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Dealing With Chinese Learners

Dealing with Chinese learners

This short article would like to talk about my experience with Chinese students. In the beginning I’ll mention a few characteristics about their characters and environment. After that I’ll point out a few features I’ve noticed, more classroom related. I hope this will be of some use for those teachers dealing with Chinese learners.

A few words on the Chinese learning environment

When I was asked to write an article on Chinese learners, I started wondering about how they were different from the others. I also asked my colleagues who have taught in China to see if their points of view were different from mine, also due to the languages (Spanish and German) they were teaching.

Broadly speaking, I think that those teachers who have Chinese learners in class must be aware of the Chinese school system (hence their learning background). I taught in primary schools for some time and I got to know that they have the following characteristics:

  • Long hours

Children stay at school from eight in the morning until noon. Then from two until five.

  • Classroom size

There are from fifty to sixty kids in one classroom.

  • Teachers’ behaviour

A feature (Confucius’s heritage) common to almost all teachers in China, is that teachers do     the talking, students listen. This is the classical view of knowledge ‘possessed’ by the teacher and ‘passed on’ to the students (like water from a jug into a glass). In a language class, most teachers don’t provide any opportunities for students to speak. Everything is about     grammar rules, vocabulary repetition and reading comprehension.

All of the above means that when students come to a language school like IH, they’re very passive, at least at the beginning. Elicitation is quite difficult as they’re afraid of making mistakes and consequently ‘losing face[1]’ in front of the others. However, after a while and with some work on their confidence, Chinese students are like all the others. They enjoy speaking activities, are very hard working, follow the teacher’s instructions (as they have great respect for her/him.[2]) and so on. But this respect doesn’t usually mean that those students will come on time and won’t use their mobile phones in class! This is something the teacher must be quite strict about, from the very beginning. I think that this habit comes from what happens in their university: they’re crowded in huge halls and the teacher / lecturer talks for hours. As a consequence they become bored and start playing and juggling with their pens (I saw amazing things they could with five fingers and a pen!).

And if there something they don’t like in the lesson, they won’t tell you, the teacher! They go to reception or to the director to complain.

About language skills:

–           Pronunciation

I think that there are two main problems:

–                    Segmental

Central vowels are difficult both to recognise and realise

Realisation of dental fricatives

–                    Suprasegmental

The tendency to be accurate rather than fluent leads learners to speak very slowly thus not       paying much attention to prominence and intonation (not to mention that catenation, vowel      reduction and intrusion are also affected)

–           Vocabulary

For many, studying vocabulary means remembering by heart a long list of words with their translations; as far as I could see, no attempt is being made at school to deepen the knowledge of a word. Hence, I think it’s really worth analysing a word together, see its degree of politeness, its connotation, what part of speech is, with which words it collocates, etc.

–           Grammar

Grammar is seen, as in many other countries, as a set of fixed rules to follow. Learners don’t usually have at their disposal a meaningful context to study a grammar point.

Grammar is considered like something ‘apart’ from language and from communication. Although we teachers try to explain that grammar is the result of a communicative purpose, a lot of students (especially those attending university – where they have grammar tests) do want our lessons have a strong focus on it.

–           Functional language

This notion is almost completely unknown. It seems that it’s difficult for students to link those grammar rules and lexical items they have learnt to convey a specific meaning in a specific context.

It’s quite startling, at least at the beginning, seeing that a foreign language is just like any other subject, to study and learn; it’s not as it should be a resource useful to communicate ‘real’ things, to describe life, as well as to ask for directions or order in a restaurant!

About language skills

–           Listening

Very difficult to get students to do the assigned task and not paying attention to all the words     in a listening text. It takes time and practice for them to understand the importance of the       task (thus improving their listening subskills).

–           Speaking

Here the main problem is the fear of making mistakes and losing face in front of the others       so learners tend to focus on accuracy and don’t practise fluency. As a result, many speak    very slowly.

–           Reading

Chinese students are usually strong with written text. However, the main difficulty for them       is to retrieve missing information from their background knowledge. Sometimes it happens    that if they don’t know a lexical item, they don’t make use of the knowledge they have in   order to guess it, they just stop and look for their (electronic) dictionaries.

–           Writing

As with many other students of any language, developing this skill requires a lot of exposure     to the target language. A lot of work is needed because they have to get rid of their habit to    translate their thoughts (or texts) word by word.

I only hope that what I’ve written has given you some insight about the Chinese as students. In the end, I’d like to thank to Alexandra Millán García, Maria Valle Carreras and Kristina Windisch for their suggestions.

[1] This is quite a strong characteristic of all Chinese people and it refers to the thinking that if you make a mistake, you’re ‘dishonoured’ e.g. if I ask for directions, the person would never say that s/he doesn’t know it, but s/he would say at least something to ‘let me go’.

[2] 老师 (lao shi) commonly translated as “teacher”, literally means venerable master.

Author’s Bio:
Stefano Maraessa (IH Mexico City) was the Director of Studies of IH Xi’an for nearly two years, until May 2009. In this period he taught Italian and English, trained Chinese teachers and also developed with IHWO and other IH teacher trainers an IH Course for teachers of Chinese.

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