Learning to Speak Olympics
By MIKE MEYER
Published: May 25, 2008
Mocky is a naughty monkey. His friends Ken and Ann are humans. Together, they teach English in Beijing’s elementary schools. My students love Mocky. He and his pals are more fun than the characters in their previous textbook series, Ma Nan and her teacher Miss Zhang. Those primers could have been titled “Hectoring English.” A typical dialogue went:
From the “Mocky” Series
“I’m sorry, Miss Zhang.”
“When do you get up every morning?”
“Get up earlier. Don’t be late next time.”
In Beijing, students begin learning English in first grade. Every child is enrolled in three 45-minute lessons weekly until sixth grade. That sounds impressive, but beware the Potemkin classroom. Most instruction is automated, with students reciting dialogue along with animated characters on a DVD. Although Mocky speaks slowly, he sounds like Truman Capote on helium. Like my students, I follow the subtitles.
I live just south of Tiananmen Square, on one of the city’s hutong, or narrow lanes, in a decrepit courtyard house shared by several families. Since 2005, I’ve volunteered at the neighborhood’s elementary school. On the first day, I found blackboards decorated with chalked Olympic mascots, the five-colored rings and verses in Chinese:
The Olympics will be held in 2008
Our civic virtue must be great!
Spitting everywhere is really terrible
Littering trash is also unbearable
To get a “thumbs up” from foreign guests
Beijing’s environment depends on us!
After standing for the national anthem each morning, students were supposed to update the number of days until the start of the games. Only one class kept the correct count. Time had stopped completely in Grade 4, Class 2, where there were always 996 days until the Olympics.
It was a pleasant illusion. There were no clocks in my classroom, and the view out the windows looked just as timeless. Waves of sloping, tiled rooftops rolled toward the school. We could see the flying eaves of the Front Gate and the row of red flags fluttering atop the Great Hall of the People. The wider view, however, revealed that we lived on an ever-shrinking island. Modern office towers and apartments built on razed hutong squeezed our neighborhood from all sides. I pointed to the golden arches shining in the distance, and the kids shouted, “McDonald’s!” By the end of that school year, we could see a Wal-Mart too.
Mocky is the poster monkey for the drive to have 35 percent of the population conversant in English by the Olympics. He originated in a textbook series called “Bingo!,” used throughout Asia if not always beloved. (This from the blog of a teacher in South Korea: “‘What’s wrong with Mocky? He ate his banana too fast.’ Why didn’t Mocky choke and die on that big banana instead of just making a mess on the kitchen table, the table of my mind!”)
The textbooks are similar to those the students use to study Chinese. There are no proficiency levels, so the best students slide toward “average” competency. The questions ask students to repeat rather than analyze, evaluate or create. Isolated words are stressed over complete sentences, and students often cannot relate to the terms.
When Mocky explores careers, he considers becoming a farmer, a doctor, a nurse, a pilot or a dancer. After injuring himself while trying to juggle, he comes to respect veterinarians and decides he wants to be one. But when I asked my students about their aspirations, the first boy yelled, “When I grow up, I want to be a foreigner!”
The students had difficulty saying what their own parents did for a living. “How do I say ‘unemployed’?” one asked. On the blackboard, I wrote down the English for fry-cook, road builder and — for a girl who called herself Cher — fashion designer. She pointed at a classmate and said in English and Chinese, “His father is a prisoner!”
The only decorations on the classroom walls were patriotic: a plastic flag, a typed list titled “10 Actions That Show Civic Virtue and Decorum for the Olympics.” Mocky is apolitical, yet at times I question his allegiances. A lesson in fifth grade began with Mocky’s asking, in less than perfect English, “Who is the first man in the space?”
“I don’t know,” Ken answers. “But I know about the first man from China in space. He is Yang Liwei.”
Mocky admires a picture of the astronaut, smiling and waving next to a Chinese flag, and comments, “Wow, he is so great.” The fourth-grade textbook focuses on the past tense. In fifth grade, children are introduced to the future tense. When I asked students to create their own sentences, they translated lessons from their Chinese classes. For a year, I heard student after student repeat: “Beijing will host the best Olympics. Chinese culture will attract the world deeply. We will win.”
Olympic Games (2008)Then, suddenly, Mocky disappeared. We last saw him in the jungle at the end of fifth grade, angering Ken and Ann by taking them to an all-banana restaurant. “I do not miss that stupid monkey,” one of my best students blurted out in Chinese. Then she frowned and asked, “How do I say that in English? I forgot.”
Mocky is the creation of Ken Methold, the author or co-author of more than 250 titles, which have sold more than 15 million copies. He rarely gives interviews. Perhaps he would rather be recognized for his six novels than for his red English-speaking dinosaur, Gogo, who can be seen on an endless video loop at Beijing’s Book Mansion, asking, “Do you like doughnuts? Do you like burgers?”
With 230,000 titles on display, Book Mansion is China’s largest bookseller. Textbooks fill one of its five floors, each the size of an Olympic swimming pool. There’s an entire aisle of English-Chinese dictionaries and another filled with preparation manuals for English competency exams. This being China, Mocky faces some new competition, in the form of a series starring a monkey named Micky.
But for all the piles of textbooks, a visitor to Beijing will still have difficulty finding locals conversant in English. Book Mansion categorizes its manuals by category: leisure English, phone English, taxi English, job-hunting English, even badminton English. I opened one of the many books titled “Olympic English” and found this: “I have made a reservation for tonight through the telephone. My name is Cable Guy.”
So just what are Chinese people learning about the English-speaking world? For starters, we’re moody sluts. A book called “Love English” teaches that “Do you want to go to a movie?” really means “I’d eventually like to have sex with you,” while “I’m bored” really means “Do you want to have sex?” The final entry in “50 Selected Love Letters Between United States Presidents and Their Beloved” is from Monica to Bill, and introduces the adjectives “disposable,” “used” and “insignificant.”
The police, 60 percent of whom are supposed to be competent in English in time for the Olympics, study from a book called “Olympic Security English.” Dialogues called “Dissuading Foreigners From Excessive Drinking” and “How to Stop Illegal News Coverage” introduce useful phrases like “Don’t pretend to be innocent.”
Fourteen countries border China, but the only characters from neighboring regions are Muslims with names like “Mohammed Ali.” One culprit is apprehended while robbing an American’s hotel room, “because my family was killed when the United States bombed Afghanistan. I became homeless and I hate Americans.”
My best student is the local constable, Officer Li. He approached me about a private lesson in English vulgarities, “so I know when a foreigner is cursing me.” We met over dumplings. As the rounds of beer kept coming and other customers turned to stare, I compared Officer Li to body parts, told him what to do with himself and appraised his mother. He nodded happily and asked for more.
Mike Meyer is the author of “The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed,” to be published next month.