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Why English Is So Difficult (for Chinese learners)

Popularity 4Viewed 11570 times 2016-11-27 21:12 |Personal category:Education|System category:News| English, Chinese, American

I've taught thousands of students since I came to China in 2011. I've taught hundreds of Chinese English teachers. I've met students who have studied English for 10 years in school. I've met adults who have studied and tried to learn English for 20 years or more. Most of them still have a lot of mistakes. Most of the time their mistakes are common grammar mistakes. Once in a while they will have word choices that are not the best.

Why is English so difficult for Chinese students and learners?

When I was in college, many years ago, I had a roommate who was a German major. He loved everything German. He had visited Germany once when he was a child and fell in love with the country.

It was funny to me because when I would talk to him every day, he would always answer me in German first and then in English. He used every opportunity he could find to speak to me in German. I later learned that his professor required his students to speak German in his class every time that they met. I also learned that his teacher taught the class in German after the first two times they had class.

Later, I found out that all foreign language teachers at my college taught the same way. In fact, the school had a rule that you could not teach a foreign language in English after the first two classes. Many students had no foundation of speaking or knowing the language that they want to master some day. However, after the first two classes that they met, the only language that was spoken in the class was the targeted foreign language.

My roommate mastered German in about 2.5 years. By his junior year (3rd year of college) he was getting jobs teaching and translating. He was tutoring high school students and translating for businesses. I also learned that most of the students in the German department were as good or even better with German than my roommate.

So why do Chinese students learn for so many years and never master English?

1. Most Chinese English teachers are teaching English in Chinese, not English. There are no more than about 10 phrases that a language teacher will use over and over again in their lessons. Students should learn these phrases first. Phrases like, 'say this after me', 'repeat this after me', 'this is a verb', 'this is a noun', 'this is an adjective', 'this is an adverb', 'this means.....', etc. I've attended many Chinese English classes and learned quickly that there is much more Chinese spoken in the class than English. Teachers make it easy by translating so much and instructing the students in Chinese. However, the students don't learn this way because language is not learned this way. It is learned by using the target language you want to master.

2. Recitation is boring. This is a method that is most often used in teaching English in China. I've talked to many teachers who tell me, "It's not easy to learn English. You have to recite, recite, recite, recite." Not only is this a boring way to learn English, but, it is not effective. This is why most don't learn it well enough to use it. A bored mind will have a very low efficiency in learning. The brain requires blood flow for optimum learning.

3. Trying to learn and recite word lists are counterproductive to learning. The human brain learns best when learning concepts. For example, teaching a phrase is much easier to learn and remember than learning one word in isolation. I've been in English classes here where teachers have a book or word list and are having the students to repeat, repeat, repeat. Phrases and full sentences are learned better than learning one word at a time.

4. Most books on learning English are full of grammar and word choice mistakes. I've bought books in China that are suppose to teach SAT and TOEFL English preparation that have numerous grammar and word choice mistakes. Some of the word choice mistakes have good grammar and have a word that will work, but, they are not commonly accepted English conventions. For example, in Chinese, if you are talking about something that is at a museum, you will say, "There have many exhibits." In English, according to commonly used English conventions, we would never say this. We would say, "They have many exhibits." It is not that 'there' is wrong. It is just that you'll never hear a native English speaker say it like that. 

5. Many teachers have never visited an English speaking country. Language students in America are required (by every college I've ever known of) to go and spend time in a country that the native language is the language that they are learning. Most teachers have lived in countries that the native language is the language that they teach. This is very common and many schools require it. 

6. Teachers are not required to be fluent in English. When I first came to China, I walked into my school one day and started talking to the head teacher in the English department. I'm from the southern USA and we speak much slower than people from the north. Also, I had already practiced speaking slower in order to help others learn. When I spoke to her, she looked at me as if I was speaking Swahili (an African language). She knew nothing that I was saying. I said it again very, very, very slow and clear. She still didn't understand.

Recently, at a school in Houston, Texas, the French teacher suddenly quit teaching his class. The school had to find someone else to teach the French class. They couldn't find anyone who was qualified. So, they found someone that had taken French for two years in college. The problem was, he was not fluent in French. The parents got very angry that their kids were not being taught French from a teacher who was not fluent in French. In America, being fluent is required to teach a language. This teacher wasn't and there was a big argument in the school system. No one could believe that they would have a teacher who wasn't fluent in French.

7. In China, the focus is on exams. Of course, in America, language students also take exams. However, they learn faster because they learn to speak the language first. This is the natural way that language is learned all over the world. Children listen to their parents and then try to say what the parents say. Writing and reading are taught later in school. But, children start learning to speak at 1.5 to 2 years old.

I've stayed in China because I felt so sorry for students who were always struggling to learn English. Right now, I'm at my home in America, but I'll come back to China in January. I will come because feel that there is much more work I can do to help students and teachers. I've been able to help thousands. I've now created a public account on WeChat (Weixin) and offered free lessons to anyone who wants to join and learn. I give practical lessons every day to help students. It is my desire to do all that I can to help students to learn English, faster, easier and happier. 

If you want to add me on WeChat, just connect with me using my WeChat ID. It is BigTEXZZ. I'll connect you to one of my many groups and also to my public account. You can get practical help for free every day.


(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)




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Reply Report AndrewHLi 2016-12-4 12:05
It is a mind of cost that pulls Chinese students back. Usually it is easier for Americans to go abroad but not for the Chinese when asked for going to a native language-speaking country to learn the language, because some of the familiy haven't raised enough money to support this activity.

Furthermore, what makes English so popular in China is obviously the mandatory exam every single one has to take thoughout their educational life. If not, the number of English learners will nosedive sharply.

Today most students still see English as a tool only for exam and many of them though don't like Enligsh, they feel obliged to learn it. Therefore, it is obviously hard for them to excel the language.
Reply Report BlondeAmber 2016-12-4 23:11
AndrewHLi: It is a mind of cost that pulls Chinese students back. Usually it is easier for Americans to go abroad but not for the Chinese when asked for going to ...
cost has nothing to do with the ability a student has to practice a language.
At home we are expected to learn at least one European language, and to practice it in our free time.

Many Chinese university students i know fail to do any practice outside of class time, and the class contact time with the foreign teacher might be only once a week.

Fluency does not magically happen by just sitting in a class-room, it requires work, as does practicing a musical instrument.

If university students even spent 15 minutes a day speaking to each other in english while they are walking between classes, then their ability will improve.

when i ask students how much time they spent practicing their English outside the classroom more often than not it is 0 minutes.
The teacher can not be standing over them every minute of every day to see if they are practicing.
This is where as adults, university students are expected to be responsible for their own work outside the classroom, not the teachers.
Reply Report AndrewHLi 2016-12-5 10:18
BlondeAmber: cost has nothing to do with the ability a student has to practice a language.
At home we are expected to learn at least one European language, and to  ...
Those taking 0 minutes in English outside classroom are responsible for their work in my view, because they have no interest in English.

The bad environment for English learners is another problem. For those who are interest in English, even though they can self study, it is not always easy to find a companion. I've found many ways to practice my oral English, but after that, the only thing I found is the difficulty or stumbling blocks for a passionate learner.

I can't feel the learning atmosphere as an adult from my experience.
Reply Report BlondeAmber 2016-12-5 14:13
AndrewHLi: Those taking 0 minutes in English outside classroom are responsible for their work in my view, because they have no interest in English.

The bad env ...
This is where as an adult you are responsible for finding solutions.

By focusing on exams rather than communication, many students fail to learn how to communicate properly.
Reply Report MartinAn 2017-3-15 23:53
AndrewHLi: Those taking 0 minutes in English outside classroom are responsible for their work in my view, because they have no interest in English.

The bad env ...
Yeah, it is not easy for us to find a English companion.

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Michael is the author of the transformational book, Powerful Attitudes. He is a professional educator, an educational consultant, an author. He lives in Zhengzhou, Henan Province. He enjoys playing guitar and writing poetry. He loves China.


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