Behind The Scene What’s Really Being Taught in China’s ESL Classes

A student once asked me why a wise man and a wise guy were opposites. I didn’t understand the logic of my own native language. English can be a hard language to learn. I realized this more when I started teaching it in China.

My text books are designed by the school  so I decided to keep the school anonymous (and to keep my job). This article does not speak for all of China but I can’t help but think this may be the case for many of the schools. The issue seems to be that the classes and books are designed by the Chinese rather than a native speaker of English. This wouldn’t be an issue if the Chinese teachers were any better than the students with English.

I’m provided books with lessons plans to teach my students with. Every student has one. For the most part, the books are too advanced for the level of English my classes are in. In the first unit, the words technologically, regularized, philosophy, and administration are used. I didn’t know what to expect on my first day so this was a surprise  given that I thought the book was somewhere around their level. I learned soon after to never expect anything in China.

Some of my students
Some of my students

In every unit there are activities meant for group work. These are meant to help build conversation and work together. Here is an example of one activity:
Work in groups of four, with each playing one of the following roles.
A. an AIDS victim
B. A’s best friend
C. A’s mother
D. A’s counselor
The plot goes like this: A is diagnosed with AIDS. He is sad and scared. And he doesn’t know weather he should tell the news to the people around him. A’s mother insist that this is a family secret and nobody should ever know, not even friends or relatives. A’s counselor, however, suggests he should tell people in whom he believes, and who can help him. A takes the counselor’s advice and tells his best friend B. how would B react to this? Please give an ending to this story!

Those are the exact words from the book. Think what you want of it. I did not do this activity. I refused to.

In every unit, there are dialogs. These are meant to replicate an English spoken conversation.

  • A: Is the terrible weather? B: Yeah, I’m pretty wet, I can tell that!
  • A: Why not? Isn’t it a good idea to go and live in a foreign country? B: They have never got the idea. I would ever want to leave home and go so far. A: Poor you.

Next are expressions in spoken English. Here’s a list of a few they provide as examples in the book:

  • The computer really turns me on.
  • Do be careful! It is the rush hour now.
  • In China today, even schoolchildren know e-mail.
  • I take yours words for it.
  • You scared me out of my mind, coming behind me suddenly.
  • The new bookstore is right opposite our university.
  • I just can’t tell you how saddened I am when I get the bad news.
  • Take easy! You may easily get lost there.
  • I think you must hand in your report tomorrow.
  • I buy that idea.
  • I’d give anything to have a change to go on with my research.
  • Good Heavens! It’s a wonder you are still alive.
  • Get the hell out of here!

Some are just small grammatical errors and native speakers can understand by the context spoken. Since I started learning Mandarin, I’ve been able to understand why they say things in certain ways. Still, these students are being taught incorrectly and I come along shattering what they’ve been taught. There are signs posted throughout the school to encourage students to speak English more often (which doesn’t work) and even the sign makes no sense, “Everybody comes on!”.

Everybody Comes On by Stephanie
Everybody Comes On by Stephanie

Does the University or any University in China actually care about their English learners? I feel these Universities believe they know what’s best for teaching English and usually ignore any advice given by foreigners. An example of this is the book I pasted above. The more lucrative majors in China are technology, industry, and a few others. These majors foreshadow Chinese English learners thus making it a less serious major. I am in essence a fulfillment of a national requirement to have a foreign teacher. Most ESL teachers are oral English teachers while reading and writing are exclusively for Chinese teachers. Given the book I was provided, they don’t seem to be doing a great job.

While many of my students are eager to speak English with me, they are more interested in getting the chance to interact and learn from a foreigner rather than learn English at all.

One sure way of understanding a culture is becoming a teacher in that country. Not always an ideal way to learn about a culture but it will be one hell of a learning experience. A motivational sign posted in one of my classrooms says “Learn English, make China stronger”.

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