Method or Madness?

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ANTHONY SPAETHThere was a time when diplomats had to speak French and doctors benefited from a knowledge of German. In today's world, according to Beijing-based Li Yang, English is the indispensable tongue--not an original thought, perhaps, or an unlikely one from the highest-paid English teacher in mainland China. But Li's full message, accepted by millions, isn't quite that simple. According to Li, there is a single key to helping China grow strong and confident, to get over centuries of defeat and to get rich: a command of shouted English.For those who weren't listening closely, Li has devised an English learning system based on shouting, which he claims aids concentration and retention. The method has become so popular that he can fill stadiums with 30,000 people eager to learn loudly. Rich families pay him between $12,000 and $24,000 a year to yell at their kids in English. A set of tapes and books teaching Crazy English, as the method has come to be known, sells for $24, a significant sum in a land where the average monthly salary is $60. So popular are the lessons that the tapes and books have been pirated. So, too, has Li's persona: impostors claiming to be him have started holding high-decibel language sessions. When I went to Shenzhen, he laughs, they asked me if I was the real or the fake one.The genuine article had a troubled boyhood in Xinjiang province, where, as Li tells it, he failed classes and was usually on the verge of expulsion from school. Somehow he got into a university, but was close to being tossed out when he had a personal revelation. He started bellowing his English lessons in a local park, and that did the trick. I had serious problems with my concentration, he relates. But when I yelled, I realized I could concentrate. It worked like magic. He ended up at the top of his English class. After graduation, working as a researcher at a technical institute in Xian, Shaanxi province, he rose each day at dawn, stood on the roof of the institute and hollered out bromides such as: As you sow, so shall you reap, and Actions speak louder than words! Unsurprisingly, people thought I was out of my mind, Li recalls.PAGE 1  |  
What worked for him, he figured, should work for others, so he started tutorials in Crazy English. He moved to booming southern Guangdong province, toning down the bass and treble to work as a radio announcer, and then set up the Stone-Cliz International English Promotion Workshop. Classes evolved into Crazy English events: language workshops that Li conducts as part inspirational rally, part rock concert. The audience is warmed up with loud, Western rock 'n' roll. Li, 30, takes the stage dressed like a pop star and starts exhorting the crowd via a thundering sound system: You need passion! Such events have been held in 60 counties across China, with enthusiastic crowds numbering from 1,000 to 30,000. Like Muzak-meister Yanni, Li has even performed within the hallowed walls of Beijing's Forbidden City. During a recent workshop at Beijing's Qinghua University, the crowd was loud in its approval. English is quite important for most of us, gushed Duan Xin, an 18-year-old biology student who goes by the English moniker Duncan. When I got the ticket I was so excited. He's so famous. Li claims 12 million people are studying his method; the Chinese government estimates that 100 million Chinese are currently studying English at various decibel levels.To most Chinese, English can be a passport to an education abroad or a high-salaried job with a foreign firm in China. The notions that Li proselytizes--shout that word from a rooftop three times fast--are far grander. Chinese have 5,000 years of history to be proud of, but the fact is they feel very bad about themselves, he explains. Americans say you should speak our language, we don't have to bother with yours. But in China, the first sentence people say to a foreigner is, 'I'm sorry my English is poor.' Conquering the foreign tongue, he insists, will allow China to face the world proudly and will bring untold riches. As he exhorts the students in Beijing: Make international money! Make money from foreigners! This is the American dream--from rags to millions--and I want to make it a Chinese dream!Some people think Li's Crazy English is less method than madness. Studying language is a gradual thing, advises Chen Shu, a professor of English at the Beijing Foreign Studies University. You can't expect to do it in a short time--like a two-hour shouting lesson. In 1996, English teachers in Guangdong complained that Li's methods were encouraging students to ignore their regular English studies. The local government prohibited Li from teaching for six months; a similar ban on Crazy English is in effect in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province.Li couldn't care less. He eschews vacations and family visits for work, and is planning to expand his empire into bodybuilding centers and psychiatric counseling. A tough mind needs a tough body, he points out. Crazy Therapy anyone?--Reported by Mia Turner/Beijing  |  2