Li Yang and Crazy English: Crazy like a fox
Posted by ampontan on Sunday, April 27, 2008
SEVERAL ARTICLES about China’s Li Yang and his Crazy English teaching approach have appeared on the Internet over the past few years, and he also does business in Japan and South Korea, so people in Northeast Asia are already aware of him.
But his recognition factor outside the region is likely to skyrocket now that The New Yorker has given him their full treatment. They’ve used him as the face for this report on Chinese efforts to mobilize the population and encourage them to learn English for this year’s Olympic Games. China’s organizing committee has recruited Li to provide as many people as possible with as much English fluency as possible before the world pays them a visit later this year.
Some aspects of the article will be familiar to people in Japan—the Chinese attitude toward English education is reminiscent of the Japanese approach about 20 years ago:
China has been in the grip of “English fever,” as the phenomenon is known in Chinese, for more than a decade. A vast national appetite has elevated English to something more than a language: it is not simply a tool but a defining measure of life’s potential. China today is divided by class, opportunity, and power, but one of its few unifying beliefs—something shared by waiters, politicians, intellectuals, tycoons—is the power of English. Every college freshman must meet a minimal level of English comprehension, and it’s the only foreign language tested. English has become an ideology, a force strong enough to remake your résumé, attract a spouse, or catapult you out of a village. Linguists estimate the number of Chinese now studying or speaking English at between two hundred million and three hundred and fifty million, a figure that’s on the order of the population of the United States. English private schools, study gadgets, and high-priced tutors vie for pieces of that market.
There’s a good reason why that fever is raging, but if you’re from an English-speaking country and have never lived abroad, it might be difficult to understand the imperative to learn the world’s lingua franca.
(T)he 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.
This quote from another article five years ago goes a long way to explaining regional attitudes and Li’s appeal:
“Don’t take me as China.” Li Says. “Take me as Asia.” Because Crazy English isn’t just for the Chinese. Li believes all Asian countries are facing the same problem of speaking “terrible”, “stupid” English. So it is not surprising that Crazy English would be popular in other Asian countries. “What is surprising,” he adds, “is that Koreans would want to learn from a Chinese.”
Yet another factor is at work, though Li is more blatant about it than some Japanese teachers and students I have known:
“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!”
Indeed, Li’s approach highlights one undercurrent in English education throughout Northeast Asia: using English as a tool for national development and catching up to the West. According to Mark Abley’s Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages, Li’s personal motto is “stimulating patriotism, advocating national spirits, conquering English, revitalizing China.” He is also critical of the Chinese educational system for failing to instill confidence in the students. I’ve heard some Japanese teachers say the same thing almost verbatim.
What are some of the emotions Li is manipulating? This broader article on ESL provides a hint:
During a question and answer session with the crowd, one student told Li that he hated the Japanese for their rape and occupation of the mainland prior to World War II. The student then said he didn’t want to study Japanese because of this hatred.
“If you really hate the Japanese, then you will learn their language,” Li told the student and the crowd. “If you really want revenge against Japan, then master their language.”
Again, these are not exclusively Chinese attitudes—I’ve met a few people in Japan with an identical outlook, and undoubtedly there are some of the same type in South Korea. (Japan’s national successes have tended to dissipate the emotions that give rise to this mindset, particularly among the younger generation.)
Substitute Japan and Japanese in the above sentence with America/Anglosphere and English, and you’ll see one element of the driving force behind English education in this part of the world. The other half of this yin and yang combination is a sense of inferiority, with the concomitant chagrin over the injustice of being saddled with a sense of inferiority in the first place.
Calling the program Crazy English is a stroke of genius. It provides the students with the justification for liberating themselves from centuries of cultural conditioning that expected people to be reserved and act within a group context instead of being openly assertive as individuals. Crazy people get to do anything they want.
Therefore, Li Yang is not just an English teacher—he’s also a motivational expert. (In fact, he interpreted for Anthony Robbins during the latter’s tour of China.) The technique for which he has become famous is having the students rear back and shout English phrases–a method that worked very well for him during his own days at university. His method focuses first on pronunciation, and then progresses to the memorization and presentation of recitations.
That’s a logical progression because it reinforces the student’s budding confidence, both internally and in front of an audience. Eventually confidence grows to the point at which the student will no longer have to deal with foreigners while hobbled by a sense of inferiority.
The author of the New Yorker piece oddly overlooks this point, and in fact seems to misunderstand the confidence factor in foreign language study altogether:
He had harnessed something universal—the cloak of confidence that comes with slipping into a language not one’s own—and added a Chinese twist.
I’ve studied Japanese, watched other foreigners study Japanese, and seen (and taught) Japanese studying English for many years now. A foreign language is not a “cloak of confidence”—in fact, it’s usually the opposite, and that’s the reason Li employs his trademark technique. The confidence comes after one has mastered the language, and it transcends those occasions when one is speaking the language. That confidence doesn’t become part of the speaker’s wardrobe—it becomes part of the speaker’s skin.
If a foreign language is to be compared to an article of clothing, it more closely resembles a stage costume than a cloak because it allows the speaker to perform as someone else altogether. Scores of Japanese housewives have told me that they can say things in English they wouldn’t dream of saying in Japanese. But the mere fact that they’re speaking English doesn’t make it work–they have to get good at English first.
Watching this YouTube video of a Li lesson/performance (at least I think it’s him) makes things much clearer. Just like any good educator, he’s part showman, and he’s superb on stage. It’s also easier to see why he gets people to shout in groups: not only does it break down individual inhibitions and increase individual confidence, but the group energy and dynamics serve to amplify everyone’s confidence. Traditional Northeast Asian culture may emphasize the group and discourage individualism, but within every person everywhere is the desire to step into the spotlight and shine as a star.
It’s no wonder that so many people are so enthusiastic about studying English Li’s way. Even if they don’t become fluent in the language and never use it in a meaningful way, they will have tremendously enjoyed being a part of the experience and come away feeling good about themselves. That makes it worth the money they spend on his books, courses, and seminars.
And that’s what has made Li Yang famous, a cultural figure, and gloriously rich.
You didn’t think his motivations were exclusively patriotic, did you?