Interactional Straining and the Neoliberal Self:
Learning English in the Biggest English Corner in China

Dr. Shuang Gao
National University of Singapore


Date:        Sept. 10, 2014 (Wed)
Time:        5:00 pm
Venue:     Seminar Room (Rm. 745, Run Run Shaw Tower),

                 Centennial Campus, HKU

*All are welcome. No registration is required.



Since the late 1990s, Yangshuo County emerged as the ‘biggest English Corner in China’ (Yangshuo Tourism Bureau 2009), that is, a popular place for people to practise their spoken English. Originally a rural village based on agriculture and fishery in southern China, Yangshuo has somehow managed to transform itself, first into a popular tourist destination among international travelers since 1978, and then, by promoting the opportunity to interact with those English-speaking foreigners, into a popular place to practise English for Chinese people, in particular lower middle class working professionals.

In this talk, I look at the tensions surrounding English language learning in this English Corner, and what they can tell us about the changing ideologies of English in globalizing China, thereby exploring the ‘economic and material bases’ (Block, Gray and Holborow 2012: 4; see also Rampton 1997; Block 2014) of English language learning. I do this through an analysis of metadiscourses of English language learning/teaching, based on interviews and observational data collected during ethnographic fieldwork in 2011. By looking at what is known as ‘the FACES successful learning method’, I show how English language learning in Yangshuo is linked to the shift of educational responsibility from schools to individual initiative and risk-taking. I then show how working professionals, caught up in the neoliberal transformation of globalizing China, navigate and explore English language learning opportunities in this English Corner as they try to talk with foreigners, in hope of securing better English and a better future career. The actual process of talking to foreigners, however, turns out to be full of constraints and tensions, which I characterize as interactional straining. I conclude that, by navigating themselves through such ambivalences and constraints, working professionals in pursuit of English in Yangshuo live out the inherent contradictions of neoliberalism as ideology and actual practice (Harvey 2005).




Last updated: 12 December 2014