Crazy English again

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There's an important article on Li Yang's Crazy English that has just come out in this week's New Yorker. I have been following the Li Yang story for over a decade. It is both fascinating and deeply troubling.

Three years ago, Amber Woodward, a student in my "Language, Script, and Society in China" course, wrote a long paper on Li Yang, and I published it as Sino-Platonic Papers no. 170 in February, 2006. This year she wrote her senior thesis on Li Yang's Crazy English, and I will also publish it in SPP. I hope to get both of these papers up on the web very soon. You will be able to find them at http://www.sino-platonic.org. (Meanwhile, see "Crazy English", 11/21/2007, for some background.)

Amber documented the unmistakable cultic and demagogic aspects to the Li Yang method and movement. In her public lectures on the subject, Amber has shown chilling video footage that remind one of nothing more than a Goebbelsian political rally. On the other hand, judging from the article in the current New Yorker, it seems that Li Yang has evolved into more of a pragmatic businessman, and has even been somewhat domesticated by his American wife, who seems to have had a definite taming effect upon him. Still, we should note carefully what Wang Shuo, the famous Chinese "hooligan" novelist has to say about Li Yang's brand of populism: "the same shit as racism."

The Crazy English teaching style is on display in this YouTube video, recorded on May 20, 2007, at HUSE:

The NYer story, by Evan Osnos, is "Crazy English: The national scramble to learn a new language before the Olympics". There is also a slideshow here.

Evan Osnos is the Chicago Tribune's Beijing Bureau Chief. He has written some award-winning articles concerning China's impact on the global environment, including one that — quite amazing to me — detailed how the production of cheap cashmere can have disastrous consequences, both in China and in the world ("The price we pay for China's boom", 12/17/2006).

In the end, Osnos' New Yorker story reveals the overwhelming passion for learning English that grips the Chinese nation, becoming almost an existential imperative. Ironically, this devotion to one of the most conspicuous symbols of Occidentalism is right this moment being countered by a rising tide of anti-Westernism occasioned by the furor over Tibet, the passage of the Olympic torch, and political repression in the heartland.



9 Comments

  1. JS Bangs said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 6:56 pm

    I have to say that I find the concern over this "Crazy English" little bizarre. So, okay, he gets his followers to repeat his slogans over and over again in giant rallies. But his slogans are harmless bits of English. Why is this upsetting? What makes this into "the same shit as racism"? AFAICT there's no ideological or political content to this at all. At worst it's a way for him to make a lot of money while not teaching English very well.

  2. john riemann soong said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 11:08 pm

    A tangential comment, but one thing that struck me near the end of the video, besides the general syllable-timed influence from Chinese on the English pronunciation, is the Chinese-influenced treatment of the word-middle velar nasal in words like "English."

    To me, it seems that "native speakers" of English (tricky as they are to define) don't release the velar nasal in some positions as fully as Mandarin would. For example, when "native anglophones" pronounce "English" they might nasalise the /ɪ/, skim very lightly over the /ŋ/ in transition (which maybe is due to the fact that /ŋ/ is a product of assimilation) and continue nasalisation into the beginning of /g/. Whereas Mandarin speakers tend to hold /ŋ/ for a longer period of time, release it more audibly, and eschew sandhi/liaison/phonological blurring of morpheme boundaries. (Can someone tell me whether the phoneme /ŋ/ in Mandarin and related dialects/languages was a product of the same assimilation that occurred in the European languages, or did it possibly develop by some other way?)

    Of course, it is possible that the syllable-timed influence also causes learners to hold it longer than one would in English. I'm just trying to figure out what makes their articulation of the word "English" sound so foreign; their stress and even the timing of their articulation of "English" was mostly correct.

    [I'm just an untrained teenage immigrant commenting here -- I have probably misused a few terms and I am quite clueless on what has been published in this area, so I'm not sure if this phenomenon has been covered already. Maybe it's just me.]

  3. john riemann soong said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 11:37 pm

    JSBangs: Though it seems harmless (besides being a ripoff and perhaps creating ineffective acquisition skills), perhaps why it seems so troubling to us is that the approach almost seems to foster a callous attitude in approaching other cultures and languages. Cross-cultural interaction need not require a careful study of context and environment, just brute-force shouting in groups.

    The main thing that troubles me is not so much as the connotations with the Nuremberg rallies, but rather that these rallies only perpetuate the idea that the prestige of uttering English words for their own sake is paramount (for everything sounds better in French English), as opposed to devoting oneself to a careful study of the language. A PRC parallel to the idea that mondialisation sounds so better to banal "globalisation".

  4. Amy Vaughan said,

    April 24, 2008 @ 2:18 am

    Politics aside, have there been many studies about the efficacy of certain methods of teaching a second language over others (ie orally vs. primarily through written means)?

  5. Bryn LaFollette said,

    April 24, 2008 @ 1:53 pm

    To JSBangs:

    In regards to the claims of racism, if you read the other articles linked from this page, you will get more of the gist of where this is coming from. Also, as the earlier post on LL about Crazy English pointed out, the video linked here isn't actually of Li Yang, it's just his style of rally (though even here with chants like "I don't ever want to let me country down," it gives me pause as it's not a typical phrase I've learned in language classes I taken).

    There is a video linked from YouKu in this article from the Shanghaiist. I don't know how your Mandarin is, but a large portion of the intro (like the first half of the video) is basically Li Yang making stereotyped cracks about the Japanese, Taiwanese, Hong Kongers and Chinese-Americans. I can't comment on how off-color these are, really, but it struck me as seeming more like a stand-up comedy routine of some kind. Ultimately though, I think the troubling part of it is that these are all jokes about outsiders, and seem aimed at creating a sense of superiority in the audience.

  6. Randy Alexander said,

    April 26, 2008 @ 10:33 am

    john riemann soong: I think the weird pronunciation of "English" is due to the placement of /ŋ/ a lot further back in Mandarin than in English. I spend a good deal of time each week teaching a couple hundred Chinese kids how to say /ŋ/, and it's not easy to get them to stop retracting their tongue root. Their /ɪŋ/ often comes out as [iɤŋ].

  7. David Marjanović said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 6:37 pm

    (Can someone tell me whether the phoneme /ŋ/ in Mandarin and related dialects/languages was a product of the same assimilation that occurred in the European languages, or did it possibly develop by some other way?)

    As far back as we can trace it (Proto-Sino-Tibetan at least), it didn't develop, it was just there. Whether the [ŋ] of English — or in fact more or less any European language — should be called a phoneme is debatable; you can probably get away with saying that [ŋg] and [ŋ] are just how the consonant cluster /ng/ ends up being pronounced, just like how [ŋk] is how /nk/ comes out. This situation is also reconstructed for Proto-Indo-European. No kind of Chinese has, or has apparently ever had, such a cluster in the first place (morpheme-internally, that is).

    Also, Mandarin is exceptional among "Sinitic languages" in having lost word-initial /ŋ/. Most or all of the others retain it. In Cantonese it can even make up a whole syllable (which, in three of the six tones, makes three surnames that AFAIK correspond to various Mandarin Wu).

  8. language hat said,

    April 28, 2008 @ 4:15 pm

    you can probably get away with saying that [ŋg] and [ŋ] are just how the consonant cluster /ng/ ends up being pronounced

    So how do you account for the contrast between intervocalic /ŋ/ and /ŋg/?

  9. Jake said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

    I have to agree with JSBangs. Li isn't racist. His wife is white and he has many non-Chinese friends.

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