November 21, 2007

Crazy English

Victor Mair sent in a link to an article about Li Yang, the English-teacher-as-cult-leader (Wu Nan, "Is Crazy English Here to Stay?", China Digital Times, 10/16/2007):

Shanghaiist has collected reports and videos of Li Yang teaching his Crazy English. If you watch the video by muting the sound, you may think you're watching a religious gathering with fervent worshipers waving their arms in spiritual communion.

Victor comments that Crazy English "has both Hitleresque and Maoist aspects, plus quite a bit of Falun Gong cultishness as well". The religious/political aspects are even clearer if you leave the sound on, in my opinion:

[Linked in the Shanghaiist article, that video was recorded at the Hunan University of Science and Engineering on May 20, 2007, at 6:30 a.m.]

Wu Nan's article draws out one unexpected aspect of this style of English language instruction -- Chinese nationalism:

If you carefully listen to one class Li taught, you'll sense something in his speech -- nationalism. Li makes jokes about Japanese pronunciation of English and the sounds Japanese make while bowing. Laughing at the Japanese is a common pastime for nationalists in China. Li also talks about how Hong Kongers look down on people from mainland China who go shopping there. Li says that in that situation, he would pretend to be Chinese-American speaking Chinese with an American accent to scare the Hong Kongers.

You won't be surprised to learn that there's also a financial aspect:

One thing that should also not be neglected is the profits Li has made from his students. Even though there's no data from the official "Crazy English" website, the 18000 Yuan (USD 2300) price he's charging for a "diamond seat" to his gatherings gives us an idea.

The article ends with a (translated) quotation from Wang Shuo, the famous Beijing colloquial writer:

I know that Li Yang invented a method of learning English called "Crazy English"; I know that his ambition is to let 300 million Chinese open their mouth and speak English, and then to let 300 million foreigners learn Chinese; I also know that through practicing English he turned inferiority to extreme self-confidence; I also know that he is very patriotic. This sounds good, but after watching the film, my personal reaction to him is uncomfortable. ... I do not know how many people in the end master the English language by Li Yang's proficiency, not just shout in the public, "I love disgrace." The posture of the men, women and children practicing 'Crazy English' is more like a massive pledging ceromonies. Li Yang is more interested in arousing people, or I'd rather say inciting mob. I have seen such incitement, it is an ancient voodoo, gathering a large group of people, making them excited through your words, then producing the illusion of strength like the waves of ocean. At that moment, the poorest people will suddenly feel invincible. This is not so cheering as it is more like to fool people. Many of things are done this way in China --after a dream, all the problems are solved. Li Yang was trying his best to disseminating of knowledge, beating his chest and stamping his feet, while those who were welcoming his enthusiasm with stimulated faces looked very foolish. He publicized patriotism, which makes him sounds to me like a racist. His clothes, behavior and attitude for poeple creates him a success figure, which inevitably makes you to think of a successful crook. [...] To to attract full house applause he frequently use those warm-up words which are really blatant racial supremacy clamor. This is not humorous. I do not believe that our country's being strong is for the purpose to spread your racism.

According to the Wikipedia article, the Crazy English enterprise was founded in 1994, and now has 20 million practitioners, so there has been plenty of time to evaluate its effectiveness as a language teaching method.

[Update -- Randy Alexander writes:

The video you linked isn't Li Yang (as he is known here). It's just a bunch of college students recreating the atmosphere of one of his sessions. The first (long) video in the article is him, and is very typical of his English cheerleading.

In October 2004, Li Yang came to Jilin City to promote some new books and tapes he came out with. His company has published many many books, tapes, and other learning materials over the years. I was curious about seeing what all the hoopla was about, so I went to one of his sessions in a huge arena filled with about 2,000 or so people. He invited several local English school headmasters up on the stage to talk about how to learn English. It was pre-arranged that they would come up and talk, but he was giving the appearance that he just kind of randomly pulled them out of the audience. Taking advantage of that false appearance, I went up on stage too (nobody stopped me!), and he rolled with it and soon had me giving advice to the throng as well.

Over the next few days, I ended up having a few meals with him and going up on stage for his remaining sessions in the city (this time invited), and he even had me participate in a book signing at a big bookstore. It was a little weird signing my name in his book for people, but sitting next to him there I got to see some interesting things. Many of the college age students would tell him, with almost indecipherable English pronunciation, that they learned English exclusively from his books and tapes.

His publications are thrown together collages of exercises, tips, and inspirational sentences and stories. The content of his publications focus on quantity rather than quality, and a good deal of the material is lifted from other books. I asked him, "you just take things out of other books and put them in your books?" He said, "sure, nobody cares about that in China".

His company is pretty big; when he was here, he said it had an income of over 10 million US dollars per year. He also said that he's really burned out traveling around giving his charismatic speeches, but he can't just stop, because that's a major part of the company's income. He is very different offstage than on. He is quiet, reserved, and has a deadpan sense of humor. To his credit, his English is in fact rather good. Unfortunately on stage he ends up obscuring his good pronunciation by talking in all kinds of ridiculous accents for comedic effect, and the audience just blindly follows along, caught up in the rapture.

Students have often told me about "the Li Yang Effect": after attending one of his cheerleading sessions, they study fervently for three days, and then the inspiration wears off. They say it is completely temporary and has no effect on their English ability.

So the right analogy is not to Hitler but to Elmer Gantry?

There is more discussion here and here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 21, 2007 07:36 AM