International | Beijing's deadline for its long-desired goal of English proficiency: 2008

Issue: "Troops hunt for weapons," June 14, 2003

The average tourist might find it hard to believe, but linguists say there are more people learning English in China today than English speakers living in the United States.

The learning curve remains steep, judging by street signs. "Collecting money toilet" reads a sign for public restrooms. "Peculiar stone museum" identifies a collection of rare artifacts. "How to enjoy the slide conditions of use" is how directions begin for riding a toboggan from the Great Wall.

A state-sponsored campaign to learn English began in China 25 years ago. But Chinese officials are pushing harder than ever to improve proficiency ahead of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

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The Beijing Tourism Bureau, according to vice director Xiong Yumei, launched a six-month campaign this year to clean up "Chinglish" words on road signs, notices, menus, and popular tourist spots. The bureau established a hotline for foreign visitors to report mangled English in public places. And the city fathers launched a special program for taxi drivers, often the first to encounter foreign guests. Cabbies in one pilot program are learning English using cassette tapes. Others are attending English classes. And some went to Australia for special instruction in language and Western etiquette.

Widespread familiarity with the world's leading tongue is dawning slowly. "Most Chinese don't really want to speak English, but they are being dragged into the English-speaking world because of their determination to get ahead economically," said Sandy Christmann, a Florida college professor who just completed a term of English teaching in Beijing. "All the news here is about the GDP. And the language of business is English."

Deng Xiaoping saw the wave more than two decades ago. "I don't care what color the cat is as long as it catches the mouse," was a Deng aphorism driving China's modernization program. To compete with the West, the communist leader knew, the people would first need to speak its language. He could not know that English, in addition to becoming the language of international sport, would also become the language of international communication with the coming of the Internet.

What Deng also failed to appreciate: English is the language of democracy. Formal English-language training, which began in earnest in 1979, had a direct link to the Democracy Movement that provoked the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989. "If you can imagine a cultural trend that caught on like a virus, that is what English did," said Teri McCarthy, a specialist in second-language acquisition who works with the International Institute for Christian Studies. "The Chinese leaders were so pragmatic. They thought only about how English would help them get ahead in business and technology. But it is transforming the culture."

Many of the cultural transformations-the seeming omnipresence of McDonald's and KFC, the dominance of Motorola and Microsoft-are now commonplace. Meanwhile, real language proficiency-like real democratization-seems to have stalled. China's GDP may be expanding at 5 percent a year, but its English speakers are growing more slowly. Only 10 percent of the country's 1.3 billion people go on to higher education, where most English courses are taught. Additionally, the supply of teachers is not keeping pace with demand. So most taxi drivers continue to grunt and use sign language to steer American passengers. And only the best hotels have staff well versed in the language of their Western guests.

Mrs. Christmann told WORLD: "I came expecting everyone to be like the Chinese students I've had in my classrooms in the United States. They are highly intelligent, willing and eager learners. But now I see that they are the 1 percent of the 1 percent."

At Beijing University of Post and Telecommunication, where Mrs. Christmann and her husband taught recently, entrance requirements include six years of English. Yet the Christmanns found that older college students had not had English since middle school, most had substandard training, and very few found opportunities to reinforce what they'd learned.

Nor are many college programs equipped to teach effectively. Administrators invited Mrs. Christmann, who has taught English to Hispanics, in Poland, and has lived in Japan and Korea, to bring her own curriculum. "Otherwise I'd be teaching using old American movies," she said when WORLD visited her on campus in January. The school has 12,000 students on a 1950s campus that has received practically no refurbishing since the heyday of communist planning. Its dated gym has a marble floor and is used mostly for table tennis. Classrooms are unheated and most buildings lack elevators.

In one semester Mrs. Christmann taught five sections of graduate-level English and five sections of doctoral students, usually about 18 to a class. During Friday listening labs, she said 50 students showed up to fill 40 seats.


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