The alumni of the vast people’s University of China are typical of the post–Mao Zedong generation. Every Friday evening several hundred gather informally under the pine trees of a little square in Beijing's Haidian district, in the so-called English Corner, to hold "English conversation." Chatting together in groups, they discuss football, movies, and celebrities like Victoria Beckham and Paris Hilton in awkward but enthusiastic English. They also like to recite simple slogans such as Barack Obama's 2008 campaign catchphrases--"Yes, we can" and "Change we can believe in."
This scene, repeated on campuses across China, demonstrates the dominant aspiration of many contemporary, educated Chinese teenagers: to participate in the global community of English-speaking nations. Indeed, China offers the most dramatic example of a near-global hunger for English that has brought the language to a point of no return as a lingua franca. More vivid and universal than ever, English is now used, in some form, by approximately 4 billion people on earth--perhaps two thirds of the planet--including 400 million native English speakers. As a mother tongue, only Chinese is more prevalent, with 1.8 billion native speakers--350 million of whom also speak some kind of English.
Contagious, adaptable, populist, and subversive, the English language has become as much a part of the global consciousness as the combustion engine. And as English gains momentum as a second language all around the world, it is morphing into a new and simplified version of itself...
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