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In China, millions are learning English just for leisure

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Wang Lin studies English at Education First.

Credit:

Nina Porzucki

Wang Lin — who goes by her English name Lynn — started taking English classes a few months ago.

Lynn is 31 and very fashionable. She puts on her designer sunglasses as my interpreter and I pile into her enormous white SUV and head to her English Training Center. Lynn is determined to master English.

And if she combines that determination with even a fraction of the patience it takes to survive the Beijing traffic we encounter, then I'd say she's in pretty good shape. 

“Yeah, I'm not shy. My level is very low but I'm not shy to say it,” she says.

Lynn takes classes at Education First. And they're not cheap. The course she’s enrolled in costs nearly $6000. EF has English training centers around the world. The company opened its first center in China in 1993 catering to 7 and 8-year-olds. Today, there are more than 200 centers around the country. And EF's clients are increasingly young professionals — and stay-at-home moms, says EF China's Executive Vice President Angela Xu. 

Stay at home moms, she says, represent a new type of English language learner in China: the leisure learner.

Wang Lin at home with her daughter

Credit:

Nina Porzucki

“They want to travel the world. See the world; be able to communicate by themselves,” says Xu.

Lynn is typical of this new wave. She moved to Beijing five years from her hometown in Hunan province. Lynn and her husband started an advertising business together. They did pretty well, bought a big apartment in the kind of complex that's popping up everywhere in China, a cluster of high rise apartments with some parks and ponds wedged in between. A good place for toddlers, she says. And Lynn has a toddler of her own. She works now as a full time mom.

Her toddler, who goes by the nickname Xixi, is darling. She’s 2, with pig tails and big cheeks.

Xixi is the main reason Lynn decided to study English. Lynn did learn some English in middle school. But she never really paid attention.  She never really cared about learning any foreign language, she says, until her daughter was born.

“In the future in my daily life, I can't separate my life with the language, English. I need to teach my kid English and we will travel to other countries," she says, adding, "I always buy things online in English, so I need it."

That last part is especially important. Lynn buys everything for Xixi online. Baby clothes, baby shampoo, baby food — she buys it all from abroad. She needs to read the English labels and instructions.

“In China,” she says, “a lot of things — we think it's not safe.” 

Like milk.

“My daughter's milk is all from abroad.”

In 2008, some baby formula produced in China was found laced with the plastic, melamine. That was seven years ago, but still Lynn will only buy foreign baby formula. 

Wang Lin moved to Beijing five years ago from Hunan province.

Credit:

Nina Porzucki

Back in the car, Lynn calls up the EF English Center to see if she can squeeze in a last minute class.

Lately, Lynn has been studying for her upcoming trip abroad. She and her husband plan to go to Austria later this year. It will be her first time outside of China. And, she tells me, her teacher has been instructing her on some of the very practical English phrases she will need to hit the shops.

“Is this a small, medium, large, extra-large?”

“Do you like shopping?” I ask her.

“Yeah, it's my favorite thing.”

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