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>By Pete Marchetto

I think the central problem with the teaching of English in China is that it’s an examination subject and the examinations here seem to have precious little connection with natural use of the language focusing instead on relatively or purely academic aspects. This is what I meant when I said that a solid grounding in grammar, language history and so on are all well and good but I feel I have been of most benefit here when I have released the pent-up ability to actually USE the language.

At my last place of work a fellow teacher – Chinese – told me of a friend of hers who got 19 out of 20 in an examination and was deemed to have failed for his one wrong answer though he was an excellent student. The question asked which of the following forms was correct – ‘The bird is IN the tree’: ‘The bird is ON the tree’. The student declared the latter correct and afterwards argued strongly that a bird perched on the exterior of the tree could be said to be on, rather than in, the tree – but this, unfortunately, didn’t concur with the Chinese Manual of Prescriptive and Occasionally Inaccurate English Grammar. I don’t know about everyone else in here but I’m on the side of the student in this one – I have no qualms about saying ‘The bird is ON the tree’.

One of the biggest blocks I suspect all of us have to overcome is the belief students have that they can’t speak English. Indeed, two of the teachers here have told me they can’t use English to express themselves. I pointed out to them, as I point out to the students when they make the same complaint, that they seemed to be doing a perfectly good job of expressing themselves to me. This is what I mean by a ‘pent-up’ ability; the schooling they’ve received in English is far from useless but the ability to use the language it creates exists merely as a potential until someone comes along and encourages them to use it. Not having used it they believe themselves incapable of doing so.

In releasing that potential I have to give the students the revelation that it is fine for them to make mistakes. Inevitably mistakes are made, and many of them given that students have so rarely been called upon simply to speak. Not being chastised for mistakes, however, seems almost alarming for some of the students. If they make mistakes, they ask, and aren’t corrected for them, won’t those mistakes become entrenched? I point out to them that the continual mixing of he/she, for example, if corrected on each hearing, will fragment any conversation beyond its value as communication and a promotion of fluency. It’s not as if the students don’t know the gender rules; it’s merely that lack of practice has those mistakes so oft repeated. Such problems will work themselves out, wrinkles in language that will be ironed out the more they use it and the more natural it becomes for them to use it. Correcting them each time negates the value of the practice and, ironically, of itself is liable to entrench the errors – along with many other problems – in their conversational English.

Students also worry that in having conversation with one another mistakes will become entrenched. On that issue I point out to them that parents don’t stop children acquiring their native tongue speaking with other children lest they reinforce each ‘s errors. With further exposure to the correct use of the
language at other times again the errors are ironed out. Do they think that a four year old Chinese permitted only to speak to adults who use the language properly and never allowed to speak to other four year olds even though adults are rarely available to them in comparison to other four year olds would grow up with a better or worse grasp of Chinese? Where I will make corrections – as far as possible at the end of conversations, not within them – is in other areas such as the inappropriate use of vocabulary and common errors where something is clearly misunderstood; the excessive use of ‘very’, the cultural error in the frequent use of ‘delicious’ are two examples; the pronunciation ‘clothIES’ or ‘clothESIES’ for ‘clothes’; a word poorly understood from a dictionary as recently where students in debate were gaily throwing around the word ‘moribund’ to describe a group of healthy dogs that were about to be put into a situation where they would almost inevitably die which fitted the dictionary definition of the word but missed out on some of its subtleties.

When someone tells me they want to improve their English I ask them bluntly whether they want to improve their English for use or for exams? If the latter I will gently suggest they find themselves a Chinese teacher. English exams in China are so abstruse that I suspect I, as a mere native speaker, erstwhile professional writer and ex-member of MENSA, would not only fail in teaching for those examinations but also be very likely – if faced with them – to fail the examinations themselves.

I realise that none of this holds anything new for anyone who has been teaching here for over six months but there are new teachers who might be saved some of the confusion all of us felt on arriving in China to teach for the first time. For those of you yet to arrive you are in for a treat; where else in the world can you get students who are unable to speak English and bring them up to the level of fairly fluent conversationalists in under a year?

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