Teach English in Yifeng Zhen - Yancheng Shi

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Mainland China is a hub for teaching ESL since a large portion of the population has been focusing on learning the language to gain global competitiveness. Over the last decade, millions of training schools have opened up creating immense competition in the market but also with plenty of opportunities for foreign teachers. I have been teaching ESL in Beijing since the summer of 2017 and have come across students of all ages ranging from 6 to 60. With almost three years of experience and working with both children and adults, I have gained a personal understanding of the challenges most students face. Many of these might be common knowledge to people working in China but in this article, I would like to add some of my anecdotes to explain where the issues stem from. First and foremost, a global stereotype involving Chinese people speaking English is regarding their pronunciation. Often their accent is teasing termed as “Chinglish” whether the issue is focused on pronunciation or tone or use of the language. Mainland China is a large region with multiple sub-regions, cultures, languages, and dialects. Chinese people often face difficulty understanding each other while speaking their mother tongue due to the differences in dialects. Hence, English as a foreign language can seem confusing while learning the pronunciations. I have personally faced cases where the English base is strong with a reasonably large vocabulary but the learner often seems incomprehensible to others due to the heavy influence of their local dialect. The challenges can be as strong as speech impediments just because of the influence of local dialects on the tongue and range of pronunciations. Second, there’s a huge obsession with grammar when it comes to English learners in China. Learners often tend to focus highly on grammar rules and get confused when the exceptions are introduced. Many of my older students have faced difficulty understanding urban lingo or colloquial expressions. Phrasal verbs and phrases often have different meanings than that of the individual words and most students tend to focus on the individual words rather than the entire phrase as one. This mainly stems from the fact that English is mainly taught as grammar in primary, middle, and high schools in China with very limited exposure to the language itself. Most of the learners are comfortable with gap-fill exercises and drills but the engage and activate phases are most difficult for them when it comes to expressing themselves or producing correct grammar. Many of the students often fail to implement the correct grammar in speech and writing but they can answer correctly when it comes to prompted exercises or short quizzes with gap fills or MCQs. The third problem is somewhat related to the second but since the root cause stems from a different issue, I prefer to discuss it separately. Chinese learners very often speak in simple present tense while talking and use either simple present, past or future while writing. The problem with “tense” is so strongly embedded that it takes a long time of constant mentoring, drilling, and practice to overcome with a large proportion of learners failing at it. The origin of the issue lies within mental translations or thought patterns. The Chinese language itself has no tense. Two sentences in the past and present tense will have the same wording unless new words are introduced to mention the timeline. This is the core reason as to why most students start off speaking or writing with one tense and eventually come down to simple present tense. Besides, there’s a common phrase used by Chinese people in most sentences – “in the future”. It is tagged at the beginning of most of the things they say or plan to do since that’s the exact translation of the Chinese sentence. Instead of using different tenses or modal verbs, most Chinese learners tend to use phrases to mention a timeline instead of activating/using the grammar they have learned. The fourth challenge pertains to the current Chinese mindset. On one hand, learners are willing to grasp the English language but only to the extent, they find preferable or useful. Leaners often want to just focus on speaking and believe that their writing will automatically develop. Most learners find themselves shy while speaking or unable to keep up with the speed of speech and hence their focus is also limited to speaking. As we know writing is also essential for communication if not for academic purposes. However, since that is ignored, most students confuse English and American spelling differences, make tons of mistakes while writing in punctuation, sentence structure, and direct and indirect speech. The quality of writing can often be very weak with major issues relating to aesthetics, reasoning, and transitions. Those who specifically want to overcome these challenges face tumultuous uphill battles since there aren’t many organizations providing services catered to their specific needs, as most of them focus on spoken English/verbal communication. The fifth major challenge related to confidence. The majority of students that I have come across are shy while producing the language with whatever they have learned. The education culture in China does not promote asking questions or classroom discussions; hence most people also develop that shyness or intimidation while speaking to others, especially other English speakers. Many learners tend to be apologetic, declaring that their English is poor even before starting a communication. However, in my experience, it is a challenge that can be overcome with the help of the teacher or mentor. Plenty of group and pair work, presentations and encouragement can work on skill-related inhibitions. Often, students even manage to change and improve their personalities becoming confident, outspoken and bold. But since the shyness is part of the social culture here, teachers often need to work on that to help the students produce their newly acquired knowledge and skills. It also means ice-breaking activities need to be longer, teacher-student rapport needs to be stronger, and teachers’ face-reading abilities need to spot-on as the biggest difficulty arises when students fail to express their confusion, misunderstandings or lack of understanding. There are several other challenges that the students face which I would briefly list below as they, in my experience, are not big enough to be called major or to be highlighted with reasoning: - Learners have limited exposure to the language which makes practice and retention difficult. - Learners tend to have an accent bias which makes some teachers unpopular without any justified reasons whatsoever. - They treat the learning as a transaction and often want quick results without putting in the effort. - They tend to mimic accents and speech from outside sources without understanding the context. - They tend to be highly competitive as well and often set over-ambitious goals. - Phonetics are one of their weaknesses and need to be worked on extensively. - Modal verbs and their uses are often confused by learners. - Many learners tend to avoid the spotlight or have limited class participation; sometimes they tend to pair up with specific individuals they are comfortable with. - Younger learners tend to have many other ECA/educational priorities and they often fail to do homework. - Adult learners often drop out of programs or become irregular forgetting most of the things they had learned.