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Blogging Beijing

The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.

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June 20, 2008 2:30 AM

An Olympic English lesson

Posted by Daniel Beekman

China's love affair with the English language didn't begin with the 2008 Olympic Games. It merely gained momentum...a lot of momentum.

In 2001, the same year as Beijing's successful Olympic bid, China declared primary school English compulsory. By 2005, nearly 200 million Chinese were formally studying the language. Educators, parents and employers now regard English as essential - like writing, science or math.

Roughly 500,000 Olympic volunteers - mostly Chinese university students - will recieve roughly 500,000 foreigner visitors to Beijing during the 16-day Games. Why not retired doctors? Why not middle-schoolers? Why not housewives?

It's Beijing's university students who understand, and in many cases speak, English.

The city has demanded they perfect their English ahead of the Olympics, to better guide and assist athletes and guests from abroad. Beijing's cab-drivers, hoteliers and police-officers are in cram-mode - squeezing in study-sessions before, after and during work...often by audio-tape.

More on English learning in China and the 2008 Olympics:

'Crazy English - The national scramble to learn a new language before the Olympics'
'Learning to Speak Olympics in Beijing'
'Mad about English: Chinese flock to learn'
'Zhang Hanzhi, Mao's English Tutor, Dies at 72'
'Beijing Decides Poor Translations Won't Do' (2007)
'Foreign Language Fever Hits Beijing' (2005)
'Beijing Launches English-Learning Programs' (2001)

The 2008 Games have given birth to a new genre of paperbacks here: 'Olympic English' phrasebooks. They're selling fast in Beijing, where a handful of giant, state-run bookstores monopolize the reading scene. China's Olympic organizers have pumped out texts tailored to volunteers', seniors' and security officers' specific needs.

What qualifies as 'Olympic English?'

Here's a sampling from 'Aoyun Yingyu Sanbaiju' ('300 English Sentences for Olympic Games'):

Welcome to Beijing.
How do you do?
Did you come to China for Olympic Games?
How long will you stay in China?
China's porcelain and silk are famous.
It's very hot in July and August in beijing. The air temperature is around 30 degrees centigrade.

Giving directions
Are you lost?
Beijing Shooting Range? Not far from here. You can go by walk.
Do you see that white house? The public toilet is over there.
It is electronic. You can touch the screen, the map is there.
I will go to the Capital Indoor Stadium, too. Follow me please.

Day's topic
It's raining cats and dogs.
What's your name?
It's August 8th.
Sorry, I'm really/so/terribly sorry.
It's my fault.
Will you ever forgive me?

Being a taxi driver
Where to, sir?
Please stop smoking.
Here's your change. Bye-bye.
Are you carsick?
Let's open the window.

Working in a restaurant
Here's an English menu.
How do you want your steak?
Enjoy your meal.

Selling at a store
The red t-shirt fits you.
This is the latest fashion.
The purse is cheap.
I'm afraid I can't bring the price down.

Topics for sports
Let's go watch the football match.
Could you teach me something about equestrian?
I'm a green hand at handball.
I like rhythmic gymnastics. How about you?

Topics for Olympics
What's the slogan of the 29th Olympics?
One world, one dream.

Watching a game
The excellent athlete was eliminated in the preliminaries.
Hi, Mike. What a game! I'm sure that our team will win for the final.
Why did Cameroon's team lose to French's team.
Wang Tao overtook his counterpart 3 to 1.
China may win the gold medal.
My heart is jumping!
Our team losed to the Japanese team.
Good shot!

Beijing's English train derailed temporarily this month, under criticism from Paralympians and disabled fans. The city's Olympic organizers pulled the English version of a 200-page volunteer manual offline, citing insensitive language and the inclusion of offensive stereotypes.

The manual described persons with physical disabilities as having "unusual personalities because of disfigurement."

"For example, some physically disabled are isolated, unsocial and introspective; they usually do not volunteer to contact people. Sometimes they are overly protective of themselves, especially when they are called 'crippled' or 'paralyzed,'" the manual counseled. "never stare at their disfigurement."

Organizers recalled the booklet and issued a public apology.

Other booklets on sale in Beijing employ more tact. China's Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press has translated an American-authored text - 'Aoyun Yingyu' ('Olympic English'). Chapter 5 is titled 'Sharing Cultural Information: Stereotypes.'

It begins, "In this chapter, you will learn to: desribe the people from different countries, make generalizations, qualify or contradict generalizations, talk about sterotypes." 'Aoyun Yingyu' introduces the English proverb 'don't judge a book by its cover.'

Oral practice sentences from the chapter include:

  • Americans like baseball, and soccer too.
  • Brazilian boys play soccer, and Brazilian girls play soccer too.
  • Russians are tall, but Yelana isn't tall.
  • Children like television, but my young son doesn't watch it.

Unlike 'Aoyun Yingyu Sanbaiju,' 'Aoyun Yingyu' contains few Chinese footnotes. Clearly, 'Aoyun Yingyu' was written for advanced Chinese learners of English.


'UN organs train Beijing Olympic volunteers in AIDS awareness'

'US, China wrapping up high-level economic talks'

'How the Chinese Communists destroyed ancient Beijing'

'A Chinese school, principal, stood while others fell'

'Robles record will spur Liu on, says coach'

'China, Taiwan sign historic deals on travel'

'USA Soon To Decide Whom To Bring to Beijing'

'Jumping on China's new power'

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