildren in India and China, and Li decided to try that as his learning strategy. After other children had retired and the lights had been switched off, Li would read aloud outside his room.
He was rewarded for his efforts, when he was placed second in the annual English test.
Most teachers know that learners are often tongue-tied because of a fear of making mistakes and facing embarrassment. It is this inhibition that Li’s method breaks on the very first day. “Don’t be afraid to lose face,” he tells them.
Li Yang is not an Anglophile; according to him, capitalist countries are opportunistic and do not want countries like China to become powerful. His slogan is “Conquer English and make China great.” English is a tool that gives personal strength, and leads to national greatness. His students constantly repeat, “I do not want to let down my country.”
But his critics soon found an opportunity to brand him a cultist and a demagogue. Photographs from a school lecture had been posted on the Net, and in one picture hundreds of students were shown kneeling, in a posture known as kowtowing. This act is generally a sign of humiliation and a show of expiation and repentance by criminals and political offenders. But Li said this gesture was one of obeisance to the masters who had taught them, not of surrender to a demagogue.
Can Li’s method replaces all the older methods and theories of teaching built up over the centuries? Is this the final answer? Perhaps not. We can adapt the words addressed to King Louis XVI after the fall of the Bastille, and say, “It is a revolt, not a revolution.”
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.Comments can be sent to plainspeaking@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Jul 07 2008. 12 16 AM IST