Digital tools fail to totally replace the classic classroom techniques

Updated: 2015-10-07 08:30

By Huoyan And Li Yang S In Guilin(China Daily)

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Digital tools fail to totally replace the classic classroom techniques

Liu Yukun has been running an English corner since 1991 and even today it remains hugely popular. [Photo by Huo Yan / China Daily]

Smartphones and tablet computers may have revolutionized language learning in the digital age, but many people still prefer the old-fashioned way of honing their communication skills - English corners.

In the southern city of Guilin, Liu Yukun has been running an English corner since 1991 and said even today it remains hugely popular.

Over the years, the weekly event has been participated in by an estimated 130,000 Chinese and more than 20,000 foreigners from 45 countries, with ages ranging from 5 to 90.

"Guilin, in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, is famous for its picturesque landscapes, long history and rich culture, but few residents can communicate with foreigners in English," Liu said. "So tourists only see Guilin's beautiful views, they don't know about the rest.

"Founding the English corner was one of my tasks 24 years ago, but it's my heart that has told me to keep it going."

After retiring from his job a middle school teacher at the age of 60, Liu started work with Guilin Staff and Workers University in 1991 and was given the task of setting up the city's first English corner. He stopped working for the college full-time when he reached 70 but continued to organize the weekly language exchange with fellow retirees.

The venue for the corner has changed eight times over the 24 years, finally arriving at its current home Ronghu Lake Library, where it has been held for the past decade.

Today, many students from the 1990s take their children to study there every Sunday, such as Chen Gan, who goes with his son. "Liu is always the first person there," he said. "It is easy to do one day of volunteer work, but it's difficult to do it for 24 years."

Liu said many of the Chinese participants have gone on to get jobs related to tourism, international trade and foreign affairs, important sectors for Guilin. Official data show the city received 38.7 million visitors last year, including 2 million from overseas.

The retired teacher also regularly receives letters from Chinese and foreigners, both residents and tourists, thanking him for his hard work and commitment in running the English corner.

A former Chinese student who later moved to live in Canada wrote: "Over several years it helped me improve my oral English from a tongue-tied person to a fluent English speaker."

Liu also keeps a guest book for people who take part to sign. Inside, one British tourist called Marry said she first visited Guilin 15 years ago and came across the English corner by chance. Since then, she has retuned every year.

Another traveler, Bill from the United States, described the English corner as "like a family" that has enabled him to learn about Guilin and its people, and to fall in love with Chinese culture.

Liu said that in 2011 a Norwegian tourist called David donated his life savings - about 230,000 yuan ($36,000) - to help poor students he had met at the English corner before dying of lung cancer aged 84. The man had stayed in Guilin a few months every year between 2003 and 2010 and regularly took part in the classes.

The money was used to establish a fund, supervised by three trustees, to cover the costs of the English corner and support students from poor families.

Another entry in the guest book is Craig Keller, an American tourist, who wrote: "I made many friends at the English corner in Guilin. I see it as my home in China."

Liu has had help from various partners at home and abroad to organize the English corner over the years. In 2010, nine universities in Guilin formed an English club league, with members providing important assistance in arranging numerous language activities.

"When you do volunteer work for a long time, you receive rewards and have a strong sense of achievement," he said. "But were it not for the help from these friends, I wouldn't have done it for such a long time."

Despite spending two decades immersed in English-language learning, Liu's knowledge is limited to just a few simple expressions.

"When I realized the importance of English after China's reform and opening-up in the 1980s, I knew my ability was not equal to my ambition, but Guilin was short of English learning materials and opportunities then," he said.

Today, while people have conversations about their languages and cultures, he said he sits and smiles.

"I'll appear at the English corner for as long as my physical strength permits me to do so," he added. "I don't want Guilin children today to have the same regrets as me when it comes to learning English."

Li Ziyu contributed to this story.