English learning for the masses


It’s an apple.

“Retirees study English” is a story that turns up fairly frequently in the local news pages of Beijing’s newspapers. Yesterday’s Mirror offers a fairly typical example: essentially an extended photo-caption, the report tells of seniors in Guowang, a neighborhood near Andingmen, who are learning English at their community center (this follows a profile of Andingmen English education that appeared in the Mirror‘s sister paper, Beijing Youth Daily, a few months ago).

What’s interesting is how they are studying the language: the label in this photo reads 爱抛, which literally means “love to throw away” but is pronounced somewhat the same as the English “apple.”

Such ad-hoc phonetics are actually quite common, particularly when people just want to learn a few words or phrases but don’t want to master the IPA first. Foreign-language phrase books frequently make use of them, for the same reason that some Chinese phrase books ignore Pinyin in favor of their own “easier” transcriptions. They also show up as jokes, as in the Sammy Cheng’s present to Andy Lau.

Here are some more examples from the article:

Today at 9:00 am, a dozen or so students sat in the Guowang community English classroom. They averages around 60 years old. On the table were fruit and vegetables wrapped in cling film.

“Chinese leaves!” (大白菜), the “students” read in loud voices after the teacher as they held up Chinese cabbage. The reporter saw labels reading “aigepulangte” and “egg plant” on the eggplant, and labels reading “ruidepaipor” and “red pepper” on the red pepper.

Liu Aiguo, head of the neighborhood committee, said that the classes had been held for more than one year and the students had learned basic conversation.

Vegetables show up in other stories, too: a short snippet in the Beijing Daily over the summer reported that seniors in Fengtai District were learning how to sell produce in English.

English-learning campaigns are nothing new, of course. In this piece that appeared as part of the Mirror‘s series on the late 1970s, Ai Ma describes his first experiences with the language:

Learning the ABCs From the Radio

by Ai Ma / Mirror

On a tour of Laos not long ago, I met a Laotian taxi driver who spoke fairly good English. He asked me, “How long have you studied English?” I said, “More than twenty years.” When I worked it out later, it turned out to be more that just twenty: it’s actually been thirty years already. I began to studying English in earnest in the 1970s, when Beijing Radio started its English lectures.

The 4 December, 1977, issue of People’s Daily published an article by a Xinhua reporter titled “Amateur English radio lectures popular”:

Every day in the capital, a hundred thousand people listen to English language lectures in their spare time. A comrade from Beijing People’s Radio, which organized the lectures, said that since the end of August, when the foreign language lecture series started its fourth set of Elementary English broadcasts, Beijing’s Xinhua Bookstores had sold 45,000 copies of the English textbook used with the show. Demand outstripped supply, so people who were unable to obtain the textbook mimeographed it or copied it out by hand to continue their studies….the English lecture broadcasts were started in 1972 by Beijing People’s Radio and the Beijing Foreign Languages Institute under the close attention of Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou.

So that means that I began to study English when I was a middle school student in the early 70s. But in that era, we were studying things that we would use with Americans captured on the battle-field: “Don’t move! Put your hands up!” and “Down with American Imperialism!” Or else it was stuff like “Long live the great mentor, great leader, great commander, and great helmsman Chairman Mao!” I learned a whole pile of complicated political vocabulary, but I was still basically illiterate in English. I remember that when my brother came back to Beijing from the northeast, where he had been in the army, he wanted to study English. He found an English textbook and, pointing to one of the words, asked me, “What’s ‘Xier’? I can’t find it in the dictionary.” I had to laugh when I took a look—it was “Xi’er”! That lesson told the story of “The White-Haired Girl”. Clearly, the textbooks of that era had quite the political slant.

In middle school, most of the English teachers were overseas Chinese who had returned from places like Indonesia. English was the language they used every day in those foreign countries, so naturally their spoken English was fine. We couldn’t tell if they had any sort of accent, though. Another English teacher was trained in the country. Every day, after running us through a few selections from the Quotations of Chairman Mao, he would go through the class list and say, you, read through the lesson. We would burst out laughing: “He’s not even here!” So the teacher started leading the class in recitation, and all of us students followed along, reading the English lesson in affected, peculiar accents. Such hilarity lasted for the entire period.

So you could say that it was only after the English broadcasts began that I started to realize what English really was. They started with the 26 letters of the alphabet and simple sentences—”This is a table,” “That is a pen”—truly, starting from the ABCs. Graduates from the elementary lessons had a vocabulary of one thousand words. But the key factor was that the teachers on the broadcast lectures were all first-rate. Shen Baoqing, a professor at the University of International Relations, spoke warmly and precisely. From later critiques I learned that she spoke modeled her speech on the Oxford pronunciation. This was important: it established a good foundation for the pronunciation of tens of thousands of English learners. Otherwise, we would have had a hard time correcting things later. I also remember a colleague’s relative who came over from the US. She was about my age and we all went out together. Incredibly nervous, I tried out a few sentences of English on her. To my surprise, she said, “Your pronunciation is pretty good.” To me, that was the highest encouragement possible.

I don’t know where Shen Baoqing is now. And although my English hasn’t improved very much in the past years, I wonder if she knows that back in the day we were all her fans?

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