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China's English idolatry

By Zuo Likun (chinadaily.com.cn)
Updated: 2010-03-16 10:57
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English is a language, a tool not a toy. Thus we will learn it, to chat not to strut.

The ecstasy all starts with a tongue-in-cheek, "dog wears cat bell."

Don't be sorry if it doesn't dawn on you, for it's not slang, nor an idiom; and the British genius lexicographers are in no rush to nail it in the next edition of Merriam-Webster.

Still, there hangs a story. A roomful of wonks were parrot-crying on their first English class, as clamorously as their lungs would permit, their newly-acquired exotic jargon into thin air, as if they were the abracadabra-spouting Harry Potter at the wizardry school. A spectacled English teacher passed by an unusually quiet boy, who gnawed his pen in earnest as it scribbled on his textbook.

"Gou Dai Mao Ling [gou-dai-Mow-leen]!" Full of pride, the boy read out aloud the four Chinese words he just wrote by the side of "Good Morning" – yes, the verbatim "dog wears cat bell".

My stars! What an incredible wunderkind!

The Chinese enthusiasm on learning English, with so far an estimated corps of 400 million followers, should indeed be hailed as an opening-up nation’s quantum leap on the global arena, especially when you realize this is a land besotted in ideological maelstroms only decades ago.

However, there is something weird about the country's language love affair. If you have any idea about those dandy philanders incarnated in countless Hollywood melodramas who trot out legions after legions of infatuated dolly birds to showcase their omnipotent pizzazz, you should know what I mean by weird.

For the majority of the 400 million corps, however well-intended they claim to be, English is all but a fashion, a new flame, a plaything to parade, the same as a Louis Vuitton bag for an itching nouveau riche.

Here, kindergarten pupils, who can’t even properly write their Chinese names, are spoon-fed ABC trainings and required to hail in unison "Bye-bye" after school, instead of their native equivalent "Zaijian" [tsai-Ji-an]. Job-hunting graduates, no matter whatever their disciplines, lament only if they could speak better English, since even a monk opening demands so, making them wonder aloud what sutra the Chinese temples are chanting now in the 21st century.

As much as you can't drag a dippy maiden out of her dreamboat, you can't talk a cult out of their religion. All you could do is to be watchful and make sure the ritual is performed soundly.

In China, the mimicry ritual is performed all too badly. Here, English learning is a smash hit. When it comes to English speaking, gee, fasten your belt before being hit by a smash. The best most college graduates can do is to beat his brain and stammer out dribs of intermittent words, and the rest is hysterical gesticulations, as if in a lunatic dance.

An online drollery betrays the gloomy pedantry to the hilt. A Chinese student drove off a cliff in Colorado. The police came, and then left. Days later, the student died of hunger.

The police yelled downward, "How are you?"

"Fine, thank you," shouted back the Chinese answer, grooved in all textbooks.

We swept all into a copycat frenzy, which we should be more self-conscious and critical of. We huddled all into a questionable assembly line, which we should improve before more dummies run wild. In a nutshell, we need the language, as a tool not a toy. Thus we will learn it, to chat not to strut.

Last, but certainly not least, please bear it in mind, without being self-important, that we do have a cultural treasure at home as well, if not better, which we should just polish as well, if not worse.