Mickey Mouse teaches Chinese kids English

Posted on May 15, 2011

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While we’re sending our children to after-school Mandarin classes and demanding that headmasters and mistresses put mandated Chinese learning on curriculums, Chinese parents are doing the exact opposite. They still seem to believe in the value of knowing English to survive in the world, and they’re sending their children to supplemental classes run by Disney.

Disney English is a really interesting concept which seems to be given short shrift by some. An article by Bloomberg talks about the lessons in a purely commercial way: an attempt by the company to inculcate in Chinese youth a brand loyalty to Disney, which will hopefully end up in profit through their lifetime. Bloomberg write:

“What Disney is doing now in China is growing a future consumer base,” said Mary Bergstrom, founder of Bergstrom Group, a Shanghai-based consumer consulting company. “They are giving them the opportunity not only to learn English, but also to create really deep, intimate memories with those characters.”

But there’s a humanitarian side to the move too.

To be honest, I probably grew up learning English from Disney as well. “When it’s time to start, kids march down a hallway decorated with characters from “Bolt” and “Ratatouille” to classrooms referencing “The Lion King” and “Mulan”, write Michael Wei and Margaret Conley at Bloomberg. That, to me, sounds not all that different from walking down the school corridor into the television room to watch Beauty and the Beast or Pinocchio. The simple fact is that Disney is childhood for most people (perhaps less so – or maybe better put – for less of their childhood than it was in the past now that children grow up so quickly). You learn the most, and the quickest, when you’re young. There’s bound to be a crossover.

What’s most interesting is that the west has this easy ‘in’ for youngsters to pick up our dominant language, and that it’s so widely accepted. How do you find a similar equivalent for Italian, say, or Russian? Is there a child-friendly cartoon character for every nation that has the instant recognition worldwide to be able to act as a friendly face to help children as they try and navigate the linguistic complexities of an entirely new language, even as they’re still trying to figure out the host of awkward grammatical rules of their own? Children today probably don’t know about Asterix and Obelix, and therefore wouldn’t care if they taught them French.

When I was a child (which is less than a decade ago) that cartoon was already niche and old fashioned. Interestingly, in our French listening exam, the lack of a recognisable cartoon character to learn French with – or to drop into casual conversation – was demonstrated. We were listening to a fluent and fast French conversation, frantically trying to understand the flamboyant pronunciation and complicated idiom that was being presented to us on a cassette. Then it all stopped: the speed, the insouciance and the accent, as they swapped into English for two words. Those words were “Roger Rabbit”, spoken in as plummy an English accent as you can find.

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