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>by Pete Marchetto

A couple of thoughts on this one. A few students have told me that they had good intentions when it came to English-only dorms and classroom time but that it broke down after a day or two. Only the most motivated of students will manage day in, day out and they will usually succumb to peer-group pressure and give up when most of
their fellows do. They set their ambitions too high and then give up altogether.

I think the best thing in convincing the students of English-only is to give them the analogy of, say, learning how to play tennis. For an hour or two a week you, the pro., are there to show them how to hold the racket, swing it and hit the ball. But if they put the racket down for the rest of the week until they see the pro. again they won’t improve. That ain’t the way to learn tennis and it ain’t the way to learn English.

The next thing I do is tell them a true story. (If you have no such true experience tell them this one or lie). At my last post one of the students complained she didn’t like speaking English with her classmates because they laughed at her. The irony was – as I pointed out to her and all her classmates – she was the best of ’em when it came to English. She rounded her vowels properly instead of mumbling them into some convenient quasi-Chinese approximation and was careful with her difficult consonants – even if that did mean a glimpse of tongue for ‘th’ – and consequently, of course, she looked and sounded ridiculous to her fellows in much the same way we did when we were at school and got the knack of pronouncing Frrrrrench properly. I’m coming to the conclusion that a large proportion of pronunciation problems come from the embarrassment of saying things correctly – it sounds so odd to the Chinese ear.

Also, it is good to do is convince the students they don’t need to be given a topic or an exercise in order to speak English. I’ve had many students tell me they can’t express everyday thoughts unless in Chinese – even some teachers have told me that – but I’ve yet to have any university student (or teacher) want to express something to me and fail. Again, point that out to them. They are so unused to using the language in anything besides a formal exercise they genuinely believe a lot of the time that that is all they CAN use it for.

Many are concerned that errors made in the course of speaking, if not corrected, will become entrenched. For that one I ask them to think of a local three year old speaking Chinese. Do they really think that three year old will be making the same oft-repeated mistakes at the age of ten? And do they think the best thing that three year old can do to improve his or her Chinese is to stop talking it until he or she has learned more rules of Chinese grammar?

What I do, having gone through all that, is set them the task of speaking English only for one hour a day when they are together, Monday through to Friday; the same hour each day. They don’t have to say anything in that hour if they don’t want to… but if they want to ask to borrow a pen or draw attention to something happening outside the window then they must do it in English. I also give the monitors the task of seeing to it that THEY arrange the hour this is to be done and that they enforce it. (This is best done of course if the students spend a lot of study time in the classroom – otherwise you will have to find someone else to be ‘in charge’ or assign dorm-leaders if dormitory hours are chosen). I give my monitors permission to punch anyone who speaks Chinese though sadly this form of enforcement is rarely taken as seriously as I’d like it to be.

Another possibility I’ve toyed with – but not used – is an English-only space; say a computer room or television room which the students like to be in. (A TV room might be difficult as it will be difficult to break out of watching Chinese programmes to
comment in English and then switch back again). The price of being in there is they must converse in English. If the worst comes to the worst then select a room they have to go to every day; the dining hall perhaps, or you could take advantage of a mass break-out of food-poisoning and allocate the lavatory.

At my college all this is all easily done, admittedly; the students are used to taking orders AS orders and are highly motivated. However, at any university it’s worth while convincing the students that the best resource they have for learning oral English is each other. When students complain to me that the college doesn’t provide them with an English-speaking environment I tell them it’s their job to create it for themselves. And should it happen – which thankfully it hasn’t yet – that students at the end of a semester complain to me their English under my tuition hasn’t improved as much as they’d hoped then I can always blame THEM for
not following my directions. Even if you can’t convince them to do it, at least you’ve covered your own butt…

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