The largest English-speaking country? China, of course

CHINESE PEOPLE are becoming increasingly obsessed with speaking English, and efforts to improve English-language proficiency …

CHINESE PEOPLE are becoming increasingly obsessed with speaking English, and efforts to improve English-language proficiency mean that at some stage this year, the world's most populous nation will become the world's largest English-speaking country. Two billion people are learning English worldwide, and a very large percentage of them are in China, writes CLIFFORD COONAN

During a recent reporting trip to Kashgar, in the restive western province of Xinjiang where foreigners, especially journalists, are not especially welcome, I was approached by a plainclothes policeman in the lobby of my hotel, who identified himself, sat down and asked me, in English: “Do you feel safe here?”. My heart sank. This is a standard opening line when officialdom comes knocking in China, although it is usually delivered in Chinese, and I readied myself for a trip down to the station, or at least a lengthy interrogation about what I was doing in this hotbed of separatism at China’s westernmost extreme.

Instead, the man produced an English-language textbook, poured himself a glass of my beer, and began to ask me questions.

“Are you loaded? Do you change diapers? I can count in English. Listen . . .” he said before doing just that, counting to 10,000 in English. Thankfully, once he got past 29, he started using every 10th number, but it was still a lengthy process. He followed this up with a strange moral tale involving why bats come out only at night, which he had clearly learnt off by heart.

The policeman was definitely checking me out, and he knew I was a foreign reporter, as all hotels are required to register foreigners with journalist visas in their passports with the local Public Security Bureau. He took my mobile phone number. But what was significant was that he used the opportunity to sharpen up his English.

In China, English allows you to travel and to gain social advancement, and English-language teachers have become minor celebrities.

Chief among these celebrities, the true folk hero of the English language training business is Li Yang, who founded the “Crazy English” movement, which involves him visiting a dozen cities a month and lecturing in English to crowds of up to 30,000. His books sell by the million.

Working on the principle that you can’t learn to swim in a classroom, “Crazy English” teaches language learning as a form of mass activity.

The teacher shouts out “I want to change my life” or “I don’t want to let my parents down,” as the students repeat after him or her.

Another major figure in the English language-training business is Dashan, a Canadian whose English name is Mark Rowswell and whose fluent Chinese has transformed him into the most famous westerner in China – taxi drivers and passers-by point at him. His language teaching shows, including programmes such as Dashan's Adventures in Canadahave made him a legend. He also hosts shows teaching Chinese to foreigners.

English-language training in China is an industry worth 15 billion yuan (€1.6 billion) a year, according to a survey by the Social Survey Institute of China (SSIC). There are more than 50,000 English training organisations in China, according to the report. In Beijing alone, some 200,000 people took English classes last year. Some help Chinese students study for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) needed to go abroad to study, while others help white-collar workers improve their oral English or their business and financial English.

During my conversation, or interrogation, or tutorial, whatever it was, with the police officer in Kashgar, a couple of young students approached the table, and said: “How are you? Where are you from?” to me, eager to open a conversation in which they could practise their English, before my policeman friend intervened, barking at them to get home and not to be interfering in police business, taking their mobile phone numbers too. They left, red-faced, apologetic, and a bit scared.

On the flight back from Xinjiang, a young high school student also kept trying to interrupt my efforts to write on my laptop with various opening lines: “The weather today is very beautiful” – this despite the fact our flight had been delayed by several hours because of a minor hurricane hitting the airport in the provincial capital, Urumqi. The opportunity of practising her English was too great to pass up, and I was happy to oblige – I’ve pulled similar stunts to practise my Chinese.

CHINESE PEOPLE'Senthusiasm for learning English has been driven by the country's membership of the World Trade Organisation since 2001, plus last year's Beijing Olympic Games and next year's Shanghai World Expo.

Late last year, the China Religious Culture Communication Association (CRCCA) and the Buddhist Association of China (BAC), opened an English-language training course for Buddhists so they would be better prepared for working in foreign countries.

Elder Master Yicheng, president of the BAC, said it was “imperative for China to train people who could spread Buddhist teachings in other languages”. More than 20 Buddhist monks were chosen from monasteries around the country and put through their English language paces at the Shanghai International Studies University.

“As our country becomes more international and is in the process of development, I think it is necessary for people to learn some English,” says Li Yuejian, 52, who owns a noodle restaurant in Beijing.

“There are more foreigners around. More people can speak English. I would try to learn some simple English if I had an opportunity. But I am too busy running my restaurant. And everyone is too young in the training courses,” she says.

All this does not mean that English is spoken as widely, or as well, as it is in European countries such as Sweden or Germany, or even France, and you still have a hard time getting around the place without Chinese, even in the big cities such as Shanghai and Beijing.

But English proficiency has improved markedly in recent years in China, as the country’s ambitious and hard-working people seek to better themselves. And there are a lot more Chinese people learning and speaking English than are English native speakers learning Chinese.

Although we are probably still a long way off the time when a local garda in Galway sparks up a conversation with a visiting Chinese journalist in Mandarin Chinese.