APEC fuels renewed interest in English

Updated: 2014-04-18 23:56

By Zheng Xin and Zhang Yue (China Daily)

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Beijing appears ready to fuel a fresh wave of interest in English-language learning in the run-up to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting this fall.

"Compared with many international metropolises, the popularization of English is not as strong in Beijing," said Chen Mingming, a foreign language expert at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"The government should come up with more platforms and channels to facilitate the learning of the language and better receive guests from across the globe during the APEC meeting."

Chen made the remarks on Tuesday at an event in Beijing that included the launch of an English handbook, online classes and education platforms on the popular WeChat smartphone application.

The handbook claims to cover conversational scenarios such as receiving foreign guests in Beijing, booking a hotel abroad, boarding a flight, ordering a meal and asking for directions.

"The handbook will help residents avoid embarrassment when running into a foreigner in Beijing," said Chen.

The APEC meeting is expected to generate renewed interest in learning English, mirroring a similar craze in anticipation of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, he said.

The government will give out the handbooks for free to residents, mostly in local communities. People can also get it during the foreign language festival, which will be held in Chaoyang Park from May 17 to 18.

Many Beijing residents started dabbling in English when the capital hosted the Olympics. It was part of an effort to fully embrace the event and its immense number of visitors.

Some of those residents stuck with it and continued to learn. They are now capable of daily conversation after years of practice.

For a group of 20 elderly residents in the Tianqiao community of Beijing’s Xicheng district, every Wednesday afternoon is an opportunity to learn English and catch up with old friends.

During one 90-minute session earlier this month, volunteer teacher Feng Daming taught the residents the lyrics of the Beatles classic Norwegian Wood by reading it aloud, word by word.

The community has been offering English courses for its senior citizens since 2001.

"In the beginning, the teaching materials we used comprised a series of books called 300 English Sentences for Daily Conversations. The book was published by China Women Publishing House and aimed at ordinary Beijing residents who were willing to learn English to prepare for the upcoming Beijing Olympics," said Feng, 68, who has been teaching the classes for more than 10 years. He taught English in a middle school in Beijing before retiring.

Up to 30 people attend the classes regularly, all of them over age 55.

"We had zero knowledge of English and did not even read the 26 letters of the alphabet in the very beginning. We did not learn any English when we were at school 40 years ago. We studied Russian as a foreign language," said Liu Fang, a 56-year-old woman who has been taking the class since 2007.

Five years later, the class has completed whole series of English conversation textbooks. Feng also started to teach materials related to Western literature and news.

"This is what we love most. You not only learn about the language, it’s also a time to update our knowledge," Liu said.

The elderly students say they are now able to communicate with their grandchildren in English, instead of being made fun of occasionally by the youngsters because of their lack of knowledge.

Some of the grandchildren started learning English when they were only 3 years old.

Liu said she went on a trip to the United Kingdom with her family in 2012 and enjoyed it.

"I did not feel lonely or afraid because I was able to read the road signs," she said. "I could even buy things in shops on my own, though I did have to use some body language."

But elderly residents still want more opportunities to practice their English with foreigners.

Rui Chongwen, 70, who started attending the classes in 2003, said that she and her classmates like to gather at the Temple of Heaven park because there are a lot of foreign travelers there and they can practice sentences by starting a simple conversations.

"Speaking with them builds my confidence in English," Rui said.

Contact the writers at zhengxin@chinadaily.com.cn and zhangyue@chinadaily.com.cn