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Let’s Hear it For Listening

October 9, 2012 Leave a comment

So I’ve taken a radical departure from my usual focus on speaking focussed student-centered classes. Right now, I’m using material from OneStopEnglish, adapting some of their “Ghost’s Guide to London”. This fulfills several conditions of my remit as a foreign teacher in China:

– I’m able to give Chinese students a cultural insight into some of the more interesting parts of London, and cover certain areas of British culture of note (with the right material, you can pretty much do the same with any country)

– I use the classes to teach more colloquial, natural sounding (British) English. One of the things that I’ve taken away from the good folks at PopUp Chinese is that as a teacher, your value lies in the ability to give students something that they can’t get anywhere else. I’ve been teaching since 2007, and probably used every textbook out there, and I’ve never seen anything that teaches what these lesson teach.

– The exercises in the student worksheets easily cover over 100 minutes (possibly even more) that focuses on a seven and half minute mini-documentary – a ratio which gives a highly focussed set of differing exercises that cover reading, writing, speaking and listening. This is hugely important in that we can cover the same recording over and over again without anything getting too boring.

Chinese students go through a lot of English training, and what usually happens, especially in Chinese classrooms is that, more often that not, the only person who’s English actually improves is the teacher. Chinese students these days are obsessed with speaking, unaware that the vast majority of what they are saying comes from deformed grammar patterns, outdated grammar-translation teaching techniques and an apparent unwavering desire to say something that will never cause offense in public. I’ll give you an example:

The chuanr place where friends of mine gather to drink three kuai beers, moan about living in China and generally attend what is an informal group therapy session got kind of famous largely because word spread that two native speakers were hanging out there.

About six months after I started going there – ostensibly enough to try to improve my spoken Chinese – the place turned into a free English class for people who either lived or worked nearby who wanted to improve their English by speaking with foreigners. And it wasn’t long before parents started dragging their exhausted children to the place to be fawned over an American and a Brit who’d drunk far too much beer to be fawning over 12 year old kids out way past their bedtime.

Some of the proud parents had entered their offspring into one of the myriad English speaking competitions that go on around Beijing, and probably the entire Middle Kingdom. After this happened a couple of times, I started noticed that although it was impressive that a 12 year old Chinese girl could answer basic conversational questions that most 12 year old British girls would have problems with, the kids were making exactly the same mistakes as the students that I taught at Wall Street nearly 6 years ago, and which were exactly the same mistakes that my university students are making in my classes this year – which led me to ask a couple questions: If there’s little in the way of error correction in a class, then the classes are largely a waste of time, a second, although outputting as much as you can as often as you can might well be seen as confident steps on the way to fluency, what’s the point of being fluent in Chinglish?

Most of my more difficult students are quick to point out that I’m a native speaker, and grew up speaking my native language, a claim that it pretty outlandish, because I don’t actually do that much speaking. I’m a quiet guy. Quiet to the point that people have wondered if they’ve offended me because when they met me at a dinner a few nights ago, I didn’t speak that much. I like to sit and listen, and for the vast majority of people, sitting a listening to stuff in their native language is what they do. Unless alcohol has loosened my tongue enough to go off on a rant on one of the subjects I’m passionate about, I’m generally content to sit around, ingest and not contribute much to a group conversation. And that’s what a lot of native speakers do actually do. And it proves a rule that speaking, and the holy grail of speaking with foreigners is the key to becoming as fluent in a second language as you are in your first.

Here’s a rundown of what media I’m listening to right now just on iTunes:

– BBC Newshour: it comes a day late, but it’s 50 minutes of news that nicely fits in with my gym commute
– Fry’s English Delight: Stephen Fry’s great guide to various ideosycrantic parts of the English language that even native speakers don’t know about.
– The Complete Smiley: A series of audiobooks adapted by Radio Four from the novels of John Le Carre
– The Paleo Solution: a great podcast from Gregg Everett and Robb Wolf covering low carb diets, workouts, cross-training and everything else in painful geeky biochemical detail.
– Witness: occasionally disturbing BBC series from The World Service
– Documentaries: The World Service do their thing again with reports from all over the world. I’m a BBC geek, by the way.

And that’s just the stuff that I listen to. I’m not even counting the endless hours I’ve stayed up till 3am watching the last season of House, or the season finale of Homeland, or had a marathon Breaking Bad session with a couple of bottles of wine. All of which constitute about 200/250 hours a week of passive consumption of the English language. And I speak the language fluently.

Most of my opinions are formed by listening to interview, documentaries, chat shows and anything else you can imagine that manages to crystalize my random collection of feelings and thoughts into an coherent, manageable verbal form. People steal bits of other people’s opinions all the time, recycle them, personalize witticisms from The Onion or Colbert or TED and make them power a conversation. For some reason, there’s an attitude from Chinese that foreign teachers, for whatever reason, will have the answers that they’re looking for (something that Confucius has a lot to answer for), and feel tremendously let down when we can’t give them any other answer apart from “well, I read the news” or “I read a book”. Consumption of media is essential to language learning – it exposes the listener to new language, new grammar and opinions and allows them to restructure and personalize the language for future purposes, and should never be discouted as being “too easy” or not worth their learners time because it doesn’t teach anything new.

One of the main reasons that I don’t engage my students on any personal level is that they are so painfully boring and so incredibly uninformed and so excruciatingly naive to have a conversation with – they’re empty vessels trying to fill a conversational void with opinions that never offend. The best students that almost any language teacher will tell you they’ve had have been the loudmouth assholes at the back of the class that question almost everything, express their opinions clearly without being overpolite, or treating you like an idiot in their country. It’s a shame that exactly the kind of student that China is betting it’s future on is exactly the kind of citizen that the Chinese government doesn’t want.

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The Chinese Language Learner (A Short Rant)

October 3, 2012 1 comment

My last class with my MBA students came to a shuddering halt when one of the students asked why we were going over an article from one of the Business Spotlight lesson plans that I was using with them. The lesson plan is probably one of the best lessons that you can hope to provide a class with, created by one of the wonderful writers over at OneStopEnglish – these guys are run by MacMillan publishing, so when it comes to teaching English as a second language, they know their shit.

“But I can just go on the Internet and read this article without coming to class,” she wailed in frustration, not actually grasping the fact that even if I was using a business English textbook, she’d be able to go into any bookstore in China and buy the same book herself. It’s like saying that you don’t go to a Michelin restaurant because you can buy the same ingredients at your local market.

Another favorite is for the student to offer a “suggestion” to the teacher – a suggestion that I guarantee they would never give to their Chinese teachers, and that is that the teacher should talk individually to all the students. It’s a suggestion that is quickly destroyed when I point out that if I did this in each class, every student would get a whole two and a half minutes of speaking time with me, and the class is held every two weeks. And the fact that if I spoke with each of the roughly 37 students per class then one student would be “talking” and the other 36 would be doing nothing for the entire 98 minute session. People rarely make suggestions to me after I’ve pointed that out.

The problem lies mostly in the fact that Chinese people use all sorts of false synergisms to justify a certain courses of action (a false synergism, for the uninitiated was described by comic Jo Brand as “All men have bollocks, all men talk, therefore all men talk bollocks”). With language learning, the ideas that merely being the same room as a native English speaker will magically, through some mysterious form of intellectual osmosis, make the non-native English speaker become completely fluent in the language is, and this is the last time I shall mention the word, bollocks. If this particular methodology were correct then all the foreigners in Japan, Korea and China would speak fluent colloquial Japanese, Korean and Chinese because they are speaking with native speakers all the time.

The classroom and the dreaded English Corner is a place where people who speak bad English can get together and feel good about being bad at something. Most of my students will refuse to speak answer a question during class time, but will guiltlessly interrupt my free time with awkwardly phrased questions and sentences. In the classroom, they feel protected, if there are 37 students in a class, then it’s odds-on that you could go the whole class without having to answer a question, but to actually go up to a native speaker and engage in a free conversation, is tantamount to a gazelle painting a bullseye on it’s backside along with the words “all lions are losers” (and before the pedants comment, I know the lioness is the one who does all hunting, but lions make for slightly better gag).

The question I get asked most is “how can I improve my English?”. The question that many people should be asking my is “how can I improve my English without doing any extra work?” The fact of the matter is that the method of study – rote learning and what roughly equates to be a human machine translation simply doesn’t work, but because it all the students have known, they are afraid of abandoning that system merely because it’s the only way they know how to generate a modest amount of improvement. There is a magical, albeit impractical, system that will allow you improve levels of fluency in a matter of months – take all the money that you’re spending on classroom time and go to the US for three months by yourself.

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