Thursday, June 7, 2007

A foreign teacher's view on English teaching in China

By Richard Hughes

My first TEFL job was teaching English majors at a university in Shandong, so I became familiar with teaching Chinese students who had just finished the high school system. Later I moved back to the UK and taught in a language school in Cambridge with smaller classes and obviously a very different teaching environment: i.e. multilingual classes with students from all over the world and a general acceptance of TEFL-style active learning of the language.

I am now back in China, teaching in a private school in one of the big cities to well-heeled local kids and businesspeople, and am back in the thick of dealing with the problems of teaching English here. And my experience of teaching in the UK has given me a new perspective on these problems.

Grammar Translation - the traditional approach

The emphasis in China is on teaching grammar, and most foreign teachers here are probably familiar with the horrified feeling you get as you look through one of your students' 'Intensive Reading' coursebooks and wonder how this relic from the Dark Ages of language teaching has survived. Another obsession is vocabulary, with many Chinese people rating their English level by the number of words they are adjudged to know ("My lexicon's bigger than yours....").

It is sometimes truly terrifying to experience the gulf that lies between the level of grammar and lists of vocab that Chinese students are expected to recognise and the levels of what they can actually reproduce themselves; I have an elderly Chinese colleague who has written three dictionaries/guides to English idioms, who is incapable of holding a simple conversation with me unless I resort to Chinese.

I don't think I am exaggerating too much when I say that China's many enthusiastic students of English are looking at ending up in much the same way unless something fairly radical is done to help them. But what?

The first part of the problem lies in ideas here in China about what a language is and how it should be taught. Basically in all but perhaps a few pockets of enlightenment at the odd Teaching University, what we have is a system of teaching English that was initially developed many years ago with the emphasis placed on the wrong things. The first part of this is that English, inferior barbarian tongue that it is, could surely be taught in the same way Chinese is. Hence the emphasis on grammar, learning by rote, and vocabulary size. I believe the obsession with vocabulary may well lie in the idea from the Chinese language that the number of characters one can read is a mark of one's education. In my experience, the way in which these ideas have been applied to English are counter-productive and usually sap the life out of the students.

Intensive reading classes are usually lectures by uninspired teachers to bored students, and so English keeps on seeming like a dead language like the Latin I had to learn at junior school. Reading and listening comprehensions encourage the students to merely find the relevant section of the text and reproduce it exactly in order to hopefully cover the correct answer. And active reproduction, the element of language learning which is reenforced by thought and inward digestion of the structures of the language, is usually totally ignored; in fact, it is actively deadened, and it is left to the foreign teacher to try and restimulated some of those withered synapses.

Lack of emphasis on speaking

We should not forget that the first opening up of China to the world, and the drive to teach more English that accompanied it, the emphasis was on technical training and technological expertise; learning English to be able to build car plants better. So reading and vocabulary were prioritised, and speaking and listening were, initially at least, more or less completely sidelined. This might sound a bit too much like ancient history, but, as with many things here in China, it set the roots of an attitude, and attitudes are very slow to change. What's more, I've had plentiful explicit evidence that this is what people think, such as myriad students telling me that they are learning English in order to be able to translate foreign technical manuals for their companies, so why all this emphasis on speaking?

I don't think I've ever had a student express to me the importance of learning languages for their own sake or because they are 'interesting'. Fair enough, I suppose, given that most Chinese students' primary reason for learning English is job-related. But there should be an awareness that becoming proficient in all aspects of English, from the ability to chat comfortably to reading and writing ability, is not only worthwhile for its own sake, but feeds into and improves whatever specific technical skills a student might be interested in acquiring.

The old attitude that speaking does not count may have recently shifted a little; 'oral English' is now taught in most schools, and younger students are aware of how important it is. However this does not mean that there has been an underlying change in thinking in how English is taught. What schools do is bring in a foreign teacher to do the oral classes, but only as a addendum to the 'real' business of cramming people's heads with grammar rules and lists of words.

The TEFL idea of speaking being the essential component of a student's acquistion of the language is still lightyears from being realised here. Given more time, maybe 50 years, perhaps speaking might get to be even more important in language courses, and could even (whisper it) gain parity with grammar, but with the WTO joined and the world knocking on China's door, can it really afford to wait?

Limits on teachers

The most worrying part of this attitudinal problem is the way that it is entrenched politically. I mean that schools here, even joint venture private schools such as mine, are obliged to limit the numbers of foreign teachers that they have. The bulk of my school's staff are Chinese teachers who are either retired or were unable to get employed by anyone else. So at what should be the most cutting edge example of English teaching in China, the majority of teaching is done in the most old-fashioned and in some cases incompetent way.

I recently had a elementary class confidently inform me that saying "listening music" was correct because their 'real' (Chinese) teacher had told them so. And quite apart from whether the individuals concerned are competent enough, in what other country in the world would a private foreign language school be 90% staffed by non-native speakers?

Companies who can splash out on English teachers only employ native speakers, and although this might come from the misguided belief that a native speaker is automatically better teacher than a local, it shows that organisations which have the money and, more importantly, the freedom to employ who they like, do not choose to take on incompetent Chinese teachers. But because of outside pressure, no schools are able/inclined to change the way in which they teach and design courses because it might mean having to lose some of these less than dazzling limpets.

This is not to suggest that only foreigners can make good teachers, and Chinese cannot. I know several younger Chinese teachers in my city who are passionate advocates of the speaking-based approach to teaching. It is people like this who need to be pushing for change in China's language teaching, but until there are enough of them to go round, schools need to look to qualified foreigners if they are serious about offering a modern approach.

And that's the point: this is just the best modern approach, in my opinion anyway. It is not, as several Chinese dinosaurs have suggested to me, a 'western' way of teaching that they can just hope to happily ignore while they plod along. What is boils down to is this. If Chinese students are serious about learning English, or indeed any foreign language, they need to rid themselves and their schools of all the dead weight which is holding them back.

I suggest...

Firstly, get rid of the electronic dictionaries and any bilingual paper dictionaries, and start trying to learn independently in a way which involves using the active part of the brain and not just the memory.

Next, junk useless tests like CET Bands 4 and 6, which only perpetuate the idea that using language is a series of gap-filling exercises. Then stop fretting so much about speaking English - you've learnt it throughout Middle School and often college, and it isn't brain surgery, so open your mouth and let it come. And schools need to help students to do all this; get rid of the bad teachers (Chinese, foreign, whatever), and start thinking about how you want students to be taught and not just about making money out of them or shuffling them off to graduation.

Tear out all that 'Intensive Reading/Extensive Reading/Oral' rubbish, and look at how modern TEFL-style teaching all over the world is producing students who are confident in all aspects of communcation in a foreign language. Have courses in which reproduction - speaking and conversation, along with writing - are the overriding priority, and make speaking the medium through which all other aspects - grammar, reading, vocabulary - are taught. And above all, stop muddling around and get serious.

Only Chinese teachers can teach Chinese students?

A final anecdote to illustrate my point. When I arrived at my current school, I was told that the class of lower intermediate adults I was teaching would have me as their 'oral' teacher, but had two Chinese teachers to teach the "important" things like grammar because "Chinese students at their level need a Chinese teacher to explain things to them in Chinese". Now, I had spent the previous six months teaching class after class of mixed language adults in the UK who started with basically no English, not even the benefit of six years of English at Middle School. I had been their only teacher, had taught a course based on a TEFL-style text book supplemented with the usual fun things, and I had taught English grammar from near-scratch speaking only English the whole time. In two months, I saw student after student go up to Intermediate level or beyond and become hugely confident in using everyday English. And now I was being told that Chinese students have 'special needs'. Why? Are Chinese people more stupid than people from other countries? No.

For a start, this isn't just a Chinese problem - my parents tell me that they were taught French at school in this 'traditional' way fifty years ago, and were never able to speak, only recite grammatical rules. But thankfully things changed, and sadly I think that the lack of change here is damaging China and its language students. In schools here, English levels are lower than they were in my school in the UK - an intermediate student here is about equivalent to a lower intermediate student back there - and it is distressing to see the way in which students here can labour away for years and still be incapable of holding a conversation with their teacher. Chinese students are no different from students from any other country, but they need to be taught in a modern (n.b. not 'western') way. For this to happen the newer generations of people involved in language teaching in China need to strip away the dead weight and have a re-think.

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