I know I haven’t been very supportive of Disney’s business deals in China, but recent news from The Washington Post finds me giving at least a partial thumbs up to one of Disney’s latest branding efforts there. In fact, this particular story starts in the city about which I blasted Disney’s efforts to build a new theme park: Shanghai.
While there’s not much more news on Disney building its second Chinese theme park there, and whether it’s improved its dealings with the locals it would be displacing, in 2008 Disney did do something good for the city of Shanghai: open an English Learning Center.
Two years later, 14 Disney English Learning Centers now exist in China. The centers teach the English language to children between the ages of 2 and 12. Enrollment is so high for these centers, which right now are all located either in Shanghai or Beijing, that Walt Disney Corp. plans to double the number of centers just in the next year, with the construction moving to some of China’s smaller cities.
“Here in China, parents place a huge value on education. It is up there as one of the top focuses and top investments that parents make along with probably health care,” said Andrew Sugerman, general manager of Disney English. And the Disney centers really do make a difference in their students’ education; Chinese schools require English classes, so parents enrolling their children in the centers are just giving extra help to their kids for schoolwork they already have.
Of course, Disney gets something more out of these centers than just adding to its Good Samaritan record. The centers serve as essential facets of Disney’s branding strategy in China; lessons in the centers use props and games featuring Disney characters. This introduces the company’s products to the children at an early age and makes the characters as much a part of these Chinese children’s lives as they are for American children growing up on all the films.
After I consider everything, however, part of me just can’t help feeling a little leery about these English Learning Centers. Obviously attendance is not compulsory, but it feels a little too much like American culture brainwashing to me.
I can’t complain about Disney “forcing” a different culture’s language on children, because English is already mandatory in Chinese schools, but it still feels like a manipulative way to sneak our culture on others under the guise of doing good works. After all, in terms of Americana Mickey Mouse is up there with baseball and apple pie.
I’m certain that Disney didn’t open these learning centers out of pure philanthropy. Still, they’re supporting education and I can’t really complain about that. Part of me is just hesitant to say “yes, it’s a good thing that people in other countries must learn OUR language,” especially because in our own education system we don’t require nearly the same level of bilingual education, at least not starting at the same age.
So maybe Disney execs should take inspiration from their success in China and offer foreign language learning centers in our own country. I know I wish I had a better grasp of other languages, not in the least because I’d love to be able to tutor my kids in them, since they won’t get a chance to do that in schools until they’re almost too old for it to really stick. I’d definitely support any efforts Disney would make to create such centers here, and then maybe I’d feel less uneasy about the centers in China.