Disney English

Guestblogger Paul Spinrad is a freelance writer/editor, and is Projects Editor for MAKE magazine. He is the author of The VJ Book and The Re/Search Guide to Bodily Fluids, and was an early contributor to bOING bOING when it was an online zine. He lives in San Francisco. 

Last year, cultural empire Disney launched its first "Disney English" school for kids in Shanghai, China. It would be a big win for Disney if they could own English language learning in the non-English speaking world. Any Disney English schools in areas where their presence might be controversial could be constructed like castles, with real moats! Chinese TV news clip here and Disney English website here.


  1. Just be glad it’s not MicroSoft. They’d claim copyright on all English words spoken in China, and try to sue people for using them.

  2. I thought Celebration, Florida was bad enough, but now they are going after children! I do think that offering quality education to children is a good thing, but I think this oversteps the bounds of education and becomes almost indoctrination.

    Also, are there any English links?

    1. Here’s my response: I currently work for Disney English in Shanghai. The fact of the matter is, there’s a market for the Disney brand here and we can’t quite expect a company like the Walt Disney Corporation to fail to exploit a willing market niche if it will expand their waistlines, cultural homogenization be damned.

      The most pernicious thing about the Disney Corporation in China, from my perspective, is the awful manner in which corporate protocol, efficiency, and the profit margins lay waste to any semblance of decency regarding the workers here. Tens of “cast members”, including myself, gave up jobs, kissed families goodbye, and uprooted our lives to work for Disney based on blatant lies that recruiters spat regarding vacation allowances (5 paid vacation days per year and you work on Thanksgiving, throughout the Christmas holiday, and New Years; that was a revelation), compensation, working hours, you name it.

      Most of our benefits and compensation (especially time off, overtime, etc.) are below industry standard, from what I gather in the teaching communities here in Asia. Also, Disney will not list benefits for employees in the contract. They don’t want to put it in writing; what they will put it writing is “all benefits are subject to the discretion of your direct line manager.”

      Furthermore, Disney English, at least in the Shanghai region, has an uncanny knack of hiring teachers for managerial positions; teachers with no managerial skills, very little people skills, and poor communication practices. Please, if you are at all interested in acquiring a job here or anywhere, get a thorough feel for the type of management system you’ll be forced into. My colleagues and I did not get a choice, and this greatly reduced the amount of clear information we could obtain about our working environments before we signed on.

      Rest assured, however, that the Disney environment is thoroughly Corporate. Expect your good work to be rewarded with more work and very little thanks. Expect your less-than-stellar work to be met with persistent, distrusting micromanagement, written warnings, and passive aggressiveness. Expect to continually feel vaguely put upon by upper management, to be thoroughly alienated from any job title that carries more weight than yours, and to have your pushes for innovation funneled through an endless bout of (thoroughly inefficient and demoralizing) chains of command, form letters, open-ended presentations, and eventually non-implementation.

      The company is desperate to fill its pockets with money and expand as rapidly as possible– so much so that they are currently running into trouble because people are quitting before they fulfill their contracts.

      The Walt Disney Company is renowned for its customer service, and this makes sense when you see the profit incentive in it. What Disney English needs to learn is that honest and responsive human resources are equally good markers to strive for. This isn’t a theme park in Anaheim or Orlando with fifty schmucks willing to sign up any day in the week. This is a job in China that requires certified teachers willing to leave kin and kind behind for something completely unknown. Frankly, we deserve better.

  3. @Xopher: You are entirely correct. However, there is a larger danger here. We expect people from India and Hong Kong to speak English with a British accent. Yet Prince Charles lambasted Americans for their use of the English language, mostly in a totally correct diatribe against ebonics. However, having been exposed at great length to Cockney accents, I can’t see where his argument had any merit whatsoever. The point is to be understood by the majority of the language’s speakers, isn’t it? Cockney and Ebonics are both fails in that respect.

    And yes, I do believe Disney to be the Evil Empire, so official Disney English schools scare the hell out of me. It smacks of indoctrination.

  4. Ebonics and Cockney are shames unto two linguistic communities, jeligula, but not to their speakers. No, it’s the speakers of the upper-class dialects in both countries who allowed social separation to become a barrier as effective as a mountain range, and caused these dialects to diverge into unintelligibility with the home language.

    And you err when you say “the point is to be understood by the majority of the language’s speakers.” The point is to be understood perfectly by one’s own language community. The isolation of inner-city African-Americans and the somewhat subtler isolation of the Cockney-speaking class mean that their language community does NOT include most speakers of English, but that’s not the fault of the speakers of those dialects; it’s the fault of racism in America and classism in the UK.

    1. Speakers of the upper class dialect of British English such as the royal family (who peddle a mild version) are actually harder to understand than say, well educated Danish speakers of English, or middle class English RP (received pronunciation) speakers.

      I’m not sure where ‘shame’ comes into the equation, is Jamaican patois a ‘shame unto’ to the Jamaican nation?

  5. Disney already offers a large swathe of English-teaching materials to schools for very little money, everything from books to coloring sheets to music CDs. They are targeted to very young, very beginner students, and it will shock you to know that they are fairly low-quality.

    That being said, at least with those materials you can kind of tweak them for a little less consumerism, since depending on where you are the kids can be a lot less enamored of the Disney brand. When I taught in Czech Republic, I could get a much more enthusiastic response using materials that referenced ZdenÄ›k Miler’s krteček (little mole). Disney characters were familiar to the kids, but the little mole was the one they loved.

    I imagine there’s going to be very little tweaking or repurposing of the brand in a Disney-sponsored school.

  6. The way the two dialects being discussed arose was through the prejudice and social barrier creation of the dominant groups in society. I think Jamaican patois is actually a more naturally-occurring creole (small c), but I don’t know the history there.

  7. Hell, all of Disney’s schwag is made in China by children; it’s only fair they should get to enjoy the fruits of those labors.

    Kearney: “Dude, are you being sarcastic?”
    Jimbo: “I don’t even KNOW anymore…”

    1. Not Jimbo or Kearney. They were two teenagers in Season 7, Episode 24: Homerpalooza.

      1: Oh, here comes that cannonball guy. He’s cool.
      2: Are you being sarcastic, dude?
      3: I don’t even know anymore.

  8. There have been complete Disney learner sets available in Japan (at a rather steep price, IIRC) since at least VCR days. My son is 17 now and I remember seeing these when he was in preschool. For that matter, my wife and I bought loads of Disney videos (regular movies, not education-oriented as such) during a trip to the US so that our son would have additional exposure to English. The point is that these were not the only exposure he had (his father’s native tongue being English, for example).

    They could serve a very important part of very early education in English in homes where there is no native speaker. From what I’ve read, the brain develops in reaction to speech from the age of 6 months until 2 years. Most people begin serious education in a foreign language at a much later date. But if (again, using Japanese and English as a reference) the child was not exposed during those first couple of years to various phonemes/sounds, the brain will not develop so as to recognize these.

    This explains particularly why Japanese (who have 50-70 basic syllables, depending on how you count them) have difficulty speaking English (with as many as 300). Also why English speakers have difficulty recognizing the “chisai no tsu” or “long vowels” in Japanese (completely different concept of long vowels in English).

    (Note: I’m not a trained linguist. I’ve probably totally botched the explanation. But I think that in broad strokes it is accurate.)

    1. Actually the “chisai no tsu” (or “chichai tsu”) is a character used to lengthen Japanese consonant sounds, not vowels. There are of course long vowel sounds in Japanese too. I agree that it is difficult to recognize the lengthening of both vowel and consonant sounds in Japanese, but I’m not entirely sure it’s because I’m a native English speaker. I think you can train your ear even as an adult to recognize these sounds (although I’m not a linguist either).

      Disney’s World of English is indeed pretty well established in Japan and my daughter loves the promo DVD they have. I have doubts as to how effective the whole DWE course is but the Japanese are crazy about anything Disney so it really doesn’t matter that much. And hell yeah it’s bloody expensive…

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