English as a second language (ESL) is all the rage in China. Gazillions of people are learning it. Unfortunately, the experience is quite unpleasant for many. Long hours and endless repetition of dry lessons yields little tangible result in terms of ability to use the language. No wonder the "I hate English" club is growing in leaps and bounds.
Into this chorus of grumbling stepped Li Yang, an entrepreneur who has invented his own pedagogy called "Crazy English".
Simply put, he has his students stand in large formations and shout at the top of their lungs. It is designed to overcome the innate shyness of most Chinese in verbalizing what they have learned in the classroom or by themselves.
All this sounds innocent enough. But is it?
In recent weeks, Li Yang has incurred the wrath of the public after encouraging his students to kneel "in gratitude" towards him. Photos of a huge crowd in kowtow positions, first published by Li himself on his blog, raised the question: What's wrong with this person and his tactics?
The answer, in my opinion, is everything.
Li Yang is a demagogue, to say the least. He wants you to believe that he has come up with an effective way of learning a foreign language. But actually it is an excuse for mind control, intended to maximize his commercial interests. In addition to the exorbitant tuition fees, his overpriced books and tapes - many lifted from copyrighted materials - form the basis of his business empire.
Many students and their parents are deceived by him because they gain new confidence when they hear him preach. Like all demagogues, Li correctly identified a problem plaguing most ESL students in China.
The traditional method of learning words and grammar rules by rote has produced an army of students whose approach to the language is with a scalpel in hand. Many tend to use the language as if it were a dead one like Latin. One gets the feeling that it is a strange echo of the real language, sapped of any vitality.
But saying the old way is wrong does not make the new way necessarily right. What the tongue-in-cheek "Crazy English" offers is truly crazy. The teaching sessions are like cult meetings; the shouting matches are reminiscent of the slogan fests during the cultural revolution (1966-76). If shouting can improve one's linguistic skills, we would have all turned into Confucius after that mass movement.
Indeed, shouting breaks down psychological barriers and helps strengthen bonding. The question is: Is the new camaraderie used to inspire and learn, or to submit and be obedient? Can you question authority? Can you conduct a rational discourse?
Many reported a feeling of liberation at the "Crazy English" hollered gatherings. That is not unique. The catch is, Li Yang liberates students in order to enslave them even further, very much like most agitators, political or commercial.
Even though our traditional methodology is fraught with rituals of submission, it has not stooped as low as asking hundreds of students to kneel as if they were being received by a feudal emperor. That is not a manifestation of a student's gratitude towards a teacher; rather, it strips a person of individuality and pounds him into obsequiousness.
Just imagine if Li had called his language education a "pyramid scheme" or "cult meeting" - what would have become of it? He is clever because he engages in these activities but adroitly avoids the label, of which many "regular" teachers of English have long accused him, at least in private.
After the kneeling incident, Li encouraged his female students to shave their heads. So far nobody has complied. But his true colors are now clear: he is crazy.
(China Daily 09/22/2007 page4)