International Papers

Chinese Whispers

Thanks in part to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, English is the language du jour in China. Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post profiled Li Yang, the creator of “Crazy English,” a language-learning program “that requires students to shout in order to overcome their inhibitions.” Li enjoys the support of the Chinese government because he presents language skills as an essential step on the way to Chinese world domination: “[L]earn English because it is necessary for your life and your country, and in return you will be rewarded with a higher salary, a stronger China and eventually a future in which people around the world will be required to learn Putonghua [standard Mandarin Chinese] just as they need to learn English today.” Li is preparing for that future by developing a “Crazy Chinese” product for the global market.

Elsewhere, the SCMP reported that “many believe there are now more people studying English [in China] than there are native English speakers in the world.” English, a language long associated with American imperialism and British colonialism, was rarely taught in China until Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in the late 1970s. In contrast, there is a push to improve Putonghua proficiency in Hong Kong, where standards “leav[e] a lot to be desired. This may be due to the attitude Hong Kong people have developed in dissociating themselves culturally from mainlanders, who were thought to be a liability to Hong Kong’s competitiveness.”

Cantonese is the predominant language in Hong Kong, though the former colony’s history means that English is often heard in its courts. The SCMP noted that a defendant recently requested that his case be heard in his native Putonghua rather than the court’s official languages of Cantonese and English. According to the editorial, many Chinese-speaking judges “prefer to conduct proceedings in English, the language in which they received their legal training,” with interpreters translating for non-English-speaking witnesses. Since translators are readily available and no one has blamed translation problems for a miscarriage of justice, the paper concluded, “[I]t is important to ensure that every party in a proceeding be able to use their preferred language, have their testimony competently translated into English, and get the same justice. No one party should be allowed to dictate the language the other parties should use.”