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The obstacles faced by Chinese students in mastering English

Popularity 24Viewed 6683 times 2014-4-16 20:14 |System category:News| The, obstacles, faced, Chinese, students

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to reside and teach in China for the past ten years. I had the chance to teach students of all age groups and various educational backgrounds. Unfortunately, I discovered that most of my students were facing several obstacles in attaining competence or achieving fluency in the English language.

Being a writer with an inquisitive mind prompted me to study the phenomenon.  Through my interactions with my students and endless discussions with them, I discovered that the causes behind their difficulties with the process of mastering English could be summarized as follows:

          An acute case of timidity/shyness that is the result of a long conditioning process that began at childhood and continued up to adulthood.

          Lack of self-confidence that could be caused by a diverse variety of reasons.

          Lack of a strong foundation in the English language, which resulted from having careless teachers, who ignored the importance of grasping the essence of the language starting from the basics and advancing toward the depth of the language.

          Putting too much importance on others’ perceptions of them (Fear of losing face).

          Going through the useless process of translating from English to Chinese and vice-versa, which is an exhausting experience for the human mind.

          Lack of opportunities to practice English outside the classroom.

          Associating committing errors with being stupid.

The fundamental question should focus on the necessary measures that must be taken to facilitate the process for the Chinese students. After a great deal of contemplation and consultation with both Chinese and foreign English teachers, I came up with some constructive recommendations.

To accomplish their goals of being fluent in English, students must:

          Comprehend the fact that it is their privilege to make mistakes and it is the teacher’s responsibility to correct their mistakes.

          Believe that by no means, asking questions signifies being stupid as the proverb states:  “If one asks a question, one might feel fool for 5 minutes but if one does not ask, one will be fool for life.”

          Eat, sleep, walk and accomplish most tasks in English, which means that students should be inquisitive about everything that they may encounter in their daily lives.

          Be active participants in classes.

          Make speaking proper English a habitual activity.

          Stop the futile method of memorizing the language, which they are conditioned to do through the various stages of the Chinese educational system.

           Familiarize themselves with the concepts of phonetic, which is essential for pronouncing English words properly.

          Focus on syllables not the alphabet letters when they attempt to write or spell a word.

          Learn the conceptual art of writing.

          Classes are golden opportunities for them to practice their English since they will have a teacher available to correct their mistakes. Consequently, students should seize them to be active participants during classes. 

          Make practicing English a daily habit. They can practice with a classmate or with a roommate.

          Clear, from their minds, the idea that they have to sit down to learn English. Any place at any time is a golden opportunity to polish it. 

          Carry electronic or small dictionaries in their pockets wherever they go. They might need it to look for a word that they may hear or see on a banner.

          Having pens and blank papers with them at all times to write down English words while they are waiting for buses, classes or meals in restaurants.

          Cut out an article or make copies of pages from English books or magazines and put them in their pockets to look at while they are bored or watching television (during commercials).

          Understand that they have no other option but to organize their studying habits to allocate some time to pursue their favorite activities to achieve balance in their lives and to minimize their resentment toward their studies.

I do believe that teachers, students and their families are very essential participants in achieving the objective of attaining competence in the English language. Consequently, they must work together for their common goal of guiding the students toward the path of success in attaining fluency in English that would permit them the opportunity to land prestigious positions in the future and subsequently lead reasonably happy lives.

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


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Reply Report ColinSpeakman 2014-4-16 23:13
Confidence to speak English is so important! Fear of mistakes should be no barrier!
Reply Report ColinSpeakman 2014-4-17 10:52
Of course CD Forum can help with the written part, including increasing vocabulary. That increased vocabulary can enable deeper conversations face to face.
Reply Report teamkrejados 2014-4-17 11:05
Great tips, thanks! Here is another one: watching movies in English, with English subtitles. That is a triple bonus: hear and see the language while watching body language and expression to detect nuance.
Reply Report xuedongi60 2014-4-17 11:08
Thanks for your sharing.As a college student in China,spoken English is an optional course in our school.Many classmates eager to improve their oral English,but they do not how to do.As I see it,we are not poor in words but we truly do not know how to organise the words to express our minds about something.Besidses,we can not use simple words to express what we want to say.Lastly,I want to ask you a question,when we talk with the foreign teachers,what topic can we chat wiht each other?Because it always the foreign teachers talk to us in many classes.
Reply Report ColinSpeakman 2014-4-17 12:08
teamkrejados: Great tips, thanks! Here is another one: watching movies in English, with English subtitles. That is a triple bonus: hear and see the language while w ...
Another bonus.. The movie might be good too
Reply Report seneca 2014-4-17 13:00
Your observations are certainly written in an elegant way. They are not actually new. Most native English-speaking teachers seem to view things your way; allow me to take a radically different standpoint.

Students lack "self confidence", are "shy"? It seems to be a North American obsession to say this. I never thought Chinese English learners lacked self-confidence WHEN LEARNING ENGLISH or PRACTISING IT. I too was at some time in the dim distant past a student learning several foreign languages; a certain RETICENCE to speaking any of them was NATURAL. In the case of CHINESE LEARNERS OF FOREIGN LANGUAGES a lack of ENTHUSIASM is well inculcated and it shows in all other subjects as well.

You need to understand that STUDYING ENGLISH in a Chinese setting is regarded to be no DIFFERENT from studying maths or history; it is a bone-dry academic subject. Their teachers have to demonstrate the skill to teach them English so that they can pass academic exams that decide on their future academic orientation. Nothing more and nothing less. Teachers are motivated only by the need to be seen by school authgorities to succeed in their task; to go beyond it and actually empower students linguistically so that they no longer need a teacher or translator is not their job.

What quality English can they acquire under such rigid expectations? Their own teachers are incompetent, so why would they excel at the language? Few Chinese English teachers speak or write the language well. To see my point you only need to take a look at some posts written by Chinese forumites: the placing of  punctuation marks says enough.

To give you an idea of where I am coming from: I was once approached by a 19-year-old college student who spoke fairly good English. He was, however, totally disenchanted with academic life. He thought learning English was a waste of his time. I certainly could empathise with him!

But this guy did have ambitions that none of his classmates had: he wanted to learn Latin! And so he studied Latin. In just one year he learnt Latin so well he could read Latin texts without translation! We used English as the medium of instruction.

The downside that I see in China's English teaching approach is that it doesn't attempt to make students mature. The students are babies and their teachers are their nannies! Even you said:

"Teachers should correct their students' mistakes!".

No! Teachers SHOULD NOT correct their students' mistakes at all! Students should! Teachers need to mark the mistakes so that students learn to think about their mistakes.

The Chinese English teachers unfortunately do just that: drilling words, phrases, even whole sentences "to make them speak perfect English", not seldom helping them to fossilise mistakes taught them by the same teacher. The tests are nothing but ridiculous exercises in recovering memorised parts. Under such conditions there exist only wrong and correct versions! There is no way for the kids to learn to think independently!

But that is exactly what is missing the most: to use the acquired language to convey original thoughts. To think in the target language.

Here is a question:
Why don't they learn anything about English literature? Why aren't they taught to appreciate the precious skill of literacy? If they could read a newspaper article, a NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC mag, a guide book, a short story penned by Bill Bryson their linguistic versatitility and competence would rise. Being proficient at English, they could use it throughout their lives for purposes other than just chitchat. Bilinguality is a gift that one should preserve with love and fervour, and not regard as an academic burden.
Reply Report AlexisFW85 2014-4-17 13:53
Cool article! I would say that not only is practice and discipline an important factor in all of that, but also a reason for using the language. The more authentic the learning environment, the better English learners (or learners of any language really) will connect to how they are using the language.
Reply Report jiewei798 2014-4-17 17:11
Great article. In your opinion, what is the best way to help students overcome this "shyness" or lack of confidence in speaking English?

So far my strategy is to force them to talk and remind them that clear communication matters more than perfect grammar.
Reply Report 286633460 2014-4-17 20:44
seneca: Your observations are certainly written in an elegant way. They are not actually new. Most native English-speaking teachers seem to view things your w ...
You are quite right, the problem is ourselives and education system.
first of all , I am a undergraduate who major in Chinese language and literature and have some foreign friends,most of them are not English native speakers ,but they speak as  a native speaker. So I feel so confused that  why we have learned the language at the same time and they become the English teachers while we are still students. Maybe the atmosphere also is a important factor.but I think most of it is the thought we hold to learn a language. If you like it, you finally will master it .it  is  truth. BTW my English is also not so good,if anything wrong in my reply,please tell me. thanks for your article.
Reply Report oxixoca 2014-4-17 20:47
I'm a volunteer teacher at a high school, and I teach English Literature (poems, etc), I have a student that has lived in America yet she refuses to speak except for a few whispers. My Boyfriend who has studied English all his life in China explained that like me when I learnt French and Spanish at school, since there was no one to practice with of course they feel less equipped to do this.
Which is completely reasonable, i've been learning Chinese for a few months now, and speaking is the hardest because, of course you have to practice.
The best way i've managed to get my students to speak is to find an interesting topic and debate, if they are distracted and find the topic interesting they will happily talk before they notice they are doing it.
I think it is simply different teaching styles in different Countries.
And Seneca I agree, the English exam my Boyfriend just had to take was ridiculous!! It was more about knowing what exam tricks there are than actually testing his proficiency.
Reply Report seneca 2014-4-17 21:13
I don't know if my reply failed "validation" but it was certainly a reasonable post.
Reply Report 财神 2014-4-18 06:26
worry about student,an ideal teacher.
Reply Report voice_cd 2014-4-18 09:05
Thanks for sharing your story here, we have highlighted your blog.
Reply Report paddyhuang 2014-4-18 13:34
Good recommendation,but hard to do base on current Chinese characteristic educational system.
Reply Report Puss676 2014-4-18 13:45
Most of your observations are right but something has rooted in Chinese students when they try to learn English. For instance,you say that some are not confident and the fact is that they confidence gradually disappear as they strive to do endless exercise. We really need practise but we are truely afraid of losing faces particularly in front of many people. I think that this is partly due to our culture.
Reply Report PatrickInBeijin 2014-4-18 16:59
Thanks for a good post.  I am not sure where in China you are, or whom you are teaching.  I don't think the situation is quite as dire as some of the comments would indicate.  There are many Chinese teachers of English and some of them are quite good.  Their English is good, and their teaching methods are modern.  There are not enough, however, it is true.
Think about China and the size of the country.  For a long time, learning English had only one main purpose.  Students learned it to be able to pass exams (much like students in America, for instance, learn foreign languages).  The level of the exams is not too high, and you pass and you're done.  As China and the West re-connected, there began to be more opportunities to go abroad to study.  But going abroad initially requires passing more tests.  The spoken test is not the most difficult.  Many foreign countries have low standards of English for incoming students, they expect that students need just enough to get by, and will learn the rest on arrival.  So, teaching in China aimed at (and still often does) this level.
As the connections have developed and as more and more foreign companies open their doors in China, there are increasing opportunities for Chinese folks with good English right here in China.
The education system has been working to modernize.  But it is a big country and takes time.  And the work being done now, will begin to show up in college students in another ten to fifteen years.  But, make no mistake, it is happening.  I frequently meet younger children who speak almost perfect English and who are reading age appropriate English books.  I guide my college students towards western literature and other sources available in China.  (Some of my students are studying economics in English with an English textbook, and I am not at a famous school).
Since it is such a big country, the levels and abilities vary considerably, from place to place, from economic status to economic status.  But I see the change.  I met a twelve year old migrant girl and her mother, and she was studying using the New Oriental adult books.  I could go on and on.  
I guess my main point is that you need to get around to more places and see more schools and meet more students from different backgrounds to get a clearer picture of foreign language education in China.  It is not that bad, and improving!
Reply Report guojianjun 2014-4-19 12:24
Chinglish will write not say
Reply Report claudeckenni 2014-4-22 00:26
I've visited some high school in the past and it's so sad how the teacher only teach them how to write and solve problems instead of oral communication...
Reply Report austinong 2014-4-22 16:08
do u think this is probably experienced by all foreign language speakers?
Reply Report Tecsong 2014-4-24 14:13
Include listening and speaking tests in final exames

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