Supporting Article

English and the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games


The modern Olympic Games have never been awarded to a host country whose citizens did not have English as a common language. The promise to be the host city presented enormous language challenges to Beijing. Many of Beijing’s 13 million people will be working with the athletes and spectators. Nearly every walk of life will need bilingual English skills by 2008. Police, hotel and restaurant workers, medical personnel, gas station attendants, airport baggage handlers, bus conductors and anyone who meets the public will be trained in some level of English. English speaking passengers become instant teachers for taxi drivers who play language cassettes as they zip through Beijing’s horrendous traffic: “Would you like air conditioner? Go to airport? Are you American?”

Little did I know, as I walked through my life, how my training and experiences would be major qualifiers for my teaching English to people of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the XXIX Olympiad Games (BOCOG) who are working on the world’s biggest and best-ever international sports event. These talented, skilled, handpicked leaders believe the 2008 Games are the booster rocket necessary for both the nation of China and her individual citizens to go over the top toward the goal of a “new and improved” China. An important ingredient in the fuel for that rocket is good English language skills.

In December 2001, with the establishment of BOCOG, Beijing was launched into seven years of hyper speed development for the “Best Olympics Ever.”  Before they could begin the process of leading Beijing to English competency, the BOCOG staff needed to improve their own business English language skills.

China is moving at exponential speed into consumerism and materialism, and the Olympics are playing a large role in the speed of that move in Beijing. Fast rising middle income families are driving the urban economies upward while at the same time driving solid traditional family values out of the culture.

English is a language tool for helping people work on family values, ethics, morality, greed and corruption and time management—balancing work with strong core values in personal goal setting. While I was away from my wife on business, I realized that many of the BOCOG students travel internationally and experience the same loneliness and similar cultural issues when they are away.

Most people have heard variations on the saying, “First you develop a twenty year relationship in China, then you can start to talk about doing business.” Here we were developing strong relationships by the end of the first month of English classes. Perhaps that is the result of my personal decision to teach business English to adults based on real adult issues they feel and face every day. Or, perhaps it is the result of two cultures coming together to meet a common goal. Whatever the reason, English is definitely allowing relationships to be established.

Culturally, Chinese students are not accustomed to self-disclosing their feelings, doubts and shortcomings. As these topics are shared together in a nonthreatening way in an English class, it is interesting to watch the students begin to understand how to set higher personal values than they had ever before dared to consider.

Many of my students lived through the Cultural Revolution. Their experiences give them a unique filter for directing their own lives. Using the medium of the English language for discussion, we explore what motivates people to become charity donors and how volunteerism and foundations effect social change. One of my students told me that after 2008, she and her husband would like to move to the country to be teachers in a poor area.

We are witnessing the inner growth of new leaders. These leaders are personally changing inside as they change their society from the inside. After studying, traveling and working in other countries their minds are open.

Learning English is not only a benefit to the people of the great country of China for 2008, but it will help them with their country’s economy and world relationships far beyond the great Olympic games.

Jerry Liebersbach

Jerry Liebersbach has been an English teacher with the Beijing Organizing Committee since its inception in 2002 and works with Beijing companies through the advanced English school of Jingmei University and Training Center in Beijing. View Full Bio