From: Bill Oberg <billdelter.com.cn>
Subject: Teaching ESL in China
I would like to know more about other LINGUIST Listers' experiences with
ESL teaching/learning in China. I am the Director of Education at Telfort
Business Institute in Shanghai and I am committed to improving our program
to provide a method that is more effective.
From my experience with our students and my wife's 13 year-old daughter I
find that the students are struggling with the English that they were
exposed to in middle school. I say exposed because some students do not
put the effort into learning and I believe there is a lack of consistent
education being offered.
When I was in high school I was taught German by a Norwegian and later
discovered that what I learned was out of date by some 100 years. There is
also the problem of proper English and common usage. Bear in mind that if
the convention persists long enough it becomes acceptable and eventually
Then there is the aspect of geographics. English in the UK is different
than English in America. This is subdivided by regions within continents
and when you add the usage by the EU, India, Philippines, South Africa and
other locations where English is common there is a mish mash of use that
would drive anyone mad.
I see two basic problems in teaching English in China. First of all,
meaning in Chinese is determined by tone, and changes in tone change the
meaning of the word. This makes teaching a language that uses intonation
for emphasis extremely difficult.
This also accounts for adding the /a/ sound where it doesn't belong because
of a puff of air that is expelled when saying words that end in /d/ and
/t/, like 'next' is pronounced nexta and 'should' is pronounced shoulda.
I am thoroughly disappointed that the practice is reinforced on the subway
system when the 'nexta' stop is announced in English.
Can you imagine the difficulties our students will encounter when they go
to Scotland to study? British accents are difficult for our best students
to comprehend even when spoken slowly, but Scottish accents sound like a
completely different language altogether.
To further complicate this matter, pinyin is taught to children at an early
age. This system uses the same Roman characters that are used in the
English language but different sounds are assigned to the vowels and
constants. Once a student learns to read pinyin it will only confuse them
when they try to read English so /v/ will sound like /w/ and /z/ will sound
China doesn't even have a common language to begin with and even the
"official" language is used differently throughout the country so mounting
a standard approach to teaching any language uniformly is a scholar's
dream. People learn differently and some systems will work better with
different individuals but we all have something in common. No matter where
we are from and what language we learned, we did not learn it from a book
until we were approximately five or six years old.
Success does not lie in the system, it lies in the usage. Many people ride
bicycles and probably the highest percentage per capita are in China but
none of them learned by reading a book, watching videos or listening to
tapes. They learned by getting on, peddling, falling down and getting back
on again until they became competent at a level that was acceptable to
them. So it is with language. Some people will try and give up. Some will
become shaky at best and some will cruise along at great speed with their
hands folded across their chest. The individual who wishes to excel will
seek the teacher who can satisfy their desire. Some teachers are qualified
by degrees, others by experience, but it is the desire to help people
succeed that I look for when hiring teachers. I look forward to reading
more about what you believe might improve the educational environment for ESL.
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