Language learning and height

Factory Girls book, Language learning and height

Book "Factory Girls"

Are you tall enough to learn English? Have you ever reflected on the relationship between height and language learning? Well, I haven’t, and I’ve been in language teaching and learning for almost 20 years. So, I assume that most of you haven’t, either. Probably you are even thinking that a relationship between height and language learning is unlikely to exist. However, it does, as I’ve recently discovered when I read Leslie T. Chang’s fabulous book Factory Girls: From village to city in a changing China.

If you’re a rural migrant in the Southern Chinese factory city of Dongguan, your English language learning options are practically non-existent if you’re less than 1.6 meters tall. How can that be, you might ask. As I’ve discovered, height is an important and ubiquitous class discriminator in China. In a society that experienced famine within living memory, nothing shows more clearly whether you’re of peasant stock than your height. Taller than 1.6m and you might aspire to clerical work. Smaller and you are stuck on the production floor. Taller than 1.6m and you’re on the marriage market. Smaller and all you can hope for is some local boy back home in the village without real prospects. The list goes on.

Now, where does English language learning come in? Unlike their urban peers, rural girls haven’t had much education when they “go out” from their village to seek a better life in the factories of the East coast. Nonetheless, they are part of China’s English fever and recognize English as a way to become upwardly mobile, and some of the women Chang met in Dongguan, set aside time on top of 11-hour working days to study in private language schools. It was never enough though, and the practice opportunities necessary to improve eluded them. Practice opportunities were available to office workers who had dealings with foreign businesses, to tour guides and to hostesses. However, none of these jobs were available to small women.

Chang, herself Chinese-American, records this poignant conversation, in which one of the women who tries to make it in Dongguan asks her how to improve her English. Chang suggests finding a job in the travel industry.

She placed her palm flat against the top of her head. “Look at me. I don’t meet the minimum height requirement. Tour guides must be at least 1.6 meters tall.” Right – another dumb suggestion. I had forgotten all the ways in which height could affect the utility of English in a place like Dongguan. (p. 255)

I have supervised research related to English language learning and teaching in China for almost a decade and have read most of the research on the topic published in English. However, never before have I come across the importance of height. I take this as evidence for the importance of doing ethnographic research. Otherwise, what is the point of doing sociolinguistic research if you can’t discover anything you hadn’t already decided in advance would be important?!

Chang, too, reflects on this question of method. As a political journalist, she apparently got asked all the time why she had avoided politics and China’s human rights’ record in her book. Her answer is that she hadn’t avoided them, they just didn’t come up. The rural migrants whose lives she wanted to understand had no interest in politics and human rights. They were interested in getting ahead, in making their migration a success, in improving themselves, in their relationships with their family back home, in finding a husband, and in their appearance.

Neither a sociolinguistics nor a methods text, Factory Girls is well worth reading if your interest is in these fields. I will make it obligatory reading for my research students. Chang, Leslie T. (2009). Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China Spiegel & Grau

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Hongyan

    Dear Ingrid, thanks for sharing this wonderful blog and this wonderful book by Chang!
    I remember now that relation of language learning and height has been with us since late 1970s when China resumed the national university entrance examination. When we fill in the university enrolment form, we have to fill in our height information and attach a recent photo (And there is an individual medical examination report from public hospital in our file bag which showed our detailed information as well). If a student wants to be enrolled as an English major, the height is not decisive but important. Under the same condition with the same exam scores, the better-looking and taller one will be enrolled. In the employment market in recent years, the story is the same. Height together with English certificate and other certificates has been a threshold of getting employed. Height, age, gender discrimination is now becoming worse in this country with “no lack of human resource”. It’s a shame!

  • Dariush Izadi

    Dear Ingrid,
    Thank you for sharing this thought-provoking post.
    This provides solid evidence that in learning a language, language learners and teachers should take all kinds of tiny little things into consideration. Who would have guessed that height someday plays an essential role in language learning?

  • cba

    Mmm, very interesting. Of course, I immediately think of an extremely diminutive research participant from China, in my own study, who has two degrees plus education in English… and conclude that it is perhaps not height alone, but the intersection of height, gender and class that is at play.

    Thanks Ingrid!

  • Liu Hailin

    Thank you for your impressive blog. It appeals to me a lot since I am a girl less than 1.6m tall. In China height (girls more than 1.6m, boys more than 1.7m) is an obligatory requirement for some jobs. But I personally think it is not that critical. We have the sayings the little body often harbors a agreat soul When god closes a door, some where he opens a window . The God may endow you other talents when your height is smaller. There are numerous celebrities with smaller height such as Deng Xiaoping, Deng Yaping, Lu Xun, Lei Feng and so on. Height may be a threshold, talent is the thing that matters. Maybe if we conduct a research about the height and the language proficiency, we may have some interesting findings!

  • Grace Chu-Lin CHang

    This post arised some echo in my heart. I would say it is a brutal fact that the height of the social economic background and wealth can have decisive influence in language learning. In the bad times, people with better social economic background have better chance to get enough nutrition and grow taller. Thus, the actual height of a person could also somehow reflect the height of their background. How could a person who studies English really hard in a place where English is a foreign language and no one actually uses it can beat another person who was born in a rich family and was sent to developed western country since little and can speak English as if their mother tongue. The chance is little.

  • Dong-mei

    Dear Ingrid,

    Thank you for sharing with us this interesting book.

    It is true in some fields especially those that need the person to face the public. After all, China is a country with a large population. If the companies need their employees to be taller and more beautiful so as to represent the image of their company, they will always find people they want. Meanwhile, they will always find reasons to turn down those who are unable to satisfy their requirements.

  • khan

    Dear Ingrid
    When I read the title of the post, I said to my self come on there can never be any link between English fever and height at least because they have no link but soon I realized the social world is far too complex than we think it is. Thanks Ingrid for sharing some thing very new and thought provoking.


  • Xiaoxiao Chen

    Thanks to Ingrid for this insightful post and for recommending Changs book. Changs study sounds interesting, but I wonder if height is that closely associated with ones language learning options in China. I assume, for these factory girls, they should have as many options of language learning as possible (as we have numerous language training institutes and schools in China), but their foreign/English language proficiency wouldnt necessarily lead them to some jobs that set a height requirement such as tour guides or hostesses. As far as I know, height hasnt been a requirement for foreign language learning students in China. This may imply, as suggested by Ingrid in the post, the necessity of ethnographic research in different fields (as not all fields deem height as critical) before a conclusion can be made. In addition,Ingrids post reminds us of a social problem, not only in China, that there can be a banal discriminiton against smaller people that we are very often unaware of

  • Xu Yunwei

    Dear Ingrid,
    Thank you for putting forward this interesting topic. The indirect relationship, as far as Im concerned, between height and Language Learning is more a cultural issue than a physical question, which exists in some part of world not only in CHINA. Leslie T. Chang’s book Factory Girls: From village to city in a changing China maybe refltects the requirement of economic development, but not the whole. As an English teacher, I dont think the language learning has much relationship with height. You may reconsider it with the old Chinese saying which is contradictary and even contrary to the example cited in Changs book: Rong Suo Jiu Shi Jing Hua (it is often used to describe a short man who is successful) .