Teaching English, One Ideogram At A Time

The host of "OMG Meiyu"


Oh. My. God.

Teaching everyday English over the Internet? Is that possible? Not only possible, but it’s gone viral. Jessica Beinicke, who works in Washington DC for Voice of America (VOA), that sturdy educator about American values that’s been pumping cultural info over the airwaves since 1942 (its first transmission was, for obvious reasons, to Germany) has created a VOA show for young Chinese, called “OMG Meiyu”. She gets ideas from her own life, and now from fans who have watched her for weeks.

Having studied Mandarin both here and in China, the 24-year-old Beinicke has experience in how the two countries compare and contrast, and what her viewers want to learn to say. In recent shows she has washed her hair on camera (the vocabulary included “shampoo” and “conditioner”); pretended to sob, “My boyfriend broke up with me yesterday!”; and taught a lesson on “all of the gunk that comes out of your face”.

No wonder she’s a star in China. Where else will Chinese learn the word “booger”?

I’ve worked with adult Chinese trying to perfect their English. One of them showed me an English textbook he bought in China. It contained fifty different short essays and at least five errors per page. “No,” I told him, “you must get texts written by native English speakers”, and gave him a copy of the excellent A Jane Austen Education, about which I’ve blogged here before.

So I understand the rabid following Beinicke has acquired. All over China young people know that English – not Mandarin – is and will be the world’s lingua franca for years to come.

In fact, English is in slight danger of becoming a bit like Latin, devolving into what linguists call “World Englishes”, which tend to take on the patina of the native language. In the most far-flung places, English is spoken – sort of. That is, non-standard English is spoken, and understood as much as non-standard English in the US. Take the phrase “I ain’t going”. Definitely non-standard for “I’m not going” – but you understood it, right? The Times of India purports to publish in English, though if you read it online you’ll notice the odd Hindi phrase creeping in and some definite errors in sentence structure or spelling. Never mind. It’s not standard, but it’s adequate English.

For many students, however, English that’s good enough is just not on. They want to be fluent and contemporary, and that’s where Beinicke and “OMG Meiyu” comes in. With a winning smile and easy Mandarin, she teaches her followers about boogers, spit, and other not-covered-in-staid-English-classes aspects of American culture and slang.

It’s fast, it’s funny, it brings laughter, and all of those – especially the smiles she induces – are ways to make the lesson material more adhesive. What a fabulous way to teach English. Rock on, OMG!


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Filed under China, Education, English, India, Jane Austen, Jessica Beinicke, OMG Meiyu, VOA, William Deresiewicz

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