Steve Walker wants to put his tongue into the mouths of millions of Chinese. The American linguist has invented "The Jingles," a new English-language training method promoting training the muscles of the mouth so that non-native speakers can produce native-like sounds.
With his sleeves rolled up and his abdomen visibly protruding, 50-year-old Steve Walker takes a sip of water, builds up his energy and then starts to spout words through the fissures of his teeth amid a flurry of gesticulation.
"From early on, three thoroughly surly thirsty thugs thought they could take baths throughout the night," he bellows in a convincing fashion.
Don't be mistaken. This is not some "qigong" master pulling off some tongue-twisting stunt. Instead, Walker, an American linguist, is trying his best to appeal to local English speakers who wish to improve their language skills with his own trademark methods and adventurous approach: training mouth muscles through his latest book The Jingles -- A Revolution in English Pronunciation Therapy (Shanghai University of Finance and Economics Press, 32 yuan for two bilingual books and one CD).
The pronunciation therapy has been a hit in Japan, a land notorious for terrible English. Walker says it is because their muscles have not been adequately trained to pronounce English words in succession. While such a claim is debatable, it remains to be seen if his methods will go down well with Chinese people.
At a demonstration at the Scholar Book Store, a crowd of curious onlookers was loud in its approval when listening to Walker's exhortation to promote his self-help book. Walker also plans to offer the program locally with a pronunciation-improvement class soon. "English is a passport to an education abroad or a high-salaried job," says new convert Mo Yawen, a 29-year-old client manager. "Though his methods seem to be sort of crazy and weird, I might give it a shot."
It is people such as Mo who realize the importance of having at least some English language ability. Once upon a time, not so long ago, diplomats were required to speak French while doctors benefited from a knowledge of German. Today, it is English that is the indispensable tongue.
The Chinese government has also been quick to realize this as there are currently about 100 million Chinese studying English. The authorities in Beijing have started a program to teach 10 million people English so that the city will be ready to host the Olympic Games in 2008. Moreover, in preparation for the 2010 World Expo, the Shanghai government is encouraging all its denizens, young and old, to become fluent speakers of at least basic English.
In such a huge and rapidly growing market for language learning, it's not surprising that teachers with techniques that might be regarded as "unreliable" in more "developed" countries, can be extraordinarily successful.
Li Yang is a good example. The creator of "Crazy English" was the star of an internationally acclaimed documentary film and he has a cult following of more than 20 million across Asia. Li devised an English learning system based on shouting, which he claims aids concentration and retention. The method has become so popular that he can fill stadiums with 30,000 people eager to learn loudly.
"I really respect Mr Li," Walker says when asked about the comparison between his methods and Li's therapy. "Before 'The Jingles,' maybe his techniques were the best on offer. But my method is designed to improve English pronunciation by training the muscles of the mouth so that they could be effectively employed by non-native speakers to produce native-like sounds."
Walker is a polyglot himself. He has mastered nine foreign languages, including Arabic, Japanese, Spanish, French and German. He also designed J-TEP, a pronunciation evaluation system that is now used as a global standard for measuring English pronunciation.
After receiving his master's degree in applied linguistics from Michigan State University, he organized English training programs in the Middle East, the United States and Japan.
Wei Haibo, president of Shanghai Zhaori Culture and Business Training Center, sang the praises of the language guru extraordinaire.
"About two years ago, a Japanese friend introduced me to Mr Walker who had been running an English training school in Yokohama. As I watched how his method was employed, I became convinced on the spot that his pronunciation therapy method was indeed an extremely effective one. I then invited him to come to Shanghai to train my staff," Wei says.
Walker says Chinese, especially those from Shanghai, have an acumen for learning English. However, they still need some training in order to explore their full potential and speak English with the utmost expression, harmony and elegance.
"When I visited China for the first time in 2001, I analyzed the musculatures of various Chinese people as they spoke English. Certain muscles and muscle groups in their overall musculatures showed the need for therapies which would lead to better the pronunciation," he reiterates.
Good pronunciation skills foster improved listening comprehension skills. Pronunciation and the learning of vocabulary are closely linked. The two points led Walker to create the notion of "The Jingles."
"Just because one is good at reading doesn't mean that he or she can catch the contents if they are presented in oral form. One reason is that they have not acquired the ability to pronounce English as native speakers do," he says.
The Jingles therapy starts with three series of 10 jingles. All sound like tongue-twisters such as "She sells sinks, vending machines, and seashells at the seashore. But she sees the sea and goes to the zoo only occasionally."
According to Walker's research, those confusing sentences help a lot to drill the less developed muscles that are used in speaking English.
"I wish that by using 'The Jingles,' people will learn to communicate clearly with different people around the world, and acquire a deeper understanding and respect for each other's cultures," he says.
(Eastday.com April 21, 2003)