English mania

Crowds of Chinese people chant English phrases out, and in one stroke becomes the biggest English speaking nation of the world.

A bit of an introduction is in order for TED, the idea conference. I’ve come to think of TED as a kind of peer reviewed journal. It’s content controlled for quality, but unlike the journal, it spans many different fields and you don’t need a PHD in any of them to get a general idea of what they are talking about. So it’s accessible. Some of the articles (in this case talks) are just 5 minute introductions like the one I’m running today, while others are full on 20 minute excursions. You also get the odd musical intermission. In 2007, David, a friend of mine, summarized TED rather well by saying “TED is a place where crazy people give awesome talks”.

Today you’ll meet Jay Walker, who is talking about the mania/craze with people outside of North America and parts of Europe learning English. He focuses in on China but this can be applied to so many different countries that have gone through this adjustment period. More from me after the video.

Jay Walker speaking on English mania at TED 2009, running time 4m14s.

For a 5 minute video there are a lot of talking points in there.  I hope you’ll excuse me if I similarly jump all over the place.

  • Manias as agents of change using mob mentality
  • Educational system critique
  • China as a superpower
  • Language as culture
  • Power of a common dialect

The first thing that affected me in this presentation is my stigma against mob mentality. The roaring crowds repeating chants, the crowd assuming a direction, repeating a message until they believe it. It’s extremely powerful and I can’t help but be both awed and frightened by it. Whether for good or evil, I have this idea that people in that situation aren’t thinking for themselves, and that is never good. It should be a willful choice.

Taking the talk from another perspective, you see a critique of the educational system in China. I’m more familiar with Japan, but they seem similar. I wouldn’t be surprised if many asian countries have adopted similar systems. Entrance exams into middle schools. Into high schools. Into univercity. Cram schools to get ready for all of them. Days, weeks, months and years spent trying to attain the next level. Everyone’s test scores posted on a board, ranked by result, identified by name. Everyone knows who you are, everyone knows where you stand, everyone knows who you’ll become. Is it a university and a job and a future? Or the farm and rice fields and pigs?

Of their system we could say they are robbed of childhood. Here in North America as we focus more on A for Effort they could say of us, grow up without the ability to survive. Show up, pay the fee, get the piece of paper. Participation marks. It’s obvious both systems are creating huge problems. You don’t have to look far in the working class of either to see symptoms of rot stemming from either of these philosophies. You can say why not chose a nice middle ground, but both systems are moving to increasingly embrase their ideal, not meet each other on common ground. You’re far more likely to see either or both collapse.

The media has slowly been moving us in a direction of rethinking how we view China. Nowadays I often hear “It’s good for China, but is it good for us?” for developments in China. Things that we used to not even think twice about, that don’t affect us. We are starting to realize that the bulk of the world’s population is there, that they are a superpower, and that we will not be able to keep up. Whatever happens in China, will affect the world. And as an outsider, you can’t help but be a little bit scared of what that might mean for you. Change is scary.

The concept of English as the second language I think is something all countries except those in North America will immediately grasp. In Canada for example, people tend to think of English as something that is pushed onto them, obliterating their culture. I don’t think this is the case for european countries. Is it just a case that in an English country, everyone else is a minority? So your language and your culture is a minority. Elsewhere, while the majority of people may speak English, your culture (and the language it developed with) is still primary, no matter what language you may speak now.

I think therein lies the key, and the point in the presentation, that you are who are you are, it is not how you say it, it is the message you deliver. If you can be understood, then half the problem is already solved.