Monday, February 19, 2007

Getting Asian students to speak out

By Dick Tibbetts, University of Macau, China

A teacher asked, "We have two new Taiwanese students at the moment who seem to be stuck in a GT learning mindset....Does anyone have ideas and suggestions for helping our students switch into the more "dangerous" world of speaking and writing freely?"

I'm not sure there is a quick way, especially if the students have resisted change so far. We are asking students to change their cultural behaviour in the classroom and also to adopt a new set of cultural expectations. The following description of Asian classrooms is a generalisation but it has enough general truth to be worth writing.

These students have spent their formative years in classrooms where student initiating is not encouraged, where students do not like to stand out by being the first to respond to the teacher, where teacher gives information and students memorise it.

This has encouraged their somewhat passive behaviour in the classroom. After all, so far it has brought them academic success. Changing this after some fifteen years of reinforcement is never going to be easy.

We who teach in Asia have it even harder since our students are in mono-cultural classes and have other teachers for other subjects still teaching in a traditional manner and so for us the reinforcement is still continuing all around them as we try to get them to change their behaviour in our language classroom.

The first thing I do is to explain why I'm asking for change. I'm not going to knock their belief that language learning is like memorising history dates and emperors' names but they need to see that language is about doing things and exchanging and interpreting, not merely receiving. Most can accept and understand this but it's still too big a step to put it into practice.

The next step is, if they are unhappy about being the nail that sticks up and responding to the teacher, to get them to accept pair and groupwork. Many feel that talking to other learners is a waste of time because the other speakers are not good models. I tell them that I understand how difficult it is for them to change and start talking to me so if they are going to talk at all in English they'll have to talk to each other.

In an English speaking country I'd try and get them to join interest groups to try and get conversation and natural interaction but I know some Asian students are so study orientated that their lives have a monotonous pattern of classroom, homework, study and sleep.

Next I try to stimulate real conversation. Some Asian students are so used to chanting set phrases and presenting the teacher with "correct grammatical utterances" that they find it hard to say anything real.

All their English is for display, a presentation of knowledge of the language, not communication of ideas, information or attitudes. It's vital to find things they really want to tell me and in which I can show genuine interest. I find I can usually change a quarter of a class in two months. Once you have over half the class trying to communicate life becomes easier.

After a year the majority are working hard to speak out and react in class but the classroom is not in anyway comparable with a room full of volatile Italians, Greeks, Brazilians and Arabs. Some take longer than a year.

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