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    Greater China
     Oct 3, 2012

China's pedagogic pitfalls
By James Fishback

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

As president Richard Nixon touched down in Beijing in 1972, the diplomatic void between China and the US could not have been any wider. Geopolitical isolation not only kept diplomacy and investment at bay, it equally inhibited cultural exchange between the two countries. Yet, six decades later, fluctuations in daily Chinese life are nearly pegged to the financial, political, and, to a degree, cultural events in the US.

Burgeoning markets in Shanghai, vibrant tourism in Beijing, and nascent private equity in Xi'an have all centered on a linguistic


medium that spans China's vast frontiers. Recent studies give us insight to the quantitative curtain behind China's thirst for proficiency. Seattle University [1] estimates that although China has a "proficient" English-speaking population of just under 10 million, it is home to 300 million "English learners".

In an effort to meet the rising demand of English proficiency, English training schools have sprung up throughout the mainland with a fairly straightforward mission: helping new speakers overcome English's linguistic inertia.

Much like large-scale commercial factories, these schools firmly believe in trumping the exclusivity of "quantity versus quality" and opening their doors to waves of students all in an effort to meet the rising demand for English speakers.

For many of these local training programs, a misguided pedagogical mindset begins from the outset of over-enrollment. To meet such unexpectedly high matriculation, local schools are forced into viewing classrooms through a factorial lens: rows of desks as fast-paced assembly lines, teachers as static machinery, and students as arriving parts, who with the right algorithm should be able to pick up English in no time.

These schools have only continued to present students with a mechanical approach to proficient English, an approach in which antiquated computer labs, unnoticed word walls, and dissimilar textbooks dominate an all-too-familiar pedagogy. All of these voids have pieced together an education that, for onlookers, students, and teachers like myself, just misses the mark.

Chinese training programs frequently flaunt enrollment numbers, as if they alone underscore linguistic successes. Yet, in reality, these programs simply abandon intimated students and leave "proficient" students with a grasp of English that can only be described as choppy, awkward, and intensely rigid. Speaking privately with a student after an evening lesson, he muttered, "I leave now" as he walked away. It's clear that statements like this, discounting grammar, are just out of place.

Becoming truly proficient in English "or any language for that matter" signifies a true understanding of what's contextual, colloquial, and catastrophic. Chinese English-speakers are often puzzled when tourists or Western colleagues use phrases such as "correct", and they will ask them to re-answer the question with a much simpler "yes or no".

Only adding insult to injury, GlobalEnglish Corp [2] states that many of the 11,000 non-native English speakers throughout China would not be able to keep up with a typical business meeting conducted in English. If anything, this data underscores the importance of strengthening the linguistic medium between our two countries. Ultimately, this medium will be home to our financial relations, political discussions, and diplomatic accords that are bound to take place in coming years.

Throughout the summer, I taught a 3pm to 5pm English course in the Nan'an district of Chongqing, China. Here, I've witnessed the many factors that have only come to widen the gap between students and teachers, like myself. A lesson I taught in mid-July was coined "English and Fruit Salad." Students were to watch me prepare a fruit salad as I narrated the show in English. But with just over 100 students in a single classroom, questions could not be answered, queries could not be addressed, and, above all, quality could not be achieved. Although teaching a diverse set of students is certainly valuable at times, a diminishing return may quickly present itself if a reasonable student threshold is not considered.

We, as humans, are innately crafted for language acquisition and find it much easier to remember English we speak than English we skim. As such, I urge Chinese training schools to begin teaching conversational dialogue, while allowing students a chance to slowly but surely work their way up the verbal ladder. Followed by formal, business-oriented interchange, students will be able to naturally and confidently progress on an avenue that continues with writing, intimate conversation, and sooner-than-not, English's formal qualities.

For far too long, English schools in China have rooted their lessons in intricate, and frankly obscure structure. This focus intimidates students and often discourages them from continuing their English studies, a pattern I've seen far too frequently. This structure does not belong in a student's beginning stages; instead, it should be included when the student has proven a firmer grasp of the language.

Witnessing a worsening academic architecture, I encourage Beijing to immediately establish a discretionary fund that ought to be given to English proficiency programs throughout the mainland. From the outset, this fund should be used for putting more Western instructors in the classroom, building new facilities, a move that will certainly abate disproportionate enrollment figures, and advertising incentives for those who are able to linguistically excel among their peers.

If officials abandon inaccurate reports and arbitrary enrollment figures, they'll undoubtedly get a better picture of the dynamic here on the ground. They'll understand that they must embrace policies that make students feel less like products and classrooms less like factories. They must abandon a timeworn sentiment, and begin to notice rows of desks not as obscure assembly lines, but as columns open to ventures of ingenuity and advancement that far exceed their country's own population.

If officials in Beijing, school supervisors, and parents truly want to empower their students, they'll have to veer away from the failed didactic methods of the past, and replace them with activities that truly give students a fair shot at linguistic growth. If Chinese training schools begin to change course, they'll give students throughout the mainland the linguistic skills that will serve them within the wall and far beyond it.

1. See here
2. See here

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.

James Fishback, a political columnist for The Huffington Post, recently spent three months teaching English in the Nan'an District of Chongqing, China. He is currently researching power-parities and income differentials centered in interior-China.

(Copyright 2012 James Fishback)

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