Monthly Archives: May 2015

China’s English-language megacontest

This post is from Nina Porzucki. Read it if you like but for the full effect, listen to the podcast above.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee plays out this week and while you may be excitedly watching the best spellers in the US battle it out in Maryland, halfway around the world in China, Beijing’s kids are competing for a different kind of title: China’s Best English Speaker.

The Star of Outlook English Competition, sponsored by CCTV, the Chinese State television network, is the largest English competition in the country and, ostensibly, the world.

A sea of parents eagerly await to see when their child will perform. Cameras galore. (Photo: Sunny Yang)

A sea of parents eagerly await to see when their child will perform. Cameras galore. (Photo: Sunny Yang)

Hundreds of first through third graders, middle school and high school students gathered at a compound an hour outside of Beijing in the hopes of winning a place to compete at the National Championship this summer. They’re up against a mere 5 million of their peers from around China.

Getting to the national finals, which is televised in front of a huge audience, is an almost Herculean feat involving round after round of exhausting, multi-day tests. But winning means fame, entrance to a good college, a bright future. That’s how former national finalist Michelle Cui explained it to me.

“Such exposure on TV if you make it to the national final and all the things that comes with it will look so good on your track record and CCTV is the deal. … It’s really the maximum exposure an individual can get,” Cui said.

Today, Cui works in advertising and lives in Seattle. All of her fellow competitors have gone on to do interesting things: Host TV shows, write books, one even became the CCTV White House correspondent.

Jack, 7, and his mom at registration.  They lived for a few years in Washington, DC.  Jack remembers that he liked "Capitol Hill" the best.  That, and picnics.  Jack's will perform his favorite song for the talent competition, "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." (Photo: Sunny Yang)

Jack, 7, and his mom at registration. They lived for a few years in Washington, DC. Jack remembers that he liked “Capitol Hill” the best. That, and picnics. Jack’s will perform his favorite song for the talent competition, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” (Photo: Sunny Yang)

The kids I met this weekend want to win. Perhaps their parents want it even more.

“I’m not nervous,” 7-year-old “Jack” Zhou Zihan tells me. “I’m looking forward to win the first prize.”

Jack is fairly typical of the Beijing kids I met. They’ve lived abroad, traveled extensively; they’re part of a rising, affluent middle class. Jack lived in Washington, DC, as a toddler. His mother worked at the Chinese Embassy.

He studied English at a very young age, his mother told me. The golden age is two or three, she says, the same age that native speakers learn.

“I want him to be an ambassador between the two countries and around the world,” she says.

Some of the costumes and props were incredible. This little girl is dressed up as Beijing opera performer. The theme of the speech portion of the competition was "I Express China to the World."  Beijing opera was a pretty popular topic as you might imagine. (Photo: Sunny Yang)

Some of the costumes and props were incredible. This little girl is dressed up as Beijing opera performer. The theme of the speech portion of the competition was “I Express China to the World.” Beijing opera was a pretty popular topic as you might imagine. (Photo: Sunny Yang)

There are many, many parents with high expectations and blind, or perhaps deaf, love. After witnessing the talent portion of the competition, it’s clear the kids can speak much better than sing English.

But their talents weren’t limited to songs. Contestants had just one minute to show off any way they chose. There were magic tricks, flute performances, one salsa dancer, a couple of Rubix Cube experts, a hockey skater. By dinnertime Saturday night, one of the judges, Hester Veldman, looked bleary eyed.

“I watched 450 talents today. I heard the Frozen song about 300 times,” she says.

Kids and parents crowd around to see the list of finalists. Out of more than 400 kids that competed in the Beijing semifinals, only 80 move on the final round and only 9 from each division will move forward to the National semifinals. (Photo: Sunny Yang)

Kids and parents crowd around to see the list of finalists. Out of more than 400 kids that competed in the Beijing semifinals, only 80 move on the final round and only 9 from each division will move forward to the National semifinals. (Photo: Sunny Yang)

Veldman’s originally from the Netherlands, but she’s been teaching English in Beijing for the past year. This is her first time judging this kind of competition.

“The parents are really serious about it. I saw a dad who was actually commanding his son to move this way and stand that way and don’t do this and speak louder. They’re used to that pressure. They’re used to it from being in kindergarten all the way to now. So, to them, it might feel like summer cam,p but with our western eyes we think ‘Wow that’s a lot of pressure to put on a kid.’”

"Harry" Xing Wang dressed up to take the stage as Obama circa 2008.  (Photo: Sunny Yang)

“Harry” Xing Wang dressed up to take the stage as Obama circa 2008. (Photo: Sunny Yang)

And then there are kids like Xing Wang, who calls himself Harry.

Harry’s tiny, with glasses. He looks about 11, but he’s 13. Whatever he lacks in size he makes up double in confidence. Harry’s never lived abroad. His parents don’t speak English. They moved from Inner Mongolia to Beijing five years ago. Harry started learning English in the third grade, which is relatively late. Beijingers start in the first grade. But while Harry’s English isn’t the best, he is teeming with ideas. He tugs at my sleeve in anticipation of telling me his talent, which he eventually does.

“Today I’m going to study a part of Obama’s speech. His speech he said in Chicago. Maybe it’s the first time he became president,” he tells me.

Sure enough, Harry takes to the CCTV stage in a red tie and dress slacks and delivers Obama’s 2008 acceptance speech. He came up with this talent idea himself, he tells me. He’s a big Obama fan and he figures, many of the judges would probably be Americans, so this speech would surely make them feel patriotic and surely get him a high score. Clever kid.

Harry performs Obama’s speech to great applause. One judge calls out, “you should run for president.” Harry bows thank you and runs off stage. He is beaming. I whisper a question.

“How do you feel?”

“Very good,” he says.

Harry gives Obama's acceptance speech, hand gestures and all. (Photo: Sunny Yang)

Harry gives Obama’s acceptance speech, hand gestures and all. (Photo: Sunny Yang)

Outside we speak a little about his feelings for his own president, Xi Jinping — or Chairman Xi as Harry calls him.

“You know Chairman Xi, he is trying to do something called Chinese dream,” he tells me.

President Xi’s Chinese dream, he says, is to help China rise again, to become an important and powerful nation.

“So what’s your Chinese dream?” I ask him.

“I’m going to do my best to help my country grow up.”

Harry may think his country may be in need of growing up, but he himself appears to be doing just fine. He finds out he’s survived the Beijing semifinal and final round. He’ll be headed to the National Semifinals in June — just one round away from the big televised event.

Harry passed out after a grueling weekend. (Photo: Sunny Yang)

Harry passed out after a grueling weekend. (Photo: Sunny Yang)

When I went to wish Harry good luck, I found him passed out, asleep in the back of the auditorium. He doesn’t need my luck anyway. He already told me he’s confident he’ll make it all the way to the TV. I wonder if he’ll give an encore performance of Obama’s speech on CCTV.

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Re-learning your mother tongue in Korea

Read this post from Jason Strother who lives in Seoul. Or listen to the podcast above, which also includes a conversation with Korean-American Heidi Shin who recently made a trip back to Korea with her mom. Both found that they were speaking an antiquated form of the language.

Almost every language comes with an accent its speakers love to mock, and Korean is no exception.

South Koreans enjoy making fun of the North Korean dialect, which sounds quaint or old-fashioned to Southerners. Comedy shows parody the North’s style of pronunciation and make fun of North Korean words that went out of style in the South years ago. And all that spells trouble for North Korean defectors.

“I had a very strong North Korean accent,” says 28-year old Lee Song-ju, who defected to South Korea in 2002. “People just kept asking me about my hometown, my background. So whenever I was asked by them, I had to lie.”

Lee says South Koreans would have looked down on him if he’d told the truth. “I wouldn’t have made any friends,” he says. So Lee, like many of the 28,000 other defectors in South Korea, tried to pick up the local accent in a hurry.

Looking up the word for ice cream on the Univoca app (Photo: Jason Strother)

Looking up the word for ice cream on the Univoca app (Photo: Jason Strother)

But accent differences are just the start of the linguistic frustration and confusion that many North Koreans feel when they first arrive in the South. An even bigger challenge is learning all the new words South Koreans have acquired in the seven decades since partition, many of them borrowed directly from English.

“There’s been a lot of linguistic change, particularly in the South with the influence of globalization,” says Sokeel Park, the director of research and strategy at Liberty in North Korea, a refugee support group in Seoul.

Now some South Korean researchers are trying to help recent arrivals from the North bridge that language gap.

Smartphone App

One way is with a new smartphone app called Univoca, short for “unification vocabulary.” It allows users to type in or snap a photo of an unknown word and get a North Korean translation. There’s also a section that gives practical language advice, like how to order a pizza — or an explanation of some dating terminology.

The Univoca app includes a video explaining South Korean dating terminology (Photo: Jason Strother)

The Univoca app includes a video explaining South Korean dating terminology (Photo: Jason Strother)

“To create the program’s word bank, we first showed a typical South Korean grammar textbook to a class of teenage defectors who picked out the unfamiliar words,” says “Jang Jong-chul of Cheil Worldwide, the firm that created the free app.

The developers also consulted older and highly educated defectors who helped with the South-to-North translations. Univoca’s open-source database has about 3,600 words so far.

The Univoca app includes a video explaining South Korean dating terminology.

Testing the App

Upon first hearing about the new app, defector Lee Song-ju says he was skeptical about its proficiency. So he gave it a test run around a Seoul shopping plaza, where borrowed English words are everywhere.

With smartphone in hand, Lee walked past several stores, cafes and restaurants, all with signboards or advertisements featuring words he says would have made no sense to him back when he first defected.

The results were hit-and-miss. He stopped in front of an ice cream parlor and typed “ice cream” into his phone, but what appears on the screen didn’t seem right. The program suggested the word “aureum-bolsong-ee,” which literally means an icy frosting.

“We didn’t use this word when I was in North Korea,” he said. “We just say ‘ice cream’ or ‘ice kay-ke,'” the Korean way of pronouncing “cake.” Apparently North Korea isn’t so good at keeping English words out after all.

But after entering the word “doughnut,” Lee brightened up. “This is correct,” he said. “In North Korean, we say ‘ka-rak-ji-bang’ for doughnuts,” which translates as “ring bread.” We asked an illustrator to draw some of the more interesting translations for us. You can check those out in this related story.

After testing out the app in a few more locations, Univoca won over Lee. All the app’s functions are “really useful for North Korean escapees who just arrived here,” he said.

Unified Korean Dictionary

Smartphones aside, there’s a more traditional method Korean linguists are using to confront the North-South language divide.

Han Yong-woo is a South Korean lexicographer who, for the past several years, has been assembling the first unified Korean dictionary. His researchers are meeting with their North Korean counterparts this month in China to identify and translate uncommon words from each side of the peninsula.

Editors confer at the offices of the unified Korean dictionary. (Photo courtesy  Han Yong-woo)

Editors confer at the offices of the unified Korean dictionary. (Photo courtesy Han Yong-woo)


Some South Koreans regard the North Korean vernacular as more “pure” because of its perceived lack of foreign loan words. But Han disagrees, noting there’s no such thing as a pure language.

“All languages are living and growing, including North Korean,” he says. “Over the years they’ve borrowed foreign words too, but mainly from Russian and Chinese.”

For instance, Han says, the word “tractor” made its way from English to North Korea via their former Soviet neighbors.

Political tensions are getting in the way of completing the joint dictionary, but Han hopes the project will be wrapped up in a few more years. And even if no political unification seems likely, he’s optimistic the dictionary might help unify the peninsula linguistically instead.


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