Home > Uncategorized > The Chinese Language Learner (A Short Rant)

The Chinese Language Learner (A Short Rant)

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.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. October 3, 2012 at 9:11 am

    The question that many people should be asking my is “how can I improve my English without doing any extra work?”


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