Teaching English In China or Musings of an English Teacher

When it comes to teaching English, the world wide web offers endless resources; lesson plans, worksheets, PowerPoint presentations, videos, even training material on how to improve your lessons, engage your students, make your lessons more fun and/or interesting or culturally suitable. It also isn’t short on articles about teaching in China, do’s and don’ts, what works and what doesn’t…

Having taught in China for a number of years, I regularly find myself getting frustrated at how challenging the whole education system is. I’m not even going to go into the whole College Entrance Exam madness or the fact that high school students spend twelve hours per day in school and then another six hours on their homework and exam preparation. This whole exam culture is utterly mad. Students are put under immense pressure to study for, prepare and pass their exams that I don’t see how they have any time to learn anything for life. I can’t say I remember a lot of the things I crammed into my brain a week prior to exams, but I thoroughly enjoyed all those lessons when my teachers presented us with a problem and asked us to read, comprehend, investigate, question and discuss, then write about it. Those were the times I learnt the most, those were the times when my teachers attempted to make a decent human being out of me. I learnt to read and comprehend complex articles, I learnt how to question historical events, think about how’s and why’s as well as explain my thoughts and believes. I also learnt to challenge other’s opinions, discuss and stand my ground. Sure, our teachers were under some pressure to cram an entire year’s worth of knowledge into our growing brains, but they didn’t do it for the sake of an exam, they did it with the hope that some of it might stick, sparking interest in a particular subject we might end up pursing after graduation. I hated exams, still do, but they were useful. Sure, they were inconvenient, but at least they made us review the things our teachers taught us, at least to some degree. I don’t think Chinese students have much, if any, time to think about what they’re learning because with one exam out of the way, the next one comes knocking. With such a full schedule, I think I would have a nervous breakdown. It’s mental. Less exams and more learning for life will be far more effective. Students need to learn to question the material they review, they need to learn to think, process, comprehend. Otherwise you might as well flush the entire year’s curriculum down the toilet, for that’s where it is going anyway.

I wasn’t going to talk about China’s exam culture at all actually, but it’s part of the reason why Chinese students are frustrated with their English studies, why they spend years learning yet fail to gain any kind of fluency. They aren’t ever taught to enjoy the language, they aren’t taught to fall in love with it, they aren’t taught to appreciate it, no time is spent on cultivating a certain interest in the language. If you aren’t interested in something you’ll never learn it well, you need to have a passion for it and that kind of passion comes to naturally to some of us but it can also be taught. When I was a tiny toddler, my mother invested in cultivating my interest in the Polish language. She bought story books and cassettes and she would natter way about anything and everything, making me listen. She’d drag me to Poland, leaving me with grandma, who despite being able to speak German, would also natter away in Polish, leaving me without much of a choice. Not wanting to feel left out I joined into the conversation and it quickly became second nature. I grew up with a deaf sister and her hearing-impaired husband. Despite being much older than me, she loved spending time with me, taking me out almost every weekend. I was, still am, fiercely in love with her, and having her around so much and being the talkative kind of person, I watched my sister closely. I watched how she read people’s lips and from that I learnt to speak slowly and clearly. I also, quite naturally picked up some basic sign language and it less than an hour for me to fluently sign the entire alphabet, so whenever my sister didn’t catch a word I’d either sign in and if I didn’t know how to I’d spell it with my fingers.

There was no pressure on me to prepare for an exam, just a passion to be able to communicate with others and that passion let me to chase the skills needed to make myself understood. With that passion deeply ingrained in me, picking up the necessary language skills was pretty much a piece of cake. In my early twenties, I spent nearly two years debating on which language to learn. What with living in what I affectionately call the Big Apple of Europe, Dublin, I picked up the odd phrase in French, Spanish and Italian without much trouble but somehow, I lacked the interest to pursue any of those languages. Until one day, when I stumbled across a video of Jackie Chan singing at some event or other. He sang in Mandarin and I was captivated by the beauty of the language. I watched the video over and over again, even downloaded the song. Mind you, I couldn’t understand a single word of it, but I was hooked. I started watching all of his movies in either Cantonese or Mandarin and somewhere along that adventure I stumbled across Wang Leehom. I was pretty taken by his looks and soon enough utterly in love with his music. That sparked a passionate pursuit to learn Mandarin Chinese and seven years on I’m pretty much fluent in Chinese. If only Chinese English teachers taught their students to fall in love with the language they want them to learn, if only they made them take less exams, pressured them less, they would soon discover that students themselves become interested in the language and will do their bit to learn it well. Of course, there will always be some students, who, no matter what you do, won’t enjoy learning, but then they will feel more comfortable with a little less pressure.
I do truly wonder when China is going to stop teaching English through Chinese. This is no way to learn any language. L1 exposure during class limits, even blocks, the student’s ability to absorb the language. They will constantly use their L1 and L2 will forever remain alien to them. Being a complete beginner doesn’t excuse the use of Chinese in the classroom. The odd word won’t do any damage, but entire dialogues and instructions? What for? Why teach English grammar through Chinese? What’s the point? They aren’t the same, they will never be. The student won’t gain much from that. Examples, repetition, patience, that is what cultivates a student’s L2 abilities, not lengthy explanations in their L1. All that this teaches students is to be afraid of L2, afraid of not understanding, because they are used to a safety net that an ESL teacher can’t or won’t give them.

Chinese students aren’t taught to speak, they are taught to read and write. They are good at it too, but they lack the ability to make their articles sound naturally because they don’t speak, as such they cannot distinguish between the oral English and written English, lack the ability to use idioms or incorporate colloquialisms in their speech. Getting students to speak as much as possible to increase their ability to pick up new skills, remember already learnt skills and become more confident overall. If only Chinese students weren’t so afraid of speaking, they would reap all the benefits. If only they weren’t pressured by exams, they would learn to enjoy their studies.

Chinese students love to either listen or speak in a choir. Out of a classroom filled with thirty or more students you only ever end up with a handful of students who enjoy being different, and don’t mind speaking up. The others are happy to take the backseat, too afraid to make a mistake, too afraid they won’t be able to express themselves clearly or coherently. All I can say to this is, if at first you don’t succeed you try again and again. When I was a troublesome teenage I spent all my time speaking English, granted I saw it as a rebellion against speaking German and Polish, but I still put my heart into it. I had so many pen pals, read so many books, listened to music, etc. I did whatever I could and sooner rather than later I was fluent. Mind you, I struggled telling you the names of the tenses, but I could use them perfectly because I knew exactly which tense expressed which meaning so I would naturally use the right tense.

I really hope that things will change one day soon. Until then I will continue to do my bit to try to somehow ignite a spark of passion for English in my students. I want them to enjoy chasing their dream of a better career or studying abroad, not see learning English as a hurdle to a better future.