Crazy English Indeed

Today I had lunch with a woman who I met in Jinan when she worked at our local R.T. Mart. Two years ago Pei moved to Guangzhou. After walking around the area near the sports center, where we hoped to find a restaurant Pei suggested we go by her old apartment for some Hunan food.

We hopped on the subway and in half an hour, tired and starving, we emerged from the subway and walked past several garment factories, ubiquitous, we got to this restaurant. We ordered spicy potatoes, broccoli (sorry, nope), lettuce (though they served us bok choy, fine but . . . ), donkey meat (fattier than I expected) and peanuts and green peppers. Another okay meal. I’m still waiting for my first marvelous Chinese meal for this sojourn.

I thought Pei had been here to work, but she’s been studying English. She graduated with a B.S. in chemistry in 2009 and after a stint at R.T. Mart headed to Guangzhou. She’s quite outgoing and after introducing herself to my friend Kent, befriended all the SUST American faculty. Her English isn’t bad, but it hasn’t improved either. So I was surprised to learn she’s been studying full time for two years. Surprised and rather angry. How can someone take a student’s money and not develop her skill? Pei’s certainly a willing student.

My theory now is that when a smart person, who’s willing to work doesn’t improve,  it comes down to technique, pedagogy matters.

Yet, Pei’s a college educated woman and should be able to see through the empty promises. So should the parents who pay big bucks for their children to attend what seems to me like a brainwashing camp.

After lunch Pei suggested we go visit her English school. I wasn’t thrilled as I teach in a school and I thought I’d seen them all, but if this is what Pei wants me to see, let’s go. We walk past more factories until we come to some impressive gates with lots of red triangular flags flapping in the breeze. The welcoming banner reads “Li Yang’s Crazy English School.” Was this for real? I’d read about this guy who encourages students to shout their way to fluent English. Hucksterism is alive and well.

The guard lets us in and we’re surrounded by posters with Mr. Li’s image and poster after poster or aphorisms and exhortations. We cross over to a student union area, that’s almost deserted for the holidays and see all these success slogans plastered to the ceiling beams. Pei’s quite proud of this school as she should be because I think she said she spent 50,000 rmb on tuition (I’m not sure if it was 50K or 30K since her  English isn’t great. I did ask for clarification a few times and like several of my questions I got an answer that’s way off. “How do you get to school?” “I eat lunch there.” sorts of dialogs.)

We moved on to the sports fields where a squad of students, say 80 at least, were shouting back to their teacher who shouted slogans like “My past is behind me! My future is success!” or “I will succeed no matter what with my Crazy English!” All the articles on this guy are right. The school has a cult-like feel. This Li is legendary and Pei told me about how he was a shy student who was failing till he discovered the power of shouting English. Indeed. It’s powered his bank account. A lot of the slogans on the wall put the onus of success on the students. To a degree, it belongs there, but this guy is taking lots of money. He’s not screening people to see if they lack the aptitude. If you fail, it’s your fault, but if you succeed, he claims the glory. Something’s amiss there. The shouting gimmick may help people overcome their timidity, but there’s more to learning a language and it doesn’t seem like enough’s been done on that score if Pei’s an example of an average student who spent two years in a residential program.

It makes me mad since I don’t think Pei’s family has a lot of money. She now wants to be an English translator and I think she’s 10 years away from that. People I know who translate are fluent in the second language.

She’s finished her program and has started job hunting.



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