By Jessica Schwartz
Wei Bairang couldn’t help but be intrigued when she was given a handout during English Corner, a weekly English conversation club at Beijing’s Renmin University: “Beware of Virgins – they increase divorce rates!”
The 19-year-old student of China Agriculture University first attended English Corner about a year ago but left each time feeling unimpressed and unfulfilled. “I was tired of having the same conversation over and over again,” Wei said. “A lot of the English clubs I tried were simple conversations about your name, your major and a brief family background. I was not learning anything.”
That’s where Anthony DeMarco comes in. DeMarco, 49, first noticed this growing feeling of boredom toward English clubs and classes among students when he moved to Beijing from Canada in 2008. “None of these students were practicing English in a meaningful way, and that is what Anthony’s English Club is for,” he said.
China’s schools require students to take English in junior high, high school and two years in college but the desire to continue the learning beyond compulsory standards is growing. Ivy Liu, a 27-year-old Beijing resident who has studied English for 15 years and plans to continue her learning in any way possible, explained that learning English in a larger context is becoming important because “English is the language of the world. Everyone everywhere speaks a little.”
Each Tuesday evening, DeMarco leads aspiring English speakers through topics ranging from whether sexual compatibility should be tested before wedding vows are exchanged to more politically touchy issues regarding the way Mao Zedong should be remembered.
DeMarco has had no trouble cultivating a following. “We once filled an entire lecture hall when we debated the issue of China’s censorship of Google,” he said. “Students want to learn English when they are talking about things they care about. Renmin University is known for its law school, so it is a natural place to foster debates.”
Anthony’s English Club is not the first of its kind. Clubs and organizations that allow students to practice English in a more interesting and slightly unconventional way are popping up all over Beijing.
For students who have a surer grasp of the language, and wish to extend their knowledge beyond vocabulary and grammar, there is Ariel Tudela, who moved to Beijing in 2007 from Miami, Fla. for an adventure and with the hope of teaching English. Tudela, in addition to teaching elementary school English classes, landed a job teaching the American Culture class offered at the Culture Yard in central Beijing. The Culture Yard, opened in 2010, offers language classes of all levels as well as culture classes. Tudela’s class runs at 75 RMB ($13) and claims to teach students things their English teacher never could.
The most recent class offered at the Culture Yard discussed “bad words” and all that they entail. “I love bad words, they can convey a certain passion and emotion that words you learn in class cannot,” Tudela told a group of eight students who attended his American Culture class on June 9.
“I often hear these words on American television shows, but never knew what they meant or when to use them,” said 24-year-old Culture Yard student Zhang Wanting. “I have studied English for a long time, but I wanted to learn it in a cultural context. Languages are not like math, you can’t just learn them in a normal classroom – it’s life. I want to be able to think and express my feelings in Chinese and English interchangeably.”
Students throughout Beijing are sharing similar realizations that learning English will undoubtedly enhance their future. “Fully understanding the language is not just giving me a wider choice of entertainment options,” Zhang said. “In addition to it being a cultural thing, it is related to economic opportunities, political opportunities and everything in between.”