Crazy English: How China's language teachers became big celebrities

This year it will be announced that China now has more English speakers than any other country in the world. And such is the demand for their services that top teachers have become big stars

"Where are you from? Do you speak English?" It's a familiar phrase near the Forbidden City in Beijing, or along the capital's Nanjing Road, as Chinese people try a standard opening gambit to spark up a conversation with a foreigner. Many visitors baulk at being approached so baldly, and are worried that it could be a scam. Very occasionally it is a con – and tourists should be wary when some nice young people offer to bring them to a tea house – but mostly the youngsters are desperate for access to real live Anglophones who can help them improve their conversational English.

Chinese people are becoming more and more obsessed with speaking English, and efforts to improve their proficiency mean that at some stage this year, the world's most populous nation will become the world's largest English-speaking country. Two billion people are learning English worldwide, and a huge proportion of them are in China.

And sometimes it seems like most of these eager students are learning from Li Yang, who is the true folk hero of the English-language-training business. Li founded the "Crazy English" movement, which now involves him visiting a dozen cities a month and lecturing in English to crowds of up to 30,000 people. His books sell in the millions.

The principle is that "you can't learn to swim in a classroom" – so "Crazy English" teaches language learning as a form of mass activity. At a recent tutorial in Beijing, students passed large banners saying, "I can realize all my dreams" before entering the classroom to sample Li's inimitable mixture of English-language teaching and motivational speaking. There is even a touch of the evangelist about him – though he is preaching to the converted – and the enthusiasm of the response is amazing, with plenty of arm-waving, fist-raising and punching the air.

The desire to learn the world's language of commerce is reflected in the way that English is everywhere these days. It's deeply fashionable but also part of a broader goal to encourage greater use of English to help boost China internationally. So the people turn to Li, who started doing this 20 years ago and whose Guangzhou-based business is now vast. "I talk to 10 million people a year, face to face," he says proudly. "Back in 1988, China was in the process of opening up to the outside world but the whole Chinese educational system was based on tests. There were so many people learning English to pass the tests but they couldn't communicate."

There are currently 200 million Chinese at secondary school who are bored with tests, and Li is still trying to change the way people learn to speak English. "This is a new method for Asian people, who are shy and introverted," he explains. "My method can give people confidence very quickly. I try to simplify English for common people. I became an idol and a celebrity for Chinese young people because of this content. People get excited and I also tell them how to face difficulties and obstacles; I combine a lot of things into teaching."

Most of his students are aged between 10 and 40, and they include professionals and students, lawyers and bus drivers. "The older generation is interested, but English is not that useful for them. They have more important things to learn. But basically everyone in China is interested in learning some English," says Li. "It is growing with the openness of China – English is now a required subject. Good English will help you get a better job. There are many different situations that determine Chinese people's craziness for learning English. We waste a lot of time analysing and memorising – it's time- consuming and stupid. My mission is to direct people into learning English."

Most people in China still don't have the opportunity to travel abroad, so they are eager for ways to practise spoken English and correct their mistakes. Li's reading materials contain inspirational – and patriotic – phrases, such as "Help 300 million Chinese people speak English fluently" and "Make the voice of China be widely heard throughout the world". "This is still a poor country, a developing country, and we lag behind in technology," explains this father of four daughters. "I promote hard work and the work ethic. I am described as a patriotic teacher – and I am patriotic because I want to get young people into school and away from video games. I want to kill all video games."

A big factor in the craze for learning English was the pre-Olympic drive to make China more international, when even taxi drivers learned a couple of words of English. In the bookshops, you can still learn English the traditional way, reading texts such as Wuthering Heights, but you can also use books featuring scenes from Friends. China's most famous actress, Zhang Ziyi, has spent a long time learning English, though she claims she picked up most her best phrases listening to rappers such as Eminem. English is now used, at times with hilarious results, on signs and posters around Beijing – real-estate developers believe it gives great cachet to a development to have English billboards, even if the language used is often absurd: anyone fancy a "National Cream" apartment or a "Boning" flat? And the signs saying "Careful landslip attention security" or "The slippery are very crafty" demand attention. Watch your step.

English-language training in China is an industry worth around 15 billion yuan a year, or about £1.3bn, and there are more than 50,000 English-training organisations in China. In Beijing alone, some 200,000 people took English classes last year. Some of these help Chinese students study for the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) needed to study abroad, while others help white-collar workers improve their oral English or their business and financial English.

In China, English allows you to travel, to gain social advancement, and English-language teachers have become minor celebrities. Another giant of English-language learning is Dashan, a Canadian whose English name is Mark Rowswell and whose fluent Chinese has transformed him into the most famous Westerner in China – taxi drivers and passers-by point at him. His language-teaching shows, including programmes such as Dashan's Adventures in Canada, have made him a television legend. He also hosts shows teaching Chinese to foreigners – though his amazing Chinese skill annoys some incomers, who have been satirical of his ability to blend in at Chinese gatherings. But he is adored by the Chinese, especially for his mastering of the wildly popular xiangsheng (crosstalk) comedy style.

"You will often hear Chinese say things like, 'Dashan is more Chinese than the Chinese'," says the man himself. "But I think, first of all, that's a huge exaggeration. Secondly, it largely reflects the breaking down of barriers that I've worked on throughout my career. Chinese tend to pigeonhole people into clear categories: either you're Chinese or you are a foreigner. Dashan, at least to a certain extent, defies that sort of oversimplification." Dashan's status in China is such that he has been appointed as Canada's commissioner general for next year's Expo in Shanghai, heading up the whole pavilion team there. He's also the face of a Ford marketing campaign aimed at Chinese Canadian consumers.

For Dashan, teaching English to the Chinese has transformed him into a senior diplomat. Indeed, he's not the only one. During a recent reporting trip to Kashgar, in the restive western province of Xinjiang – where foreigners, especially journalists, are not especially welcome – I was approached by a plainclothes policeman in the lobby of my hotel, who identified himself, sat down, and asked me, in English: "Do you feel safe here?" My heart sank. This was a few days before the riots in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, in which scores of Han Chinese were killed by rampaging Muslim Uighurs, angry at Han China's growing domination in the region. "Do you feel safe here?" is a standard opening line when officialdom comes knocking in China, although it is usually delivered in Chinese, and I readied myself for a trip down the station, or at least a lengthy interrogation about what I was doing in this hotbed of separatism at China's westernmost extreme. Instead, the man produced an English-language textbook, helped himself to a glass of my beer, and began to ask me questions. "Are you loaded? Do you change diapers? I can count in English. Listen..." he said, before doing just that, counting to 10,000 in English. Thankfully, once he got past 29, he started using every 10th number, but it was still a lengthy process. The policeman followed this with a strange moral tale about why bats only come out at night, which he had clearly learnt off by heart.

He was definitely checking me out, and he knew I was a foreign reporter, as all hotels are required to register foreigners with journalist visas in their passports with the local Public Security Bureau. He took my mobile phone number. But what was significant was that he used the opportunity to sharpen up his English.

During the conversation, or interrogation, or tutorial, whatever it was, with the police officer in Kashgar, a couple of young students approached the table, and asked: "How are you? Where are you from? Do you speak English?" They too were eager to open a conversation in which they could practice their English, before my policeman friend intervened, barking at them to get home and not to be interfering in police business, taking their mobile phone numbers too. They left; red-faced, apologetic, and a bit scared.

On the flight back from Xinjiang, a young high school student also kept trying to interrupt my efforts to write on my laptop with various opening lines, such as, "The weather today is very beautiful" – despite the fact our flight had been delayed by several hours because of a minor hurricane hitting our airport. The opportunity of practising her English was too great to pass up, and I was happy to oblige.

Even monks are now getting into learning English. Last year, the China Religious Culture Communication Association and the Buddhist Association of China opened an English-language training course for Buddhists so they would be better prepared for working in foreign countries. Elder Master Yicheng, president of the Buddhist Association, said it was "imperative for China to train people who could spread Buddhist teachings in other languages". More than 20 Buddhist monks were chosen from monasteries around the country and put through their English-language paces at the Shanghai International Studies University.

All this does not mean, however, that English is yet spoken as widely, or as well, as it is in European countries such as Sweden, Germany or even France – and you still have a hard time getting around the place without being able to speak Chinese, even in big cities such as Shanghai and Beijing.

But English proficiency has improved markedly in recent years – and there are a lot more Chinese people learning and speaking English than there are English native-speakers learning Chinese. We should perhaps remember that – despite China's rapid rise to economic dominance – Britain is a long way off the time when an average local copper could spark up a conversation with a visiting Chinese journalist in Mandarin Chinese. Not until our own answer to Li Yang arrives, exhorting the nation to learn Chinese.

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