Two weeks ago, Jalin and I were watching the Olympics in my apartment. It would be our last Friday together before I left for Luzhou and she was feeling a bit down.
“Do you want to go to the English Corner?” she suddenly said with excitement. “It’s at the university.”
There had been several times during the year Jalin had asked me if I was interested in going to Sichuan University’s English language corner.
English corners in China are quite popular. They pop up in city parks, university campuses, town squares, high schools and numerous other public places. English corner gatherings are just that: crowds of people, all ages and walks of life, coming together at a fixed time and place to practice their English. They create small standing circles and begin speaking on any subject. They discuss issues, tell stories, share family information, debate hot topics, or just join a small group to listen. They are students, businessmen, teachers, parents, secretaries, managers and the list goes on. Everyone comes for one reason: To practice their English. Some use English in their daily lives, such as for overseas’ business ventures, guiding English speakers on tours or manning international hotels’ front desks. Others have taken up English as a hobby, something they enjoy doing in their spare time.
English corners can be found in any city, large or small, all across China. Of course, the most popular and well-attended are those on university campuses. Sichuan University, according to Jalin, was no exception.
Since this would most likely be one of our last opportunities to go to an English corner together, I said yes. Although it was going on 8:30 p.m., and the English corner had already started at 7:30, Jalin insisted there wouldn’t be a problem. People dispersed around 11 because they were so into speaking with one another. I wasn’t about to stay so late but at least one hour would be fair, I thought.
English corners in China tend to have only Chinese. Most foreigners who are teachers are too exhausted after a week of lessons to be “on stage” yet again at an English corner. If a foreigner does happen to step into the crowds, he or she is usually surrounded by excited people, wanting to practice with a native speaker. They press in close, straining to hear what’s being said.
Often times, one strong-willed individual will hog the entire conversation, inundating the overseas’ guest with questions or rudely butt in to interrupt others who are trying to talk. If you’ve ever been to an English corner, as I have, you honestly have to be up for it with a smile on your face and a good dose of caffeine to keep you going for at least an hour. Anyone in a bad mood, stay away or you’ll most likely be sour and terse when speaking with everyone. Not at all a good image to portray to those eager to talk with a foreign English speaker.
True, I was tired and still packing to leave for Luzhou that Friday night but I wanted to go with Jalin. I did it for her.
Jalin and I made our way across the darkened campus toward the sports stadium where the English corner had already begun. When we arrived, I was quite surprised by the vast number of people gathered. There must have been 150 with only one other foreigner in sight that I could see. But what truly surprised me were the children. I noticed two small boys in gradeschool talking to each other while adults were off in their own groups enjoying their chat time.
One thing that I am truly keen on is always encouraging young people to speak in English. I quickly went up to the boys and we began.
Both had English names, Jake and John. Jake was 9 years old (the bigger boy) and John was 11 (the smaller). Jake’s dad was an English teacher who was nearby. John’s parents were in the car, waiting for him to finish.
Although I started with simple phrases, it was quite clear after a few minutes that these boys were at a higher level than quite a few of my Luzhou students. Some of them couldn’t even say a sentence or understand a single word I said. These boys were asking questions about the Olympics, my favorite sports, what I did on the weekend, and where I was from. When I threw back at them different topics, they had no problem in understanding my meaning.
When we were joined by a very tall 11-year-old girl, almost as tall as 9-year-old Jake, I jokingly asked John, "Why are you so much shorter than these two?"
John, not missing a beat, replied cheerfully, "I am shorter but you see my English is better. I’m smarter!"
We all laughed but John wasn’t yet to be outdone.
"Also," he said with seriousness, "we know that girls mature faster than boys. Of course, she is taller but soon, I will be taller, too."
I guess we know who was put in their place during that question-answer time.
I would have loved spending my entire evening with these two boys as they were so bright (and awful cute) but with a foreigner around, the adults were onto me pretty darn quick.
Adults are a different category of speakers because they tend to be pushy. Taking turns is not exactly in the Chinese culture when it comes to conversation. Everyone usually jumps right into the fray, interrupting one another or shouting over each other. If you are experienced in English corners, you have to play a good hostess.
Make sure you address everyone individually in your circle. Make sure everyone gets to say something. Pull in the shy, hovering outsiders with a friendly question. Don’t let someone monopolize the conversation. Move to another group if at all possible.
The last public English corner I attended was 17 years ago in the city park in Nanchang, Jiangxi Province. At that time, only the elderly or university students were in attendance. Now the range has grown. So many different ages and professions were represented.
Jalin didn’t even join me. She was too busy searching out the good-looking high school boys. Later, however, she told me she met up with a Chinese pilot who had flown to many different countries. He told her about his travels to America, Australia, Britain, Europe and Japan. I also had some interesting representatives of the Chinese working world: a bank teller, an artist, a newspaper reporter, a TV anchorwoman.
When I finally called it quits at 10 p.m., I had learned a great deal about the personal lives of many interesting individuals. I had forgotten how much fun English Corner can be with those who have enough language ability to express themselves, their thoughts and their feelings. It was a very eye-opening experience and one which I was so happy to have shared with Jalin our last Friday as neighbors.
Back to my Luzhou vocational college, I had tried for several years to start up an English Corner but it always failed. The students would gather but they wouldn’t speak English with one another, only with me.
“We have nothing to say,” they replied sadly. “Our English is so bad.”
Their English spoken skills were so limited that they felt defeated before they even opened their mouths.
Despite this, I’m going to try organizing a campus English Corner this year and give it another go. Out of 7,000 students, surely we have those who can speak English enough to help lead the less confident others.
Look at my little Chengdu friends, Jake and John. If they can do it, surely these Luzhou college kids can.
Wish us luck, everyone! Maybe my next English Corner blog will be all about students here alongside the Yangtze river, enjoying an evening of fun, productive language time together with one another and their foreign teacher, Connie.
From beside the Yangtze River, here’s wishing you Ping An (peace) for your weekend.