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Mad About English

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Safety ExportMainland China, in all of its 9,596,960 -square-kilometer glory, may boast of 14 language groups rooted in centuries of history — but it is now pulling out all stops to master a number of foreign languages. And her citizens won’t accept what they believe to be service of substandard quality.

This stricter policy can be gleaned from local government officials keeping an eye on English billboard ads that violate subject-verb agreement. Even the citizenry is adamant about correct English usage.

Angry Chinese parents reportedly stormed an English-language school asking that teachers tasked to familiarize their children with American idioms be white in race, Caucasian in ethnicity, and have US citizenship!

Olympic Impetus
The emphasis on English has gained lots of ground and enthusiastic support from government and the public alike, thanks to the upcoming Beijing Olympics.

Even before the frantic construction of edifices and the reorientation of the citizenry to adjust to a more multicultural community, Chinese schools were already recruiting teachers all the way from the US, UK, and various countries in Europe to reinforce English- language communication, verbal, and written skills as one way to gain an even stronger foothold in the global market.

The welcome mat has so obviously been rolled out that, sometimes, all the Caucasian candidate for English teacher needs for acceptance is a university degree and a passport signifying citizenship in a first world country.

An example cited by the UK-based Western Mail was the experience of a 33-year-old Briton. Although a journalism graduate, he had no prior teaching experience and no knowledge of Mandarin or any Chinese dialect. After his work visa and permit were granted, he found himself in a classroom with attentive students at Beijing University a scant four days after his arrival in China.

Germans, Australians, and French nationals, who are unmistakably white, are likewise ardently courted by Chinese education administrators. In a report by The Times, an Australian teacher was offered a post in China by a recruiter riding the same bus. The package: a fully furnished apartment and US$700 monthly.

Speaking to the World
Liu Yang, Deputy Director at the Organizing Committee Office of the Beijing Speaks to the World Program, claims this unprecedented passion for learning English is not confined to parents, but is shared by all Chinese, including college-age students, military officials, and businessmen. Liu says, “Beijing is going crazy” when it comes to gaining English proficiency.

As one recruitment drive attests to would-be instructors, “Your students would be Hotel Staff and Managers, Local Business Professionals, Taxi Drivers, Government Employees, Police Officers, Train Station Employees, Bus Drivers and Food Service Industry Professionals. Additionally, you would be assisting with the proper translation of road signs, map directions and train schedules and making sure the English reads correctly within its context.”

The Right Signs
Road signs are a major concern. Chinese police have been vigilant and unforgiving when it comes to screening grammatically and idiomatically incorrect signs posted all over the city.

Some examples of road signs that were immediately sent to the chopping block: An Excellent Winding Smoke (cigarette advertisement), Careful Landslip Attention Security (plastered on the floor of Beijing’s Capital Airport), and the incomprehensible billboard message “Shangri-La is in your mind, but your Buffalo is not.”

Liu said that all 6,500 signs put up alongside Beijing roads last year will be subjected to the most rigorous standards. He also asked the public to help the government by reporting linguistically twisted messages like the ones above.

Concerned citizens were given a hotline through which they could immediately contact the nearest regulatory board. Wrong spellings, mistakes in translation, and faulty word usages are the most commonly reported errors.

“We will pass the message on to authorities in the advertising sector,” Liu promised. “If English translation is needed, it must be subject to the standards set forth in the regulations. In the future when we set up new signs in public places in English, we hope all these standards will be followed to avoid more additional (sic) mistakes.”

Cab drivers, who are a tourist’s first contact with the Chinese people, are also required to improve their English. The usual smattering of words that have to do with destination, tourist spots, and cab fare are no longer acceptable. An English test is given to determine a cab the driver’s English proficiency — and passing it is a prerequisite to keeping their driver’s license!

As the Summer Olympics draws near, the pressure is undoubtedly on the Chinese population to improve their English proficiency standards. “Beijing is an international metropolis,” Liu explains. “Its residents are expected to have a high sense of international communication. By constantly enhancing their ability to communicate with foreigners, I’m confident foreigners will feel more and more at home in the ancient city of Beijing.

print ed: 12/07


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