Learning English for the Olympics

Thousands of Chinese study etiquette and 'Olympic English' to welcome tourists.

BEIJING, Aug. 10, 2008— -- Zhi Lijiang is one of hundreds of thousands of Chinese volunteers making sure the Beijing Olympics go off without a hitch.

Wearing a bright orange wig, flashy sunglasses and thick purple lipstick, she stood in front of a classroom recently and said, "Hi! How are you?"

"Where are you from?" an adult student in the front row asked her.

"I'm from Canada!" Lijiang replied.

Lijiang is pretending to be a foreigner to help Chinese students learn English. Over 100 citizens, all 50 or older, meet in this particular classroom three times a week to study etiquette and Olympics-related English phrases.

But the lessons aren't just for a few retired Chinese. In a country that has left nothing to chance during its two weeks in the international spotlight, the language instruction is part of a larger national campaign to spread English to the masses. That way, authorities say, Beijing's residents can properly welcome -- and impress -- the half a million tourists who have descended on the city for the Olympic Games.

Even the evening news has a word of the day -- recently, "wrestling!" -- to help teach its audience so-called "Olympic English."

And taxi drivers, charged with carting around Beijing's foreign visitors, have been given English learning manuals.

Our ABC News reporter in Beijing recently put one driver to the test.

"Hello, eh, where are you going," he asked her, a bit hesitantly.

"I'm going to the Great Wall," she answered.

"I know, get in please," the driver said, more confidently this time. "First time in Beijing?"

The Chinese aren't learning English just for practical purposes. The lessons are also an exercise in image building, and the message sometimes sounds like propaganda.

"The Olympics is a bridge, leading towards peace," a female student read from a government-issued textbook in a Beijing classroom. She looked up proudly at the end of her sentence.

Some Chinese residents are even learning traditional American songs to welcome the throngs of foreign visitors.

"Jingle bells, jingle bells," sang a chorus of Chinese women recently, in front of a mixed audience of Chinese and tourists.

They were dressed in pink track suits and shaking what appeared to be adorned Coca-Cola cans.

Even out of season, organizers hope, that is a warm and proper Olympic welcome.

ABC News' Christine Brouwer contributed to this report.