Chinese passion to learn English: Will it be stifled?

Dilemmas for China: Fang Lizhi and English

LOOKING ahead to the fall term, can the teachers of all of China's young democratic apostles expect to return to the classrooms? Probably they can: The campaign to root out the ``counterrevolutionaries'' has been specifically targeted on the students and their supporters. Excepting an attempt to make a scapegoat of China's leading dissident, Fang Lizhi, who now resides in the United States Embassy in Beijing, the Chinese press isn't doing any finger-pointing at the inspiration behind the students' calls for democracy. Teachers perhaps suffered enough during the Cultural Revolution. Yet in many ways, teaching English in China has seemed to entail teaching lessons on democracy and individual liberties - whether the teacher is Chinese or one of the thousands of foreign teachers employed by Chinese colleges and universities since 1980.

During my three-year tenure as a teacher in China, I found talking about democracy and American life styles unavoidable, since the various English texts issued to my students included so many articles about the American Founding Fathers, so much from the speeches of Tom Paine, Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr., that they composed a veritable primer on Western ideas for China's English-language students - virtually the whole student body. The students might have decided that it all ``just looks good on paper'' had the books not given space to articles about modern life styles, which emphasize the range of choice open to people in the West.

If you heard the students stammering and stuttering in news video footage, you wouldn't imagine that they read like Evelyn Wood and can memorize a passage for recitation in a matter of minutes. China's language education excels in the teaching of reading, which they divide into extensive reading (as much as possible with a minimum use of dictionary and grammars) and intensive (close textual readings according to grammatical constructions). The curriculum for college students in all disciplines includes at least one English reading class per term, often accomplished with a minimum of oral practice. The foreign teachers generally have contact only with those students about to go abroad or who will use English upon graduation - the future teachers and businessmen.

Of course, there have been many influences on the democracy movement - the mere abundance of information that entered through China's open door in recent years was a formidable democratizing force. But readings in English have been central to preparing a generation of China's students to learn from the West, whether by studying abroad, translating Western research publications, or negotiating with foreign businessmen.

Along the road to technological progress, Chinese students often encounter texts on the US or Britain that proceed with a barrage of terse, subjective platitudes about the evil capitalist system. Such bashing is probably intended to prejudice one's reading of the great documents of democracy that are invariably included in appendices. But the students proved too sophisticated for this propaganda - an indication that the Big Lie being perpetrated now won't prevail with this generation.

It's doubtful, perhaps, that Chinese students on the mainland - not known for their diligence or studiousness - would have bothered to learn English if their texts had not proved so informative. For language acquisition to take place, there has to be an immediate satisfaction of desires, and English has been providing the Chinese with plenty of food for thought. China's leaders might be thinking that using translations of Mao Zedong's writings, along with some Chinese stories and fables, to teach English reading would be preferable to the textbooks they've made available in the past. But that approach will not motivate the students to study much or even maintain their language skills: Who needs a second language to read the same things available in one's native language?

And when Chinese students become dissatisfied with teaching or uninterested in a textbook, they have a tradition that causes teachers to proceed with trepidation - the students boycott the class. I've even heard of students locking a teacher out.

Most students want to be recognized by one's peers for having a good command of oral English, a status symbol in China much coveted from high school through graduate study, and even by young urban workers - many of whom take evening classes if they didn't score well enough on the college entrance examination for full-time admission. Learning English has developed into a national craze in China, probably because it proves so informational to a people often kept distant from reality.

To bring the Chinese people up to date, China's leaders authorized the mass importation of foreign-language books to replenish the schools and libraries. The final irony of the Tiananmen massacre, then, is that in preparing the students to learn from the West the government weaned them on a slice of Americana intended to instill democratic allegiance in US students.

The presiding government in Beijing has undoubtedly decided this policy was unwise. So when the next school term begins, how should the students go about their English study? Who will teach them? Will new English primers be issued? Will the course commence: ``Good luck, students of English. Speak English! But speak easy''? If so, there's likely to be many a student boycott next year.

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