The magic of English

The magic of English

I recently returned to China from graduate study in Australia and soon reestablished my old habit of reading the newspaper over breakfast. One Sunday morning, this color flier was enclosed in the roll of my local newspapers. The flier is an advertisement for the 2011 national speaking tour of Li Yang, founder of Crazy English. Under the alluring headline “把成功传给下一代 (Propagate the success to the next generation)”, a picture of Li Yang confidently holding the Olympic torch stands out against the background image of a large crowd gathered at the Imperial Palace symbolizing the supreme power of ancient China. On the reverse side of the flyer is a synopsis of Li Yang’s public lecture on “如何把流利英语和成功、自信、吃苦精神传给下一代 (How do we hand down fluent English, success, confidence, and diligence to the next generation)?” In this synopsis, a fairy-tale narrative of Li Yang immediately captured my eye:

He has changed the destinies of millions with English and influenced three generations of Chinese English learners! He has created a legend in English teaching. He gave English lectures at the Imperial Palace and the Great Wall, and offered oral English training to a hundred thousand volunteers for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. He and his team have been travelling from city to city, dedicating three decades to the career of “conquering English, revitalizing China”. His name is Li Yang, a legendary hero in the era where knowledge changes destiny. (My translation)

As a successful English learner and an English training magnate, Li Yang is a household name in China, a country of 400 million English learners. For millions of his followers and admirers, he is an idol, a role model, and even a “legendary hero” of godlike power who has changed his own and others’ destinies with English. In Li Yang’s discourses English becomes some sort of magic wand that will allow devotees to achieve successes that would normally be considered out of the reach of ordinary Chinese people. English proficiency is tied up with accomplishment, self-confidence, self-value, pleasure, money, and success. Through encouraging self-confidence and promising material rewards through its rags-to-riches narratives, the Crazy English method has aroused intense English desire among millions of Chinese.

In many of his public appearances, Li Yang speaks about his own earlier difficulties in mastering English, urging his devotees to follow his example of self-transformation. Born in 1969, Li Yang studied for a mechanical engineering major in Lanzhou University when he was confronted with the need to pass college English tests. That motivated him to develop what he called “a language cracking system” – Crazy English. It took Li Yang only a few years to give up mechanical engineering and turn his radical method into one of China’s most well-known brands of English training and a multi-million Yuan business. In Crazy English lectures, Li Yang encourages students to shout out motivational English expressions loudly, quickly and repeatedly with hand gestures that are supposed to stress the pronunciation. Central to the Crazy English method is the belief that these practices are instrumental in breaking down a common barrier faced by Chinese learners of English, namely, their fear of “losing face,” a self-perceived obstacle of Chinese EFL learners in communication with “native English speakers”. Li Yang proclaimed,

My method can give people confidence very quickly. I try to simplify English for common people. I became an idol and a celebrity for Chinese young people because of this content. (quoted in Gallagher, 2009).

 The Crazy English philosophy is deeply nationalistic. Li Yang promotes English language learning not only as a means of self-transformation but also as a facet of Chinese patriotism, which is best captured in his personal motto:

激发爱国主义热情,弘扬民族精神;攻克英语,振兴中华 (stimulating patriotism, advocating national spirits, conquering English, revitalizing China)” (“Li Yang,” 2009)

The Crazy English philosophy that advocates learning English for national benefits is rooted in the slogan of the Chinese Self Strengthening Movement (1860s to 1890s): “师夷长技以制夷 (learning advanced technologies from Western barbarians in order to fight against them)”. Li Yang alludes to this slogan in his own lectures, in which he often urges students to go abroad to learn from America and the West and bring that knowledge and experience back to serve China.

 Rising from ordinary person to social hero, Li Yang became the fulfilment of his story of personal self-transformation through English. Whether omnipotent English has mythicized Li Yang or Li Yang has mythicized the omnipotence of English is a chicken and egg question. What is certain is that Li Yang’s rags-to-riches and patriotic narratives not only contributed to the swift expansion of his own English teaching business, but also heightened the symbolic meaning of the English language in China as a valuable asset!

Author Zhang Jie 张洁

Zhang Jie 张洁 (aka Jenny) is a PhD student in the Department of Linguistics, Macquarie University, where she just completed her thesis entitled “Language Policy and Planning for The 2008 Beijing Olympics: An Investigation of the Discursive Construction of An Olympic City and A Global Population”. She is also a lecturer and supervisor for master candidates in the English Department, Zhongnan University of Economics and Law, China. Under the supervision of, and with tremendous support from, Ingrid and Kimie, she is steadily developing into a sociolinguist who has passion for life and research.

More posts by Zhang Jie 张洁
  • Meera-chan

    He is a real hero!! I am an English learner, and I admire people like him.
    Thanks for the valuable post!

  • Dariush Izadi

    Hi Jenny
    Thanks for your great post!
    I have always wanted to learn about Li Yang’s apparently “practical” method. At CME (the Center for Macquarie English), where I teach EAP courses, there are a lot of Chinese students who have been influenced by Li Yang “Crazy English”. They said his method begins with pronunciation. The moment the learners have learned how to pronounce, they begin to prepare short speeches. These speeches are often not prepared by themselves, but taken from a book or other sources.
    Some of my students said they’d improved a lot using this method because according to them it gave them a sense of self and overcame some of the major challenges they faced in English! They even told me this method has gained a massive popularity among Chinese celebrities, whose dream is to achieve international fame some day!
    Thanks to your excellent post, now I know who Li Yang is!

  • Trueman May

    I think Mr. Lee’s success indeed is one of the best manifestations of the Chinese cliche to the effect that the times makes the man. The tens of millions need to learn English for whatever purposes. But then, they do not have a good way to make the learning process easy enough to gain confidence and keep their initial zeal. This general but urgent need in society thus makes it possible to set up the stage for the the man, like what is said of whom in the above article, has opened an era in China: the Era of the Craze for English, with his idiosyncratic way of starting the English learning journey and his charisma as an unprofession-turned-professional.
    Due to my scanty knowledge about Mr. Lee and his Crazy English, I can’t say very much in comment of the man and his career. I only hope that those who are at the moment crazy about Crazy English can become finally crazy about English after they have fulfilled their initial purpose of following the Father of Crazy English.

    Trueman Ma

  • Hi Jenny

    Very interesting post indeed and a wonderful analysis of how people become social heroes. You have been very insightful in the last paragraphs of your post which for me is the key, the ability to exploit the ignorance of the common ordinary people on the acquisition of languages and its interconnection with power. Usually such discourses come in a nationalistic packages and in our case: nationalism+ religious fervor, two dominant strategies used by people in power or those who aspire to become powerful.

    Thanks for the post.