Home > Uncategorized > Let’s Hear it For Listening

Let’s Hear it For Listening

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obsessed with speaking, unaware that the vast majority of what they are saying comes from deformed grammar patterns, outdated grammar-translation teaching techniques and an apparent unwavering desire to say something that will never cause offense in public.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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