Skip navigation

Category Archives: native english speakers

>By Steven McMath – Guangzhou, China

“I live in a harmonious family…”

Apparently Chinese people actually say this in Chinese. I suppose it is similar to China’s harmonious society. A Chinese friend expressed surprised that it wasn’t good English. I suppose we just like to call a spade a spade more often.

“My home town is very beautiful, is very famous and the food is delicious… “

“Today I want to talk about my washing machine…”

Again, Chinese people actually say these things in Chinese, except the washing machine bit which came from an IELTS book co-written by an New Oriental Chinese English teacher and a Chinese ‘genius’ who went to Oxford. The book was full of grammar mistakes as well. It took me about 2 years to get the department to stop selling it to the students.

Surprisingly students do tell me that Guangzhou is beautiful. I tell them, as much as I like Guangzhou, please look out the window for a moment. They laugh. Luckily Guangzhou people have a sense of humour and can laugh at themselves which is one reason why I like Guangzhou.

I’m asking a Chinese friend for some insights as I write this. Apparently everyone has been singing songs about how beautiful and famous their hometown is since they were small children. My Chinese friend tells me that they talk about delicious food because their lives are boring so they focus on the food. I think he is probably
over intellectualising. I think they are just obsessed with food.

One girl told me once that her home town was famous because of bamboo. Apparently Zhongshan is famous because Bruce lee came from there. Except that he didn’t and having personally been interested in martial arts for years, I had never heard of that before.

I find I have no need to make fun of the expressions. They want to do well in the IELTS exam and I want to help them do so, so we have a real goal congruence. I did make fun of the girl who said her hometown was famous because of Bamboo though. I couldn’t help myself. I do sometimes make fun of what they say but only for a laugh.

“My hometown is located approximately 173.5 km from the centre of Guangzhou. It has a population of 376,472 people. And a dog. It is very beautiful. It is very famous. The food is delicious. Welcome to my hometown.” It gets a laugh.

The latest one that has cropped up in the last year in Guangzhou is “I come from a nuclear family”. When was the last time you heard a native speaker say that?


>By Dick Tibbetts – University of Macau, Macau

I have been thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of being a NS or NNS teacher. I started to make a list but pretty soon found that neither group is homogeneous and you can’t make many blanket claims. In many cases you can’t even say “a majority of ….” and i had to fall back on “some”.

Here’s my list. Perhaps people would like to add to it.

Non-native English Speakers (NNS)

NNS advantages

1 Many NNS teachers share an L1 with their students and this means
2 they can see more clearly where the L1 is helping or hindering L2 acquisition. Having a good knowledge of both languages is a great advantage.
3 They can translate a word for students when they know that translation gives a clear idea of meaning and there is a one to one correspondence in the L1/L2.
4 They know what the learners are going through. They have experienced it themselves.
5 They know the systems in place in the countries they teach and thus they know when not to rock the boat and when things can be changed.
6 They can bond more easily with their students. They don’t make cultural gaffes. They are more aware of what motivates and does not motivate in their culture.
7 When assessing material they have a better idea of what is culturally transparent for students and what is not.
8 NNS teachers who do not share the L1 of their learners encourage the learners to use the target language and have a knowledge of some of the trials and tribulations of learning the target language. When these NNS teachers have multilingual classes this really is an “English as an international language” environment and it is a very healthy atmosphere for learning.

NNS disadvantages

1 In 3rd world countries, and I’m afraid, in China, there is a shortage of EFL teachers and there are quite a number of NNS teachers who are not proficient in English and have difficulty in writing a complex sentence without errors. It’s unfortunate, it’s not their fault and they do not have the money or time to take action to improve their English but it does detract from their ability to teach the language.
2 In some countries teacher training is limited to a rather narrow pedagogical perspective. I know this can happen in NS courses too but my experience is that course in my own country expose you to a variety of methods even if they are biased towards one view.
3 In a homogeneous culture, especially one where nationalism and tradition are valued, it’s hard to accept changes. This is even more true if the changes are felt to come from outside. Traditional language teaching in China derives in part from the grammar translation approach from the West, but once it did get taken on board it became Chinese and it’s hard for young teachers to go against the tried and tested ways of their peers and superiors.
4 Some teachers teach largely in the L1.
5 Teachers who are too dependent on the learners L1 in their teaching find it very hard when they have a multilingual class. Cantonese teachers of English in Hong Kong who get mainlanders, Mandarin speakers, in their classes can find the going rather tough. Some have refused to accepted Indians and Nepalis in their classes because they do not speak Cantonese and thus cannot be taught in the same class.

Native English Speakers (NS)

NS Advantages

1 NS teachers have an intuitive knowledge of what is said and isn’t said in their own dialect.
2 They are likely to have a larger vocabulary than some NNS teachers.
3 They are, with this knowledge of their own dialect, theoretically in a better position to study their own language and analyse it to see how it works.
4 They are better grounded in the metaphorical base of their language, something that CLT has ignored in the pursuit of information transfer at the cost of attitude and representational language.
5 They are often used to teaching multilingual classes.
6 A large number of NS teachers have learned another language and have experienced the problems of language learning.
7 In learning other languages they have often been exposed to different methodologies and can compare them. I learned French through grammar translation, German through the situational method, Greek via an AL textbook, Tok Pisin through contact with NS speakers of the language and Cantonese through choral repetition, a method totally divorced from meaning or communication.

NS Disadvantages

1 Some NS teachers think that being a NS is sufficient for being an EFL teacher
2 Quite a few NS teachers, myself included, have never learned any second language beyond lower intermediate or intermediate levels. They do not have experience of learning a language to an advanced level.
3 Although they can learn about the learner’s L2, and this helps them identify learner problems, they do not have the resources in this area that NNS teachers possess.
4 They cannot utilise the learner’s L1 as a resource in the way that NNS teachers can.
5 Although they are NS, they can be prescriptive and try and teach learners things they do not say or do in their own speech and writing. They often insist that the sentence is the prime unit of communication in spoken English and they promote and insist on prescriptive grammar rules like “no prepositions in sentence end position” and all the rest of it. Of course there are NNS teachers who also do this.
6 NS teachers can be culturally arrogant.
7 NS teachers can be cultural and linguistic imperialists. On the other hand, the cultural suppositions on which the metaphors of English (basic metaphors like the “time is space” metaphor of the going to future) are important to the language and need to be taken on by the learner. By the way, this can be done and has been done by speakers of Indian English and you can see the way in which they have adapted the metaphors of English public schools to Indian culture. Still, those teachers who try and create little England (or Little Rock or little anywhere) in Wuhan or Harbin, do English a disservice.

>By Don YD Chen – Liuzhou, Guangxi, China

I have been working with foreign teachers working in Chinese institutions for many years and have alway been in good terms with them. I, as a Chinese teacher of English, fully understand their situations in this vast land, where the culture is so diverse that one can hardly avoid continuous shocks such culture shocks, food shocks or shocks of whatever one can imagine, in the first few months (or a year). Worse, there are students whose enthusiasm shrinks soon after they discover that foreign teachers are not good at teaching them ‘to pass exams’.

>By Daniel T. Parker, Korea

Knowing or not knowing all the technical mumbo jumbo doesn’t necessarily mean that one will or won’t teach well.

Teaching requires several elements, one of which is a necessary amount of knowledge about the subject taught. How much is necessary depends largely upon the level of the learner. I teach university students in South Korea, and most of my students are in the English Language and Literature Department, and many of them take TESOL courses. One of my colleagues is an enthusiastic teacher and very personable, but can’t explain grammar to writing students and can’t tell the difference between voiced and unvoiced consonants to conversation students. I’m not saying she can’t teach! But it does frustrate some of her students; I know this because they come to me.

Earlier this week I had a student ask me a question about “approximants.” I didn’t remember the term, looked in my old linguistic textbook and couldn’t find the term, then looked in her new textbook and found the information; bingo, I was able to craft a satisfactory explanation and offer extra examples.

On the completely other end of the coin, I have taught special courses to people who teach elementary English here in Taegu. Some of them are very good in English, some are fair, some of them can’t carry on a simple conversation about time, clothing, weather, etc. Does this mean they are bad teachers? No, it’s insufficient data to answer the question.

But many of them were fascinated when I started explaining where and how different sounds are made. With all of their conversation classes in college, no one had ever taught them that. It didn’t mean they were able to immediately correct their own pronunciation…. but, one of my students took the time to write me a short note basically saying this: “Before, I could only tell if my student was or wasn’t making the correct sound; now, I can tell them how to make it correctly.”

But remember: if I go into their 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th grade classrooms and start talking about glottal stops, affricates, transitive verbs or passive voice, I won’t have taught their students a darned thing by the time I’m kicked out.

So here’s my ultimate point: being a good teacher requires more, much more, than knowledge of the subject one teaches. However, a good teacher can and will become a better teacher by learning as much as he or she can about the subject.

>By YD Chen

I am a Chinese teacher of English and I have taught English as a foreign language at high school, a teacher’s college and currently at a technology college.

Traditionally, Chinese students tend to consider their teachers the main source of learning, which, to a great extent, results from the philosophical foundation for education in China laid by Confucius, one of the greatest thinkers in ancient China. Even today, no one can deny his unparalleled contribution to Chinese education. Many of his wise sayings and maxims still govern the behaviour of learners in China.

Take TEFL (Teaching English as Foreign Language) for example, students are still accustomed to speech dominated education by a teacher-centred, book-centred, grammar-translation method and an emphasis on rote memory. There is little student initiative and, if any at all, little student-student interaction.

Teachers who are keen on spoonfeeding their students generally receive higher appreciation than teachers who are not. Any attempt from a teacher for simulated interactions such as games, roleplays, talk-based communicative activities, i.e., pair/ group/team work, risks resistance or even resentment from the students. The students tend to associate games and communicative activities in class with entertainment and, exclusively and accordingly, are skeptical of the use of games as
learning tools.

To make things worse, there are students who may go so far as to distinguish “good teachers” from “bad ones” solely by how many pages they can cover in their notebooks. Teachers who advocate communicative approach to teaching English are likely, though unfairly, to be considered lazy or irresponsible by some students.

On the other hand, a fairly large number of Chinese teachers of English play a crucial part in the current situation of TEFL. Although China has been on the way of opening to the outside world and many foreign experts in English teaching are increasingly available, many of these newly-arrived teachers are engaged in training Chinese foreign language teachers at the tertiary level of Chinese technology specialists.

The bulk of the English teaching is still conducted by Chinese teachers, mostly trained in a traditional way, the majority of whom have never been outside of China or talked to a native speaker. Owing to a lack of English proficiency themselves, some Chinese teachers find it a painful step to adjust to different teaching techniques and, therefore, are usually unprepared when difficulties crop up in the course of teaching.

Consequently, they often give up and resort to using outdated methods in the work. Some Chinese teachers are concerned about being unable to answer spontaneously questions about English, sociolinguistics, or culture as they arise from interactions in the classroom. It is not rare to hear teachers complain: “I can only teach English for the sake of teaching. If I am bombarded with more explanations on language and cultural differences, I may be at a loss.”

Last but not the least, the current CET-4/6 (College English Test Band 4/6), started some ten years ago, has led students to a false belief that written English is more important than spoken English. As a result, it is not unusual to see a holder of band 4/6 certificate very weak in spoken English, so much so that he/she often fails to speak a complete sentence. The two examples given at the beginning provide food
for thoughts, don’t they?

>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 Richard Hughes

My first TEFL job was teaching English majors at a university in Shandong, so I became familiar with teaching Chinese students who had just finished the high school system. Later I moved back to the UK and taught in a language school in Cambridge with smaller classes and obviously a very different teaching environment: i.e. multilingual classes with students from all over the world and a general acceptance of TEFL-style active learning of the language.

I am now back in China, teaching in a private school in one of the big cities to well-heeled local kids and businesspeople, and am back in the thick of dealing with the problems of teaching English here. And my experience of teaching in the UK has given me a new perspective on these problems.

Grammar Translation – the traditional approach

The emphasis in China is on teaching grammar, and most foreign teachers here are probably familiar with the horrified feeling you get as you look through one of your students’ ‘Intensive Reading’ coursebooks and wonder how this relic from the Dark Ages of language teaching has survived. Another obsession is vocabulary, with many Chinese people rating their English level by the number of words they are adjudged to know (“My lexicon’s bigger than yours….”).

It is sometimes truly terrifying to experience the gulf that lies between the level of grammar and lists of vocab that Chinese students are expected to recognise and the levels of what they can actually reproduce themselves; I have an elderly Chinese colleague who has written three dictionaries/guides to English idioms, who is incapable of holding a simple conversation with me unless I resort to Chinese.

I don’t think I am exaggerating too much when I say that China’s many enthusiastic students of English are looking at ending up in much the same way unless something fairly radical is done to help them. But what?

The first part of the problem lies in ideas here in China about what a language is and how it should be taught. Basically in all but perhaps a few pockets of enlightenment at the odd Teaching University, what we have is a system of teaching English that was initially developed many years ago with the emphasis placed on the wrong things. The first part of this is that English, inferior barbarian tongue that it is, could surely be taught in the same way Chinese is. Hence the emphasis on grammar, learning by rote, and vocabulary size. I believe the obsession with vocabulary may well lie in the idea from the Chinese language that the number of characters one can read is a mark of one’s education. In my experience, the way in which these ideas have been applied to English are counter-productive and usually sap the life out of the students.

Intensive reading classes are usually lectures by uninspired teachers to bored students, and so English keeps on seeming like a dead language like the Latin I had to learn at junior school. Reading and listening comprehensions encourage the students to merely find the relevant section of the text and reproduce it exactly in order to hopefully cover the correct answer. And active reproduction, the element of language learning which is reenforced by thought and inward digestion of the structures of the language, is usually totally ignored; in fact, it is actively deadened, and it is left to the foreign teacher to try and restimulated some of those withered synapses.

Lack of emphasis on speaking

We should not forget that the first opening up of China to the world, and the drive to teach more English that accompanied it, the emphasis was on technical training and technological expertise; learning English to be able to build car plants better. So reading and vocabulary were prioritised, and speaking and listening were, initially at least, more or less completely sidelined. This might sound a bit too much like ancient history, but, as with many things here in China, it set the roots of an attitude, and attitudes are very slow to change. What’s more, I’ve had plentiful explicit evidence that this is what people think, such as myriad students telling me that they are learning English in order to be able to translate foreign technical manuals for their companies, so why all this emphasis on speaking?

I don’t think I’ve ever had a student express to me the importance of learning languages for their own sake or because they are ‘interesting’. Fair enough, I suppose, given that most Chinese students’ primary reason for learning English is job-related. But there should be an awareness that becoming proficient in all aspects of English, from the ability to chat comfortably to reading and writing ability, is not only worthwhile for its own sake, but feeds into and improves whatever specific technical skills a student might be interested in acquiring.

The old attitude that speaking does not count may have recently shifted a little; ‘oral English’ is now taught in most schools, and younger students are aware of how important it is. However this does not mean that there has been an underlying change in thinking in how English is taught. What schools do is bring in a foreign teacher to do the oral classes, but only as a addendum to the ‘real’ business of cramming people’s heads with grammar rules and lists of words.

The TEFL idea of speaking being the essential component of a student’s acquistion of the language is still lightyears from being realised here. Given more time, maybe 50 years, perhaps speaking might get to be even more important in language courses, and could even (whisper it) gain parity with grammar, but with the WTO joined and the world knocking on China’s door, can it really afford to wait?

Limits on teachers

The most worrying part of this attitudinal problem is the way that it is entrenched politically. I mean that schools here, even joint venture private schools such as mine, are obliged to limit the numbers of foreign teachers that they have. The bulk of my school’s staff are Chinese teachers who are either retired or were unable to get employed by anyone else. So at what should be the most cutting edge example of English teaching in China, the majority of teaching is done in the most old-fashioned and in some cases incompetent way.

I recently had a elementary class confidently inform me that saying “listening music” was correct because their ‘real’ (Chinese) teacher had told them so. And quite apart from whether the individuals concerned are competent enough, in what other country in the world would a private foreign language school be 90% staffed by non-native speakers?

Companies who can splash out on English teachers only employ native speakers, and although this might come from the misguided belief that a native speaker is automatically better teacher than a local, it shows that organisations which have the money and, more importantly, the freedom to employ who they like, do not choose to take on incompetent Chinese teachers. But because of outside pressure, no schools are able/inclined to change the way in which they teach and design courses because it might mean having to lose some of these less than dazzling limpets.

This is not to suggest that only foreigners can make good teachers, and Chinese cannot. I know several younger Chinese teachers in my city who are passionate advocates of the speaking-based approach to teaching. It is people like this who need to be pushing for change in China’s language teaching, but until there are enough of them to go round, schools need to look to qualified foreigners if they are serious about offering a modern approach.

And that’s the point: this is just the best modern approach, in my opinion anyway. It is not, as several Chinese dinosaurs have suggested to me, a ‘western’ way of teaching that they can just hope to happily ignore while they plod along. What is boils down to is this. If Chinese students are serious about learning English, or indeed any foreign language, they need to rid themselves and their schools of all the dead weight which is holding them back.

I suggest…

Firstly, get rid of the electronic dictionaries and any bilingual paper dictionaries, and start trying to learn independently in a way which involves using the active part of the brain and not just the memory.

Next, junk useless tests like CET Bands 4 and 6, which only perpetuate the idea that using language is a series of gap-filling exercises. Then stop fretting so much about speaking English – you’ve learnt it throughout Middle School and often college, and it isn’t brain surgery, so open your mouth and let it come. And schools need to help students to do all this; get rid of the bad teachers (Chinese, foreign, whatever), and start thinking about how you want students to be taught and not just about making money out of them or shuffling them off to graduation.

Tear out all that ‘Intensive Reading/Extensive Reading/Oral’ rubbish, and look at how modern TEFL-style teaching all over the world is producing students who are confident in all aspects of communcation in a foreign language. Have courses in which reproduction – speaking and conversation, along with writing – are the overriding priority, and make speaking the medium through which all other aspects – grammar, reading, vocabulary – are taught. And above all, stop muddling around and get serious.

Only Chinese teachers can teach Chinese students?

A final anecdote to illustrate my point. When I arrived at my current school, I was told that the class of lower intermediate adults I was teaching would have me as their ‘oral’ teacher, but had two Chinese teachers to teach the “important” things like grammar because “Chinese students at their level need a Chinese teacher to explain things to them in Chinese”. Now, I had spent the previous six months teaching class after class of mixed language adults in the UK who started with basically no English, not even the benefit of six years of English at Middle School. I had been their only teacher, had taught a course based on a TEFL-style text book supplemented with the usual fun things, and I had taught English grammar from near-scratch speaking only English the whole time. In two months, I saw student after student go up to Intermediate level or beyond and become hugely confident in using everyday English. And now I was being told that Chinese students have ‘special needs’. Why? Are Chinese people more stupid than people from other countries? No.

For a start, this isn’t just a Chinese problem – my parents tell me that they were taught French at school in this ‘traditional’ way fifty years ago, and were never able to speak, only recite grammatical rules. But thankfully things changed, and sadly I think that the lack of change here is damaging China and its language students. In schools here, English levels are lower than they were in my school in the UK – an intermediate student here is about equivalent to a lower intermediate student back there – and it is distressing to see the way in which students here can labour away for years and still be incapable of holding a conversation with their teacher. Chinese students are no different from students from any other country, but they need to be taught in a modern (n.b. not ‘western’) way. For this to happen the newer generations of people involved in language teaching in China need to strip away the dead weight and have a re-think.

>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 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 Dick Tibbetts, University of Macau, China

If you are teaching spoken English then you should teach as it is spoken. There is a myth that formal English doesn’t use contractions like ‘it’s’. This is just not true. Listen to anyone speaking formally, say in a presentation to an audience and you’ll hear plenty of contractions. You’ll hear slang and other items marked as informal too, but at a lower frequency than in everyday conversation. These items are there to empathise with the audience, while the formal items are used to give a sense of occasion. Overformality antagonises the listener. The use of full forms and non use of slang certainly doesn’t show a better education.

By the way, there are many more contractions and elisions in connected speech than those marked by apostrophes in written english. As well as ‘it’s’ and ‘can’t’ there are things like I’d’ve for ‘I would have’, where the ‘ in d’ve indicates a schwa, a weak vowel sound like the sound between ‘k’ and ‘n’ in ‘spoken’. These weak forms are vitally important in spoken English as without them you lose the stresses and rhythms of spoken English. Chinese learners tend to pronounce each syllable with equal stress and this makes them hard to listen to, a bit like listening to a machine gun in slow motion.

If you teach them to speak as you speak that’s a step in the right direction but it might be an idea to leave a tape recorder on at breakfast time and at work for a week or two and try and analyse how you really do speak.

Here’s an interesting story. Some 20 years ago in UK I had a Chinese student who insisted he did not need English because he was studying science and he had a basic grammatical knowledge and a command of technical vocabulary for his subject. He did not feel he had a need to speak or to indulge in social chit chat.

I overheard him once as he was carrying a load of books. He couldn’t get into the classroom and he asked a fellow student, an Arab, “Can you apply a torque to the door”.