How Chinese celebrities mastered English

How Chinese celebrities mastered English
Jackie Chan, the kung fu master who has starred in more than 100 movies, admits the toughest step on his long journey to Hollywood fame was jumping the language barrier.
PHOTO: AFP

English proficiency is the key to the international market for many Chinese stars.

In this respect, their success in the West is built upon hard-sometimes humorous-lessons.

Jackie Chan, the kung fu master who has starred in more than 100 movies, admits the toughest step on his long journey to Hollywood fame was jumping the language barrier.

He didn't speak a word of English when he arrived in California in the 1980s.

"It would be a very long story to talk about my English-learning experience," the 62-year-old said, grinning broadly, during a recent Beijing event.

"But I can say that now Hollywood needs me, while, in the past, I needed Hollywood."

Chan soared to fame as a martial-arts master in Asia in the mid-70s.

But his employer, Golden Harvest, hoped he could break into the larger US film industry.

So, the company purposely arranged for him to fly alone to the United States to immerse himself in the English-speaking world so that he could learn the language as quickly as possible.

Later, a classic scene in his smash hit Rush Hour, which also stars US actor Chris Tucker, features Chan as a Hong Kong inspector, who flashes a silly smile when Tucker, who plays a detective, asks if he speaks English.

It harks to Chan's actual Hollywood experience, his close friend, director Frankie Chan, revealed during a recent interview with China Central Television.

Another time, Jackie Chan made an urgent call to his Hong Kong agent, Willie Chan, in the middle of the night because he mistook a menu for an important document, the Guangzhou-based Yangcheng Evening News reports.

Jackie Chan spent a great deal of effort solidifying his status in Hollywood at a time when Chinese faces weren't as prevalent there as now.

To do that, he made gaining fluency in English one of his top priorities.

To improve his English, he says, he listened and practiced as much as possible.

Jackie Chan, who's also a singer, used US folk songs, films and TV series to study.

He listened to them repeatedly and imitated the pronunciation.

He improved his listening comprehension by covering the bottom of the television so he couldn't read the subtitles.

At his peak, he hired four English teachers and spent nine hours a day studying.

He also practiced while appearing in such blockbusters as Rumble in the Bronx and the Rush Hour franchise.

He recited the scripts before shoots and communicated with US actors on set.

Eventually, he became fluent.

Never too late to learn

Jackie Chan's success through striving in Hollywood inspired more demand for Chinese stars in North America.

This, in turn, inspired more Chinese celebrities to begin learning English.

Award-winning actress Li Bingbing is known for diligence in her language studies.

Photo: Sony Pictures

She was an A-lister on the Chinese mainland before starring in such US blockbusters as Resident Evil: Retribution and Transformers: Age of Extinction.

She has long incorporated English study into her daily routine to become fluent.

Li was recently on site for the shooting of the Sino-US sci-fi coproduction Meg with British action star Jason Statham in Auckland.

"I began studying English at 36. I've caught up with other foreign actors with different accents. It's never too late to learn English," she says.

Li's method depends on intensive practice.

She stays home on her days off to focus on her lessons.

She jots down unfamiliar words and regularly reviews them at home and on the road.

"As an actress, I don't have a lot of time to focus on learning English. But I do it during most of my spare time, like when I'm on a plane or waiting on set," she says.

Li believes confidence and daring are crucial for beginners.

"My family didn't believe I could learn a foreign language in my 30s, since most fluent speakers begin as teenagers or even younger. But you have to believe in yourself and never be too shy to speak loudly. I'm the kind of person who will dare to say eight words, even if I know only 10," she says, giggling.

She found reciting the lines of her English-language scripts-including other actors' dialogues-helpful, she says.

"That way, I don't need to translate what he or she says in my mind. It makes my performance more natural."

She has just memorized the 213-page script of Meg, a tale about a prehistoric predator terrorising today's world.

Persistence is key

Pianist Lang Lang, who's one of the most active Chinese musicians on the global stage, says his interest in English was aroused by the alphabet song he was taught in primary school.

Photo: The Straits Times

"I felt very happy and accomplished when I was able to use 26 letters to spell simple words and then simple sentences," the 35-year-old recalls.

But one of the most challenging parts was learning English grammar, he says.

"The system of English is totally different from Chinese. I had to memorize lots of grammar rules, such as those about auxiliary verbs and tenses," Lang says.

Lang started playing the piano at age 3 and soared to stardom by 13, when he won the top prize at the Tchaikovsky International Young Musicians' Competition.

In 1997, at age 15, Lang began his studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Like many young overseas Chinese students, he found it difficult to communicate in English at first.

"I was nervous when I spoke English. But I adjusted to my new life quickly, and my level rapidly improved because I'm extroverted, learn fast and have a good memory," he says.

He recalls listening to radio programs every day.

He watched the news.

And he chatted with his classmates in English as much as possible.

"It took me around three months to speak fluent English," he says.

As the first Chinese pianist involved with the Berlin and Vienna philharmonics, Lang, who gives recitals worldwide and collaborates with international musicians, says mastering English opened a new world to him.

He's not just an internationally celebrated soloist but also a UN messenger of peace with a special focus on global education.

He has published a piano book for beginners and owns a perfume brand.

He released his latest crossover album in November. New York Rhapsody comprises 10 tracks featuring 10 collaborating guest artists, including Herbie Hancock, Kandace Springs and Sean Jones.

"I'm now able to communicate with many talented people from different cultures. It makes my life interesting and rich," says Lang.

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