Applied Linguistics As A Foreign Language – English Education in China

This is an article I wrote for the BCALS Newsletter. If you are not an applied linguist your mileage may vary.

To an outsider the more practical theories of SLA may seem obscure and parochial, but their influence lives on in a million foreign language classrooms like the last rumblings of a long-forgotten war. Former SLA students, who happen to make up the majority of the Earth’s population, may be unaware of it, but these ideas and the way they are used or misused have a profound effect on the nature of the modern world.

The ideas themselves are, on the whole, fine. A field as vast and apparently tangential as this is bound to be slow to develop overarching theories. The problems arise only with their dissemination. In terms of theory meeting practice, the connection for an ESL teacher is a vague and distant one. While a high school teacher in the UK receives three years of training, in addition to a required first degree in their subject, ESL teachers are generally hired on the basis of a single month’s training, and in China even this is not required. In my two years here I’ve worked with teachers who have just finished high school, teachers seemingly on the run from something or someone, and on one memorable occasion a full-time ESL teacher who didn’t know what a verb was and didn’t think it was important.

A number of factors have led to this state of affairs, including a lack of standardised qualifications within the industry and structural problems within schools, but generally it’s a matter of supply and demand. There are a limited number of native speaking teachers and a huge number of students. In this context any native speaker is a model, whatever their teaching skills.

For a linguist the concept that language is comprised merely of a grammar (in the formal, prescriptive sense of the word) and a lexicon is so outdated that the mere idea of it seems ludicrous, but this remains standard practice at Chinese high schools. The exam equivalent to a British A-level, for example, involves the rote learning of 4000 English words, without any sort of context.

When foreign teachers are brought into this system it is often as models of correct pronunciation – an issue about which Chinese learners tend to have inordinate concern due to the tonal nature of their first language.

Meanwhile, in the semi-official world of ESL training the “communicative approach” remains the standard methodology passed onto new teachers during their usual month-long training. Teachers are instructed to allow the students to speak as much as possible, minimise their own “teacher talking time”, emphasise “real world” usage above grammatical accuracy and, as far as possible, only use English in the classroom. Inevitably this approach comes into conflict with the expectations of students, and since educational directors often lack any kind of teaching background it is often down to the individual teacher to adapt their style to whatever they find works. With adults this tends to be an emphasis on “correction” which goes against any kind of communicative emphasis on fluency. With younger children (who usually have no desire to be there at all) keeping them entertained is sufficient – if a teacher insists on making them learn English they are liable to complain to their parents, who will often then send them to a “better” school.

The teaching of teenagers and university students would seem on the surface to be easier, but the familiar combination of failings from all sides has led often to what Niu Qiang and Martin Wolff have described as “the unqualified, teaching (sic) the unmotivated, in a hostile environment.”

To surmise, ESL teaching in China is in a fairly poor state, but things at least appear to be improving. Parents, students and teachers all seem to be increasingly aware of these problems, word is spreading about substandard schools and hiring practices appear to be slowly becoming more rigorous. Meanwhile, life for ESL teachers here continues to be easy and well-paid, though whether this is in conflict with the improvement of standards as a whole has yet to be seen.

Niu Qiang and Martin Wolff’s hilarious, deeply worrying article can be found here:

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