Li Yang’s ‘Crazy English’ method. It involves memorisation and pronunciation practice through repeated, powerful verbalisation – shouting, essentially. I actually think this is probably quite a good way to learn – reading aloud seems to have fallen out of favour for no real reason. As the above clip shows, this initial insight has over the last twenty years metamorphosised into mass rallies and skyrocketing business opportunity (in fact, in Li’s rise from the early 90s onwards there is another parallel between English-mania and post-1989 China that I’ve posted about before: here and here).
The courses are reasonably cheap (unless you want to pay for classes with a slightly lower teacher:pupil ratio), and come with copious merchandise chucked into the bargain – the most telling is a jacket with a ‘2008 International Elite Club’ branding.
‘Telling’ is perhaps not quite right, actually – this is markedly not another case of devotion to the flag-garlanded altar of the International (the word international, that is, which is after all its meaning as well). Crazy English is virulently nationalistic, even discounting the hysterical use of the power-of-crowds inherent to it, which the novelist Wang Shuo has described as Cultural Revolution-esque witchcraft.
Li himself takes responsibility for whipping up crowds prior to the lesson proper, often by mocking Hong Kong and Taiwan, as can be seen in this clip. Nor does he seem to have a particularly high opinion of the Anglo-Saxon world:
“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.”
Unfortunately for the traditional theories of EFL, that the role of a teacher was to reduce ‘psychic distance’ and encourage curiosity about or a level of identification with the target culture, Crazy English has shown that the English language can be stripped bare to a simple tool for personal enrichment or job prospect enhancement.
Edward Said’s conception of English as “a technical language almost totally stripped of expressive and aesthetic characteristics but also denuded of any critical or self-conscious dimension” needs to be refined – as most modern teaching theory stresses, we should be examining the process, not the final product. And it seems clear that much of modern English teaching (certainly beyond these three fringe cases) comes with a glowing aesthetic.
Learning the language needs to carry emotion, to be allied with feeling. It can be a vehicle for religion, commercialism, or nationalism, and all this affect certainly helps it be learnt. Or it can take the less obviously menacing but clearly pretty vacant story beloved by textbook writers and the half-tourist-half-teacher staff that make up a good proportion of the industry, namely that English lessons should be about supposedly value-neutral themes such as holidays, hobbies, fashion and the environment. But it certainly isn’t neutral.