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Introduction to Teaching Spoken English to Chinese Middle School Students

(A lecture [to be] given in Beijing to foreign ESL teachers, by Petko Hinov [韩裴])

Spoken English is, in the conviction of Chinese students themselves, more difficult to “acquire”
than written English. In my communication with the students I have witnessed that from
a relatively high level of expression in writing they drop to a uncommonly low level of listening
comprehension and ability to express their thoughts in English. Every time their effort is
checked by the mother tongue code which powerfully commands their linguistic ability. What
they lack, most of all, is the faith they can do well.
Understanding some of the typical problems of the middle school students of China
would, in my opinion, be beneficial to teaching English to them itself. Apart from personal gifts
for language learning, there are objective reasons for that, and one of the most essential ones
is: time.

I will try to put that in very simple terms: the Chinese pupil is overloaded with work. Most
of the students live in their school and apart from their duties as students they have additional
tasks, arising from their need to take care of themselves being away from home. Roughly, the
day begins at 6 am, lessons begin at 7 am; there are 4-5 periods before noon and then, there is
a lunch break of about 2 hours which the students usually expend on a much-needed nap. Then
they have the afternoon periods (4) and the so called wanxiu, evening self-preparatory classes.
Practically, their school day ends at 9:30 and so ends also their day. The next day is a totally
regular repetition of the previous one. Put yourselves in their shoes and try to understand how
strenuous and tenacious a child of 10-14 years must be to maintain his/her interest in education
and acquiring knowledge, under those circumstances. The natural reaction toward such pressure,
in any adolescent soul, would be far from positive, if not aversion, then hard feelings
against books and teachers.
Quite logically, the foreign language training, being a part of the Chinese educational system,
would fall into much the same routine as the rest of the school disciplines. One of my stu -
dents told me he was a Chinese, therefore he needed no English in China, in fact I could feel he
felt aversion toward English. This was not a typical case, but it is a good illustration of what results
pressure and standards in education can yield in an otherwise traditionally knowledgethirsty
nation. Of course, most children would respond positively to your teaching, and if you
ask them which their favourite subject is they would say: English. The Chinese are naturally
thirsty for knowledge. As a matter of fact, Chinese children expect a different type of English
education. Many of my students and colleagues have shared this expectation. Students cannot
be sufficiently motivated by mere necessity to achieve good results at their exams, although
this may be the primary goal for many students. It is the teacher in his/her integrity of character
as a Teacher, who must command their respect and relate himself/herself to his/her students in
such a manner, that they would feel at home in his lessons and would keep an open heart toward
his words, towards the tasks he/she offers them.

Positive traits of the Chinese student

– openness and friendliness; they will greet you immediately upon seeing you; treasure
this attitude, don’t think it won’t change and they can’t be unfriendly; snatch at this first
positive impression and develop it; the best way to engage those qualities is to love your
students, love them as though they are your own children. If your heart is sincere, the students
will feel it and will love you in return. This, in my poor experience, is the best way
to achieve cooperation with your students. Let them feel you want to help them! I
offered my students the opportunity to ask me questions whenever and wherever they
see me. If you are not entirely devoted to them, it would not be surprising if they would
gradually “ebb away” from you. If you do love them and are kind and helpful to them
not only in class, but everywhere, they will consolidate with you and eventually become
your good friends. Friendship is the most excellent basis for teaching. Education should
be bi-directional, teaching should not be the mere communication of knowledge, but
mutuality, sharing knowledge and accepting knowledge. If you ask the students questions
about Chinese or their country, they will be the readier to ask for and acquire
knowledge from you. The Chinese are not individualists, they are socially oriented and
you will notice in the school-yard they go together, eat together, speak together. Togetherness
is the finest medium for giving them knowledge. They will greet you on the
bus stop, they will smile to you wherever they meet you and that would be the reflec -
tion of your own kindness and open-heartedness to them. So, don’t be inaccessible,
don’t try to represent a respectable teacher who is above the students; be one of them.
At the same time don’t be too easy to get at, nor too familiar, or you might make yourself
a fool. The Chinese respect those who respect themselves without being supercilious
and haughty; keep a prudent closeness and a prudent distance at the same time
with wisdom, and you shall exude the fragrance of maturity which should command
their respect in a subtle, but tangible way.
– Studiousness: they are ready to receive information, if presented in a vivid and attractive
way. Modern students are very fond of non-textual teaching, probably because the
amounts of text they have to assimilate is enormous. Even when in the best of mood,
they unwillingly obey you when you tell them to turn to page N. of the textbook. They
are, on the other hand, quite willing to watch videos or listen to music, so if you could
append music or/and videos to your lesson, that would give a rise to their interest towards
your teaching. Their natural interest to the English language is most likely stirred
by Western pop-music and films, so be prepared to be asked about Michael Jackson and
other “stars”.

It is a good idea to cooperate with your colleague ESL teachers over China by internet, by
exchanging experience and teaching materials. This would eventually enrich both them and
your own practical experience. I am strongly in favour of our cooperation in the future.

Deficiencies of the Chinese student

– Lack of proper language environment: unpractised ear and difficulty in pronouncing the
English words (these difficulties may be systematised according to the local dialect
which the students speak, for example the Sichuan student would find it hard to distinguish
between N/L in both listening and speaking;) Sometimes the Chinese pupils would
find it hard to understand even a simplest phrase or words they already know. The reason
for this is that most Chinese students learn English from Chinese teachers, whose accent
is, naturally, Chinese. The moment they face a native speaker (who is speaking in
his natural way and with a proper accent), they become very perplexed and have a feeling
that their efforts were next to wasted. Help the students by speaking very slowly,
with very good articulation and audibly. The classrooms are big and the students can’t
always hear well. Always ask for feedback: did they understand, have they any
questions. Provoke their questions by playing with words, or making them see in other
ways that learning English can be “fun.” Offer them as many opportunities you can for
listening to good, well-pronounced English. If you can add Chinese to your explanations,
that would be a very winsome feature of your teaching: the Chinese students love to
hear a foreigner speak their own language.
– repetition and imitation as a limiting practise. One of my last resorts in teaching English
to Chinese students who are disinterested in making an effort to think, is to read to
them a text which they should repeat after me. This is not the best, but sometimes the
only way to keep a class in a non-insurgent state. Don’t limit your teaching with a textbook:
improvise it, add your own contents—you purpose is to galvanise them to be active
and positive. There are factors that contribute to the inability or unwillingness of the
students to cooperate: fatigue, the impending weekend, the approaching tests etc.
Sometimes even a personal conflict could influence the whole atmosphere in a class. I
was always trying to understand the students’ way of thinking: why in given circumstances
they would behave like this or that. And I was always using condescension
rather than strictness, while trying to act on the conscience of my students, making
them feel they are hurting me when they are bad in my class. In most classes there are
“colourful” students who “give the pitch” and suppress the initiative of other, usually
better students.
– collective shyness, lack of initiative, lack of confidence. Very few of my students are active
in class. One or two really good students, who had a higher self-confidence, were
active. But the others were lethargic most of the time. One of the reasons is that they
are very much afraid of making mistakes. So I had to develop a little “error theory” to
encourage them. I had to convince them that mistakes are a necessary part of learning
English. I even asked them to make mistakes, to be brave to speak their mind without
hesitation, by telling them that their mistakes will let me know how I can help them
overcome these. They understood me; but the diffidence was still present in most
classes. In all cases your approach should be: never get tired or lose patience repeating
the same principle: “I want you to make mistakes without being bashful; we are friends
who help each other, so I don’t mind your errors, I will always patiently help you, etc.”:
explain to them the reason for these mistakes, joke with them about the mistakes, let
them feel at ease with them; in my humble opinion, a good teacher would love his students
the more for their courage to endeavour, despite of the errors they make.
At the end, I would like to emphasise that there is no necessity to be uniform or insistent
on teaching the same thing to all classes and students. In my experience, every lesson with
every class is a little drama in which we all act. I always try to give my students the feeling that
we are not having the lesson, but we are living it. The words, the phrases, every action of ours
is not theory, not a model for imitation, nothing which they would be criticised for not learning
or praised for learning (well, sometimes we do need praise!), but a small “life-time”. That is
why even when I have many classes per day, I always feel exhilarated after my contact with my
students, because I always live a lifetime with them and find out something unusual about
I learned to adapt quickly to the level of my classes (I teach the same lesson 10-20 times
per week,) on account of which my teaching is almost ALWAYS different in the different
classes.) Rigidity is a bad approach to the Chinese students, because it is the dominating model.
I left strictness to their Chinese teachers. I prepare my lessons with the utmost diligence and
usually I employ more than the textbook suggests, which gives me the opportunity to switch to
something more apposite for the moment. I depend on my students as much as they depend
on me, and I demand of them according to their good conscience. Sometimes their behaviour
decides my course of action. Sometimes the lesson, the effort might seem futile, but there is
no success or failure in a class. My purpose is to create for them a vivid language atmosphere.
Finding the common, the interesting subject is the key to that. Even if you can’t interest them,
your English speech will resound in them (consciously or subconsciously) and will leave beneficial
traces there.

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