Language Challenge
01 June 2005

Matching the valiant attempts of the locals to learn English, growing numbers of foreign nationals are coming to Beijing to study Mandarin.

Preparations for the 2008 Beijing Olympics continue at full pace. Along with developing the transport infrastructure and sprucing up the parks and famous tourist sites, there is a huge drive to improve the English language proficiency of every Beijinger.

A large pool of bilingual university students already exists, but other citizens, including taxi drivers and the elderly, are also keen to take up the language challenge. On Thursday mornings, I have the privilege of teaching a group of retired ladies in the northern outskirts of the city.

As we chant our way through some key phrases of a government-produced pamphlet, ranging from 'No pain, no gain' to 'When does the opening ceremony begin?', I doubt whether I will ever come across more enthusiastic, committed students. Such warm-hearted, friendly hosts will be crucial for making the Games a success.

Matching the valiant attempts of the locals to learn English, growing numbers of foreign nationals are coming to Beijing to study Mandarin. The area where I am based feels like a mini United Nations, with over 90 nations represented at Beijing University alone. This cultural diversity is celebrated every April at the University's International Cultural Festival.

The campus must be one of the few places in the world where you can spend the afternoon listening to a Japanese rock band while sampling Sudanese snacks, before settling down to a Chinese banquet with teaching colleagues from North Korea, Israel, India, USA and Russia-all in a healthy spirit of international friendship.

Nevertheless, my own attempts to introduce dub music into the classroom have been less successful. With its clear Jamaican influences, dub seems (to me at least!) a perfect example of how the UK has successfully absorbed some of the musical traditions of its ethnically diverse population.

Any hopes that my students might share my passion for the thumping bass lines were dashed when Eric told me in no uncertain terms to 'turn that noise off'. The week after my hapless presentation, the whole class sat in rapt attention as Ivy took us through the intricacies of the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The only person looking bored was the teacher but by the end of the lesson even I had gained a new appreciation for classical music.

If dub music has yet to take off in China, English football certainly has. Every week, a number of Premiership matches are broadcast live to hundreds of millions. Although Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea all attract interest, Manchester United remain the most popular team by far. Excitement about the team's visit to Beijing in late July is at fever pitch.

It is certainly difficult to feel homesick when I receive emails like the following: 'I learnt that you come from Manchester. It happens that Manchester United is my favourite football team. Those wonderful boys brought me a lot of happiness and they helped me to go through those hardest days in senior high school. I love the Reds so much. Are you among the Red Devils' fans?'

With over 2,000 high-rise buildings currently under construction, a population of around 14 million and approximately 63,000 taxis, Beijing is not a place for the faint-hearted.

Fortunately, Greater Beijing also boasts some of China's most spectacular sights where one can easily escape the people, noise and traffic jams.
Accompanied by my brother and a friend, I recently walked a ten kilometre stretch of the Great Wall between Jinshanling and Simatai. Admittedly we began walking at 6.30am and were out of the peak tourist season, but it was a real thrill to have the Wall completely to ourselves for three hours. A world away from the frenetic pace of downtown Beijing, I felt transported back to the Ming Dynasty, peering into the distant horizon looking for marauding nomads.

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