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Category Archives: culture

>By Anna – Beijing, China

I think showing movies to the students is one of the best ways to teach English (if not the best). There’s almost everything in the movies. Everything is authentic. Students at all levels need to watch movies as much as they can, provided time and money affordable. Like in my school, which has primary and high school students, we have different movies for the students. For little kids, we have Tom & Jerry, Rainbow Fish, etc.; for high school students, we have Noting Hill, Antz, Men in Black and so on. In universities, they offer a course called “advanced visual-aural-oral skills” for graduate students.

Movies can be used for different purposes. As there’s almost everything in them, teachers need to direct Ss’ attention to some of them. As a Chinese myself, I find watching movies most challenging. There’s always a lot that I can’t figure out while watching a movie. That’s the exact area where the Chinese Ss need help from a foreign teacher because it has the least to do with grammar. It’s all live English for which we may not find any help or explanation from our textbooks or grammar books. Besides, it’s a rich resource of cultural things.


>By Frank Doonan

It is true being able to speak English as a native speaker does not mean you know how to teach. Unfortunately getting your degree in teaching or other related fields does not always qulaify either.

It is true that many teachers come to China and do not take teaching seriously, but on the other hand many Chinese don’t take English teachers seriously regardless of their qualifications.

The original goal of Chiese schools was not necessarily geared to having professional teachers teach English. The system mostly developed based on just having native speakers give Chinese the opportunity to practice oral English. The schools still basically depended on Chinese teachers to continue teaching bad English the wrong way.

I found that the ability to teach English in China is basically learned by teaching English in China. The problems and techniques of teaching in China involves not only teaching, but a culture barrier in learning and teaching methods not learned in schools in western cultures. If you survive the ‘Friendship gauntlet’, ‘Culture shock’ and stay long enough to get some practical experience, then you may be qualified as a English teacher in China regardless of your educational or experience background.

>By Tony Lee

We can only try to be perfect. I started with a freshman oral class for the first time this semester and they certainly are different.

First thing I told them was since they are paying my salary, they are my boss. A couple of them have taken their responsibility as my boss very seriously and yesterday came to tell me what I was doing wrong.

First I was talking too much. I was their first Australian and yes I had talked for most of the first 2 hour lesson telling them all about Australia and myself. Second lesson they talked the whole time — on a progressive story so I could gauge their ability. Speaking — pretty good. Understanding me or each other – quite bad. So pep talk on active listening etc.

The interesting thing is at a brainstorm session they picked exactly the two top ‘wants’ as Eve’s class – they should speak all the time and I should teach them culture. The one about correcting them immediately was already in place as I had warned them that those who were worried about losing face should leave it (face) back in their dorm. Now the trick is going to be how to satisfy two almost
completely mutually exclusive activities. My easy solution was to tell them they can’t have their cake and eat it too and those who wanted more info on western culture would have to come to our apartment and look at my books, maps and photos and ask me questions.

They wanted things to debate so “who is responsibility for learning” will be more productive than some I had considered.

>By Eve Ross – Beijing Institute of Machinery

I devoted half a lesson to “gestures” in my Oral English class last term. The lesson segment mainly consisted of a class brainstorm of all the gestures students could think of. I asked them to explain the meaning of each gesture, and I confirmed whether Westerners give it the same meaning or not. Most gestures they thought of were fairly universal.

When they were starting to run out of ideas, I nodded my head vigorously, and asked what that meant. They all said, “Yes.” I told them that in most parts of the world, that is the correct answer, but not in Bulgaria. When Bulgarians nod their head, they mean “no”, and when they shake their head, they mean “yes”. I asked the students to imagine the miscommunication that could occur between a foreigner and a Bulgarian who were not aware of the different meaning.

I then pointed out some gestures that Chinese often make, which foreigners may perceive as having a different meaning than the Chinese intend: (1) limp handshakes, (2) slightly sticking out the tongue, and (3) the Chinese signs for the numbers 6, 8, and 10. Holding hands with someone of the same sex should probably be added to this list, as well as hailing a cab; I hadn’t thought of either of these at the time. Can anyone else on the list think of more gestures that should be discussed?

Here is how I explained the three gestures in my lesson:

(1) I demonstrated an especially limp handshake, then showed my wobbly hand to the class, “Doesn’t it look like a fish that came out of the water and died? When you shake hands, don’t give the person a dead fish. They don’t want it. They will think it shows disrespect. The stronger your hand, the more a Westerner will think you are friendly and honest.” Then I had each person shake hands with a partner as I went around the room doing random handshake firmness checks.

(2) I told a story in which I was supposed to go to my husband’s office to bring him a paper with urgent information on it that he had left at home. I rode a bus, I took the subway, I walked to the office building, and when I saw my husband, I reached for my bag to hand him the paper,…and I realized I had forgotten my bag and the paper! I flicked my tongue out, then asked the students, “What is the meaning of that gesture?” They all recognized it as embarrassment. But then I told them that was the first time in my whole life I had made that gesture. I have only seen it in China; it doesn’t exist in the West. The only gestures Westerners make with their tongue all show disrespect. So a Westerner might perceive the Chinese tongue gesture as disrespect, rather than embarrassment. If Westerners were extremely ashamed, they might lower their head or cover their eyes. But mild embarrassment is usually just laughed about.

(3) I demonstrated the numbers 1-5 by holding up the right number of fingers, then asked the students how to show me how to do “6”. They all made the gesture of index, middle, and ring fingers folded down, with thumb and pinky extended. I showed them that Westerners show “6” by holding up all 5 fingers of one hand, and one finger (or the thumb) of the other hand. The Chinese gesture for “6” means “telephone” to most Westerners. I then held my hand in that form near my head, with thumb by my ear and pinky by my mouth. The students thought that was really funny. Also, the index finger and thumb extended in an L shape means “8” to Chinese and “gun” to Westerners. And crossing index and middle fingers means “10” to Chinese and “good luck” to Westerners.

To sum up the lecture, I divided students into groups to create conversations using at least 5 of the gestures mentioned in class– with the meanings that Westerners attach to those gestures, should there be a difference.

>By Eve Ross – Beijing Institute of Machinery

I asked students to discuss with a partner what percent of their learning is the teacher’s responsibility, and why. The answers ranged from 10% to 100%, but most were between 30% to 50%. The insights used to defend the various answers were really great, too. Since everyone admitted that the teacher had at least some responsibility, this was a good segue into creating a teacher’s contract.

The list members might be interested in my students’ suggestions of clauses to go in my contract, since they create a students’-view picture of the ideal English teacher. I should mention that I taught these same students last semester, so they are already familiar with my teaching style. The numbers reflect how many of the 32 students included the item in their list of suggestions.

26 – Provide more opportunities to speak English
14 – Teach more Western culture
14 – Point out mistakes and correct them immediately
12 – Show more films
8 – Work more on pronunciation
8 – Give more opportunities to talk about daily life
8 – Provide more chances to meet other native speakers
6 – Give advice on how to study English

Suggestions given by fewer than 5 people:

Give advice on reading
Take students out of the classroom
Answer e-mail quickly
Do more role plays
Ask for student suggestions
Give practical knowledge
Give advice on passing the Band 4 Exam
Be friends
More homework
More tests
More oral presentations
More games
More focus on the text
More different topics
More vocabulary
More grammar

All of these seem like pretty good ideas to me, but only the first three are actually going into my contract: I will provide as many opportunities to speak English as possible. I will teach some aspect of Western culture in every class. I will point out and correct students’ mistakes immediately.

>By Zhou Zheng Li, China

Regarding “Student Centred Learning”, many people still argue whether this concept can really be applied to teaching large classes in China.

In the past, teachers lectured for the whole period with little time left for students to discuss or raise questions. Can it be called “indoctrination” in English? It’s so-called “Teacher Centred Learning”. The teacher teaches whatever he wants to teach, which can be justified as the teacher has a textbook to finish and some specific goals to achieve.

Compared with western students, Chinese students are more bookworms or memorizing machines than creative thinkers. Many educators contribute all this to improper teaching method.

To produce more creative thinkers, not just learning machines, they advocate teachers should adopt “Student Centred Learning” methods — encourage student participation in class activities, even let students teach themselves. This method emphasizes that the students are performers and the teacher is, in some ways, a director, another a helper, or a listener, but seldom a lecturer. Some even go to the extreme to say that students are guests, “guests are god”, teachers should serve them as actresses serve guests.

All this sounds reasonable. But in reality, all too often, those teachers or schools that adopt this teaching methodology will find they are in a Catch-22 situation: Students are wild and out of control in class; teachers can not finish their syllabus; most students will fail their examinations; parents are disappointed; teachers are frustrated.

I don’t know why such a well-intended method should go wrong. Maybe China is different from western countries, culturally and historically. We cannot simply copy others.

One artist once said: Learn from me, you will prosper. Copy me, you will die. How true!

>By Pete Marchetto

I’ve banged on about this many times in the past, but my suggestion is… don’t.

It is very easy to get seduced here by the idea that teaching culture is somehow central to teaching international English, but given the fact that English IS international, teaching to one specific culture is self-defeating.

Frankly I am tired of students coming up to me and asking me, as an Englishman, for clarification on some minutia on the history of Liverpool. They are often stunned to realise the only thing I know from the beginning to the end of Liverpool is ‘iverpoo’ and yet, somehow, I manage not only to survive in my own land, but also to speak the language with reasonable fluency in spite of this yawning gap in my knowledge.

One of the few times I find myself teaching British culture is in the correction of some of the more incredible misconceptions put into students’ heads by the local education system, not because I feel the students need the knowledge, but because I am sick and tired of listening to all the nonsense that I can only assume came from the research of someone using a pair of binoculars while hidden in a deep cave somewhere on the planet Mars.

The fact is that if you talk to most Chinese using English in the workplace, very few are dealing with native speakers as the majority of their clients, let alone specifically with any subculture such as that of Australia, the UK or the USA. Students have enough of their time wasted as it is without us adding to the burden.

All that said, I am a great believer in teaching cross-cultural communication where possible on a non-culturally specific basis.

>By Dick Tibbetts, University of Macau, China

Turn taking skills do vary from culture to culture (and from person to person and I’m willing to bet that similar turn taking behaviour is a factor in courtship etc.) as Northern and Southern Brits know well, and indeed Brits and Americans working together know this too (see Deborah Tannen for a simple guide).

But the differences, although important, are not huge. When I found Chinese learners didn’t take turns I watched and saw that it seemed to be that on the one hand they didn’t want to initiate and on the other hand they didn’t respond much because the first speaker hadn’t said anything that needed a real response. It was all display language, for the teacher to hear and judge. If an answer was needed it was generally something that all parties knew already so what was the urgency in saying it? These kids I was teaching had 12 – 15 years of learning that English was a language where you said and wrote things that everyone knew, in order to display your knowledge of English.

Some teachers have complained about lunatic language in English Corners in public parks.

“Hello, where do you come from?”

“I’m from USA/Germany/Mars.”

“Oh, that is a very beautiful country ….”

Chinese were using English to practice their English, not to engage in communication.

So what to do about it?

It happens because of the way English is taught and it happens particularly in China because of fear of the outside (or fear of those in authority who might not like outside influences). We can alter our way of teaching English but since many teachers in China and elsewhere in Asia have yet to come to terms with communicative methodology and use it effectively i don’t think you or I will persuade large numbers to jump yet a further step.

As regards the fears, well that too is well outside our control except for individual contacts.

If you have a free hand in the classroom you can do things.


Get students to talk about things they have never discussed before even in their L1. Davis and Rinvolucri suggest in Ways of Doing finding out how exactly you eat a pizza – where you bite first, how you cut it etc. and ways of eating particular items are ok, don’t use too high levels of language and are non-threatening. I often use more personal things and things that people want to tell each other. The story of a personal scar or operation.

Get students to realise that when we speak and write we pass information on many levels as facts and as attitudes. And that the attitudes may be implicit in vocabulary choices not explicitly stated. Connotations and collocations are important but are not adequately taught over here.

Help students to realise the importance of wordplay. you find it in literature and advertising but we use it in everyday communication all the time. Human beings are playful animals and we like play. Teaching English as a tool ignores this and turns it from a language into something resembling COBOL. If they can manipulate English for fun and to add depth and meaning then motivation goes up and up.