Shanghai puts the accent on English

For the past year, the city that hosts this weekend's APEC summit has been polishing language skills.

At many Shanghai schools, Wednesday is English day.

Dormitories wake up to broadcasts of recorded English news and stories. All day, students make their own radio shows, study math, search the Internet, and watch movies - in English. They sing the Back Street Boys and Jennifer Lopez songs in class, and view "Sesame Street" after school on Shanghai TV.

"They are supposed to speak English all day," says Huang Hai Ling, aka "Helen," an English teacher at a high school in northwestern Shanghai, a bustling city of 8 million. "Many good schools have this project."

For more than a year, city officials in Shanghai have trumpeted pro-English policies to prime their city for the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, which takes place this weekend. In addition to English day in schools, they've passed out English tapes and books to other sectors of society likely to encounter English-speaking visitors, such as taxi drivers.

Shanghai's accent on English skills also reflects a longer-term desire to overtake rival Hong Kong as a Chinese, and Asian, financial hub. A study released in March by Hong Kong's Trade Development Council found that Shanghai's economy was on track to equal Hong Kong's in 15 years, if present growth rates continue.

All pupils here begin English studies in third grade, in order to meet unique university entrance requirements. While candidates elsewhere in the country can choose six subjects on their exams, Shanghai candidates must score high in three mandatory subjects - Chinese, math, and English.

English is making a great leap forward here, after a long march that was short on proper materials. "Now, the situation in China is improved over 10 years ago," says Ms. Huang. "We have original versions of English movies, songs, and books. My students are crazy about English."

She adds, "I tell my students, 'Even if you don't like English, regard it as a useful instrument. Otherwise you can't work for a joint venture company or negotiate well with foreign businessmen.' "

"My classmates and I all can speak English," says Fu Yi Fei, aka "Jenny," a student at Shanghai Tourism Professional School. "I call my friends and talk about music, shopping, anything in English." Five lessons a day groom her to discuss topics such as hotel regulations, reservations, and contacting maids. "My future job is in [a] hotel or meeting center, so I will use English."

After school, many pupils sharpen their skills further at private cram schools, a booming trade in Shanghai. Other classes aim to tune the ears of 3-year-olds to proper pronunciation. "The age when children start to learn English is younger," says Huang. "The problem is, students are good at taking tests, but their actual oral English is not satisfactory. There are too many students. They don't have time to talk in class."

Huang and Ms. Fu say they have to study hard to catch up with Hong Kong. "They were a [British] colony, so they all can speak English better than us," says Huang. "And there are more foreigners there. They have many, many chances to practice their English."

As part of preparations for the APEC summit, city officials gave taxi drivers, waiters, and police mini-textbooks and cassettes of "100 phrases in English." These include no. 66: "Our quality policy is: Your satisfaction,

But many taxi drivers navigating the mob rule of cyclists and jaywalkers seem either too shy or too busy to say much. "I want to study, but I cannot. I don't have the time," admits one cabbie, in Mandarin. His cassette is still wrapped in plastic.

The irony is that few are likely to meet APEC delegates. As of yesterday, nonessential vehicles are barred from the city center until Tuesday as part of increased security measures in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

But as one foreign office worker puts it: "At least this city is trying to improve its English. What other city has an official policy of bilingualism for taxi drivers? Paris? Forget it."

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