Shopkeeper Yang Yumei may only speak a little pidgin English, but she says her attempts to use the language have boosted her business in an ethnic Dong county in southern China. As local governments in such underprivileged tourism spots as Sanjiang Ethnic Dong Autonomous County of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region call for more language learning, Yang is an example of how their efforts could help attract foreign spending.
Yang, who dropped out of primary school at third grade, sells traditional Dong embroidery in Ma’an Village, where her shop is very close to Chengyang Wind and Rain Bridge,the most popular site among Sanjiang’s many backpackers. “Welcome to Chengyang Wind and Rain Bridge!” the 50-year-old calls in English whenever foreign tourists approach her doorstep. Sanjiang welcomed 40,000 foreign tourists last year. To capitalize on the trend, the local government has begun to invite English teachers to open courses.
Yang recalls that foreigners were first seen in Sanjiang only in the early 1990s, a dozen years after China kicked off its opening up. Having seen more foreign tourists coming in over the years, she felt the need to learn English. The process was never easy — like many locals, Yang was never educated to speak Mandarin, let alone English.
“When I practice pronouncing an English word, I have to mark the pronunciation with a Chinese character with a similar sound first. No one ever taught me grammar, so what I say must be Chinglish, but foreigners can understand,” she says.
Yang is not alone in Sanjiang in recognizing the value of learning English. Tour guide Yang Lepan has made friends with several foreign tourists and his business is growing fast. He says he learned English while working for two years in Yangshuo City, the most famous scenic spot in Guangxi, where foreigners can easily be approached to practice English. Apart from selling embroidery, Yang has also opened an inn and a restaurant serving Dong cuisine. Of course, the menu is written in both Chinese and English.
Two years ago, a student from Japan stayed at Yang’s inn for a whole month and Yang picked up some Japanese expressions.
“Learning Mandarin and English have greatly boosted my business. I will probably learn French and Dutch in the future,” she says.