Is teaching English in China a waste of time?

According to official statistics (which means they are full of problems) there are roughly 300,000,000 English learners in China. This statistic is being bandied about to show how quickly China is changing, and how the West needs to do more to learn Chinese (which is a point for another day). Yet from the moment you step off the plane, you start to question whether or not 25% of the population really learned anything more than “Hallloow,” “A-What-a is-a your name-a?” and “I’m fine, thank you and you? (with a rapidly rising pitch to indicate the question mark)” and “Chinglish” signs abound as online translators (like Google translate) seem to be the only authority on language.

The number 300 million comes from the total number of students who have completed their compulsory education, which includes more than 6 years of English classes. To me it seems that the gov’t has received a very poor return on the investment.

The problem is that many of these students are studying under substandard teachers, who have only been hired because of the gov’t mandate for every school to have English courses. This is despite the fact that colleges and universities in China are educating an abundance of English majors (with dubious levels of proficiency), “rural English teacher” isn’t what these students hope to become. Due to this lack of proper staffing, rural teachers rely heavily on reading from outdated textbooks.

This recent English campaign seems to suffer from the same deficiencies as the literacy drives of the 50′s and 60′s. At that time a major push was made to teach farmers to recognize 1,500 characters (somewhere between 2,500-3,000 are needed, but that is arguable). The volunteers for this campaign found the rural residents eager learners, and they quickly mastered the material needed for the test. Today the literacy rate is officially ~95%.

However when the volunteers returned to the countryside, they realized that many of the farmers had stopped reading, and had lost virtually all of their character recognition. The problem was that there was little of interest to read. Fei Xiaotong, a Chinese sociologist, argued that these efforts were frivolous when he wrote “From the Soil” in the 1940′s. His reason was that farmers have little need to write and read when practically all of their transactions are in person, and with close acquaintances. He argued that efforts to teach rural peasants was a waste of time because it was not a practical skill.

In some ways, they are both correct. Illiteracy in rural China is still common, as a friend working in Kunming recently told me. She was shocked to see the large number of people unable to understand even a simple survey written in the most basic Chinese.

So why are we surprised to see that English is so quickly forgotten? CCTV offers virtually nothing of interest in English, foreign films are usually dubbed in Chinese, and the censors limit the kinds of English books that reach the mainland. On top of that China’s foreign population is still relatively tiny. Even Shanghai, considered to be one of China’s most international cities, has only 152,000 foreign residents in an area with roughly 23 million Chinese (~.6%). As a result students see English as something only necessary for passing the college entrance exam (高考 gaokao), and not as a tool for moving up in society (this attitude is especially prevalent in the countryside).

For these reasons it can feel that teaching English is a monumental waste of time for the teachers, the students, and the gov’t. Yet this single fact, that English is on the exam, means that experienced Chinese teachers and foreign teachers are desperately needed in China’s interior, otherwise rural students will continue to be excluded from China’s top universities. In Ningxia province the average English score on the exam is 50/120 points, nowhere near the 100 points needed to get into a top school.

I even asked education officials why English is required at all for college entrance, they didn’t seem to grasp the issue. “English is an important language,” they said.

“But only a few people need English for their work, wouldn’t it be better to offer optional classes, instead of forcing millions of students learn a language they’ll never use?”

They stared back blankly, as if I was questioning a sacred law. For the time being, English seems to be a permanent fixture on the entrance exam, but fortunately even the gaokao will someday fade away (or replaced by colleges creating their own exams). Until then, China’s rural poor will rely on substandard teachers, unless you’re willing to help.

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About T

I have been working in China for nearly five years now. I have traveled to more than 30 cities and towns, and have lived in 3 provinces. I am interested in issues concerning development in China and the rest of the world. I hope to provide a balanced look at some of the issues facing China as it continues its rise to power.
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89 Responses to Is teaching English in China a waste of time?

  1. Karmen D. says:

    I don’t think learning a foreign language is ever a waste of time. And even if they don’t use it in their work, they will use it abroad.
    But I do believe it’s more important to speak your own language properly and I actually find it sad noticing how many people don’t know their own language, it’s embarassing.
    Although they could remove it from the college entrance exams, it’s not that important unless you’re goint to study it. That’s how it works in my college.

    • Gyre says:

      The problem is that if the story is accurate then not only are the people not using the language, but they aren’t even learning how to properly speak it. That’s not useless, it’s actually counterproductive. You have a nation filled with people who can theoretically speak it but in practice are incapable of using it and who have wasted large amounts of time on it*.

      *Not to mention the wasted potential of students who scored poorly in English but still might have gotten decent higher education if it hadn’t been so heavily required.

      • Too bloody true, Gyre! I personally don’t have to look in China – looking at Hong Kong here is enough for me! When a place like here that had been 156 years as a British colony and we can still find on a daily basis LOTS of people who can barely speak English (much less properly) to the minimum required [school-examinable] level, then the entire business of teaching and/or learning English BECOMES a waste of time, money and effort.

    • What are the odds that the people (e.g. the rural farmers) who do not need to use English in their work at home in China will ever (desire to) go abroad?

      • Dan says:

        Let’s not neglect their children. Many of the students I taught come from farming families. I’ve witnessed a more disciplined life in studying than the students who were raised in a more developed city. I am also proud of the “farming” students who were able to study abroad.

    • almo486 says:

      That is only if they get the opportunity to travel abroad. Since China is so huge, just travelling there would be enough for some.
      I think College’s merely use the excuse of learning a foreign language as a barrier to filter out those who learn other subjects by rote since communication in a foreign language requires multiple disciplines to use well.
      Seeing how the author of this article “T” mentioned how China is restricting the amount of foreign publications into the country. There’s little chance to consume foreign culture.
      Resulting in something like a specialist corner in the bookstore.
      “For weird/eclectic people only” sort of section.

    • almo486 says:

      That is only if they get the opportunity to travel abroad. Since China is so huge, just travelling there would be enough for some.
      I think College’s merely use the excuse of learning a foreign language as a barrier to filter out those who learn other subjects by rote since communication in a foreign language requires multiple disciplines to be able to communicate well.
      Seeing how the author of this article “T” mentioned how China is restricting the amount of foreign publications into the country. There’s little chance to consume foreign culture.
      Resulting in something like a specialist corner in the bookstore.
      “For weird/eclectic people only” sort of section.

  2. vwam says:

    i taught english in china for a few years.

    got a wife out of it… got a textured experience of chinese managerial (and in a nebulous way, cultural) incompetence and corruption. learned to appreciate democracy like it was an endangered species in a room full of hungry people rather than an unshakeable factor of the universsahh…. so i went back home and joined a political party and now i go doorknocking and listen to people’s problems.

    a big part of what my motivation was that i dug the country, and that my students would learn some huge lessons just by being in the same room as someone who came from outside their own culture.

    but, i realised that most of my students, nearly all of them, were so blinkered that they would get from negligible to zero out of encountering me. and i pretty much blame the government for putting those blinkers on. people are by nature inquisitive deluxe, so you’ve got to do some pretty unnatural things to burn that out of them.

    and i realised that i was being spiritually corroded just by being there… guys like ai weiwei stand tall, but they have to stand strange to get tall… i was starting to stoop cos i’m just not that strong. i had to get out…

  3. This is the reason why it’s good so many expats are movng to China to teach Real English. For those Chinese students who are driven and can get a ticket to move abroad, having a foreign native English teacher makes all the diference.

  4. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    vwam: I appreciate your honest response. You go to China, full of enthusiasm and loving the culture, wanting to do your little bit. Then you encounter bribery and corruption on a massive scale. Rule By Law allows huge injustice, including child abuse, which would attract a huge penalty in countries with more sophisticated Rule Of Law Justice systems. I recently phoned a young Chinese friend in Xining. When she spoke to me in reasonable English, the youths with her, (boyfriend and pals) broke into whistles, jeers and catcalls. It was chillingly racist but what upset me was the fact that the taunters could only jeer at a girl (the first girl in her village to be educated in Beijing) who was speaking English, something they obviously did not do or value.

  5. My take is that substandard teachers aren’t the real problem – in fact, I reckon these blameless individuals have gotten a raw deal, in that they’re being asked/order to produce results well above and beyond their training and expectations with so little for so many. The real problem as I see it is substandard policy. It isn’t hard to see that substandard policy allows a multiplicity of sins and ‘extra legal functions’ to take root on the implementation end of the game.

    We in Hong Kong have that PRC problem of substandard education policy married to overly high expectations on teachers (although obviously Hong Kong is nowhere near the extent or degree as in the PRC). Both systems are unable to provide the minimum required, although in their own different way. The PRC defects force students to what the post had amply described. The Hong Kong defects force people to remedy the shortfall by recourse to that highly profitable cottage industry called crammers (tuition schools). Different strokes for different folks, but it’s still abdication of responsibility all the same.

    The PRC policy defects make it *practically* a waste of time to teach English in the PRC, just as policy defects in Hong Kong make it *practically* more worthwhile to supplement mainstream English tuition by way of crammers.

    The PRC policy on English-language teaching is simply a recognition that English (or any other school subject) is a teaching subject – that is all. It’s just what the Italians would describe as ‘segnaposto politica’ – signpost policy. Placeholder policy – something that fills in the apparent gaps in policy framework so that the policy framework doesn’t look incomplete. (You really have to have spent some time growing up in Italy to recognise this political ass-hattery, I reckon.)

    I’m sorry this comment of mine is jerky and a bit spastic-sounding and not really well thought out, but I hope it gets a little bit of my point across.

    • Tom says:

      I think this is a fair point, the teachers are substandard not because they lack motivation, but because there are not enough qualified teachers to run this national English program.

  6. Lady Tam Li says:

    I completely get your frustration and confusion. I taught English there for a few years myself.

    I think it’s hard to hang on to English for a lot of them primarily because, after school or after their foreign friends move away (and unless they get an excellent job regularly encountering foreigners), there’s simply no need for them to use it.

    I didn’t know much Chinese by the time I left, but I can tell you…not using it at all for the last six years has me remembering little more than “ni hao”. I can’t even remember the names of most food I used to love! So I think the problem is probably largely due to lack of use…ESPECIALLY if they go to a more secluded city to live and work.

  7. I was teaching English in China for about three years, and have been training new English teachers in Beijing for 18 months now. The main problem facing effective teaching in China is indeed the gaokao, as well as its relatives CET and TEM. These tests do not check real acquisition of language, but just the rote memorization of vocabulary lists and grammar structures. It’s perfectly possible to ace the gaokao and be entirely unable to communicate in English. Since these tests are the only thing that matter, all English teachers (generally) do is cram as much repetition as possible in and cut out anything even vaguely communicative. This goes against every modern language acquisition theory there is, but as the goal is clearly not to produce or encourage students who are able or willing to communicate with laowai, there’s fairly little hope for change. Chinese classrooms do work well for training students in maths and sciences, but for the humanities they are a joke, for the arts a grim joke, and for language teaching a national embarrassment.

    • yvonne says:

      What about different types of classrooms in your country? and all the ‘products’ from that classroom are wonderufl fine masterpieces? in all areas including maths, sciences, humanities, arts, oh, and language?
      Well, if there is a yes to above question, then it will sound to me ‘a joke’ actually.

      • “Your country”? Is this the “foreigners aren’t allowed to have any opinions about things in China” thing? Of course educational standards aren’t perfect in “my” country (where I haven’t lived for nearly a decade, by the way), so if we were talking about “my” country I’d also offer criticism. Or maybe I wouldn’t, since most of my relevant experience has been here, not there.
        But no use reasoning with a sarcastic xenophobe, I suppose.

      • bill rich says:

        I get your point. Everything in China is perfect, and beyond improvement, and no one should ever comment on how good or bad China is, as it is perfect.

    • Diane says:

      I am really pushing my students to develop the habit of reading in English. Fun, enjoyable, novels. Things that they can really get into. I have experimented with it and if I can get students to read 5 fun novels their ability to speak conversational English is massively enhanced, along with their writing and listening abilities. I tutor some of the Chinese teachers children in my off time and I have two boys who read in English every day. They are 10 years old and speak and think in English like natives. One of the boys has only been reading in English for three years and he sounds like any other American ten year old. I am actually giving them harder work than I give my university students. I have been teaching oral English for the last few terms and I leave grammar and vocabulary to their Chinese English teachers. I try to teach them things like oration skills, and give them tips to get over their fear of public speaking. While we do work on some pronunciation of sounds that are difficult for them my goal is more to get them comfortable just speaking the language and less fearful of making mistakes. If they are afraid to open their mouths then all the best teachers in the world are not going to make them better speakers. The real key to their really speaking English well is in reading. It is the magic key that will unlock the door and make it easier for them. The problem is convincing them that it will even work for their listening and speaking skills. It has to be fun novels or it doesn’t work and it has to be of a reading level that while it is a challenge it is not so difficult that they cannot become immersed in the story line. That immersion is what increases their comprehension levels. It frees up the positive side of the brain to absorb everything the eye sees while tying up the negative conscious with the story line. I even tell them to not look up words they do not know but to simply guess what the word means by the content around it because stopping to look up words causes them to lose the story line and thus ruins interest in finishing the story. It is a hard habit for them to break and in the first book they usually cannot tell me anything about the story. By the second book they are better and by the fifth book they want to go back and read the first and second book because their comprehension levels along with vocabulary and speaking and listening skills have exponentially improved.

  8. Wei says:

    Tom: I guess the answer to your question may lie in the answer to a question on the other side — Is learning English in China a waste of time?

    As a Chinese now living in Michigan, I once had a native Minnesotan as my English teacher back in the 80′s. I feel ever so fortunate to have had that experience. English was used when I worked in Beijing then. It was a great help to me in my career as a young software engineer. I always got to use new technology before others because I could read the manuals faster than the others.

    In my college entrance exam, I passed the English test with flying colors with a score of 61 — out of 100 :-). Kidding aside, I was the only one in my class passed the 60% mark. I can understand why most students would treat English as just a subject that they have to pass exams in. But in this day and age, I would say having a language skill is not a waste of time, but a privilege.

    Now I have my own kids, it frustrates me to see them having no interest in learning Chinese. But on the other hand, they would spend time on Japanese and Korean, even though in very limited capacity, just so that they could follow some youth singing groups, play games and so on.

    I want to thank you for hanging in there, writing and sharing your experiences with your readers. I know that your articles have been translated into Chinese, including one by myself. So once again, thanks!

    • Tom says:

      Thanks for this great comment Wei. I didn’t say that learning English was a waste of time, for the students who actually put their mind to it, it can bring great advantages. The problem is that many students are realizing that there are a limited number of opportunities when finding jobs that require English.

      • yvonne says:

        Tom,
        Instead, according to my real-world experience in China as one of the local Chinese, there are too many jobs that require English, and English as the world language, is becoming more and more important and by no means unimportant. Think from a nation’s view, if you want to integrate with the other nations in the world in terms of every aspect including finance, culture, and economy..etc, the ability in communication without problem is inevitably one of the biggest concerns. China is enhancing English education and listing it as one of the compulsive courses, which is definitly a smart move and this should be continued definitely. This is the one of the most effective ways to make sure people here have a improving English competency. Giving up and showing a pessimistic attitude due to the frustrations in learning or teaching english is not the right attitude. wherever there is a weak point, we make efforts to fix it, but not give up the whole thing.
        I wish you would have a global and broad view towards this all.

      • Tom says:

        I spent two years working in rural China as an English teacher, training students who would return to their hometowns to continue spreading English. I continue to work with a charity that focuses on this issue. This is something I am quite passionate about, and have real-world experience in.
        I do not advocate giving up English education, instead I am encouraging reforming a system that clearly has problems that need to be addressed.

    • Diane says:

      I can understand many of the frustrations foreign teachers may have in China. I have some frustrations too… but it is mostly with the system and not with the students. In order to rebuild you must sometimes tear down. I find that my students who are English or Chinese Language Majors, tend to be much more westernized in their thinking. The secret of being successful with these students is to insure that they can relate to what you are teaching them. Much of my actual language skills teaching is done through the back door, so to speak. If you make the subject matter something near and dear to them by showing them examples of how they will need to utilize it in the future or by using something they know they will need then they forget that they are practicing oral English. The fact that I speak, pretty much, no Chinese is actually a benefit. They must strive to understand me if they want the gems I am tossing before them. We spend a lot of time on how to find a job, how to interview successfully, how to deal with stress, how to appear relaxed when nervous in front of a crowd, how to address life problems with success, how western customs may effect responses and misunderstandings, how to utilize the tools they have been given. They all understand that they have mountains of information stored in their brains but they have no clue how to use it. They are very interested in what you are teaching if you can show them how it applies to them in a real life situation. My only complaint would be that I just don’t get to spend enough time with them. I finally break them down and get them to open up and become more receptive and the term is over. 16 classes a term just does not seem to be enough. Last year I was voted most popular teacher in the language department. That is out of over 60 teachers both foreign and Chinese. I assure you, when they first come to my class they hate me! I begin to pull them out of their comfort zones and they fight it. But, I do it slowly and relentlessly and as they start to catch on they realize they are having fun. Getting them to think outside the box can be a challenge but once they start it is fun to watch where it goes. My husband and I also teach a class each term for the Chinese teachers. My husband addresses pronunciation and I address almost anything else. A couple terms it was cultural differences between the east and west, another time it was the importance of a positive attitude and controlling the class room attitude, this term it will be about getting students to utilize critical thinking. I also headed the first annual Halloween Costume party for the university. No one thought it would be successful, but they were shocked when we had about 400 people attend, in costume, and we had to turn away another 200 for not being in costume and bringing a snack food or drink to share a la “pot-luck” style. The administration will be providing a larger venue for this years party and it has been suggested that tickets be sold for the event. We even had attendees from other colleges! Most of the students had no clue about making costumes and a very savvy young leader of one of the English clubs got money together from club members and purchased a bunch of “Scream” masks, about 300, I believe she said they purchased. They were selling them for twice what they paid for them and were sold out in three hours. People at the door were complaining that the masks sold out before they could buy one but we told them to go back home and use their female friends make-up to make themselves scary and come back with a food or drink item and they would be let in the doors. Only the people with homemade costumes were eligible for the judging and prizes, and we only had two people create jack-o-lanterns so they won the prizes for that and we had prizes for apple dunking contest, and we did the limbo, and it shocked me how many of the students got on the dance floor and danced! Everyone was telling me the kids would not dance so I didn’t make the dance floor huge. I will know better for this years party! I am having a great time here in China and I do sincerely feel that I am making a huge difference to the students I work with. I see it in their increase in confidence and I feel it in their love.

  9. Yaxue C. says:

    A lot of you probably don’t know that, in China, civil servants seeking promotion and professionals seeking higher professional titles all have to take English exams. Most of them had English classes before when they were in school but have never used it and forgotten it all. “How do you take the exams then?” I once asked one of my college roommates. “Oh, it was a joke! They gave us a take-home prep test with all the answers and asked us to memorize it. It turned out to be the real test itself with a few exceptions.”

    Here is something of a pattern with a lot of things in China: There is a stupid policy, everyone recognizes it’s stupid, but it has to be done, so everyone gets to work to “get it done.” That is, by cheating, by faking, by lying, or by whatever it takes. In the end the leaders on the higher level make a bigger lie out of many smaller lies on the lower levels; but given time, just about everyone begins to believe the house of lies they have built. That’s probably why, years ago, when I read Kafka the first time, I felt such a strange familiarity with that snowy village at the foot of the Castle.

    • Tom says:

      The department of health requires all doctors preparing to study abroad to pass the PETS 5 English test, however if you pay to “take” their class you automatically pass the exam.

  10. Lao Why? says:

    Tom,
    Great writing. I am amazed at how deeply you can explore so many subjects. I have been in China about as long as you and i truly value your insights.

    Yaxue, you should have your own blog.

    It’s interesting that the mainlanders I encounter who speak excellent conversational English (American) more often than not, watch old dvds of Friends. In fact, I will often ask good speakers, “do you watch Friends?” and it is amazing the number who nod yes.

    While i am not a huge fan of Friends, I do think there is a lot to be said for the issue of content, or lack thereof. The state has the conundrum of figuring out how to separate teaching the English language from that more scary skill of critical thinking. It’s hard to bring a westerner in and expect them to separate those two concepts.
    As you can tell from my poor syntax, I did not study English in college. I studied Rhetoric, which fulfilled the English requirement. Rhetoric teaches the art of logical thinking and argumentative or persuasive language. I doubt logic is a subject that is taught in Chinese schools. If it is, then my working colleagues must have slept through that class. I suspect the state does not want to encourage critical thinking.

    • Diane says:

      The government does want them to think critically, they just want to control the direction the critical thinking takes. All the Chinese teachers were told that they have to work on getting the students to think critically and they are in a panic about it because they don’t know how to do it themselves, any more than the students do. Yes they are a bit better at it than the students, but they don’t know how to teach someone to do it. The government has recognized that they are not going to win any important Nobel prizes without critical thinking skills being enhanced in the Chinese society. They are not going to be great creators of technical and medical advancements without that ability. They are actually embarrassed by the fact that the bulk of the products they produce and the studies they perform are simply copies from others. This is one of the reasons that I will be teaching a course to the Chinese teachers at our university on how to get their classes to use critical thinking skills.
      Logic is a tool of critical thinking, so no, it has not been a subject taught in Chinese schools. Maoist China concentrated on harmony, Marxism, balance (yin yang), being a part of the whole rather than individualism. Now, in capitalistic China, people are discovering that the only way to become one of the nouveau riche is to start to think individually and critically.
      The bulk of what I do here is teaching the students to think critically while increasing their oral skills.

      • Zhang says:

        My hats off to you and your caring, hands on teaching style. However, it sounds like a slight hint of cultural ethnocentrism in your tone. I am happy that you won the prestigious best teacher award at your school, but teaching critical thinking skill sin accordance to what you think they should be is a tad bit insensitive to the Chinese culture itself. From an outsiders position, I can see how certain parts of Chinese educational culture seems as it suppresses and oppresses creative thought and thinking. Western cultures have the same phenomena but it effects the children in different ways with their “consumer identity culture”. Diane, you seem like a great teacher, my advice to you as a Chinese woman educated in several countries is to not be a cultural expert ever and assume critically thinking skills based on a macro sociological level, but to always just see each one of your children as an individual with specific strengths as you meet your minimum academic criteria in the classroom. Good luck. China is very lucky to have teachers like you!

      • Diane says:

        Thank you Zhang. I was a bit zealous in my post. :). I certainly do take your words to heart. I try to be conscious of taking into consideration the Chinese culture into my lesson plans, which frequently causes me to leave out sections of lessons in the books they provide to teach the students with because they are simply not relevant to Chinese life. For instance, it is ridiculous to talk to students of the stress of having to make house payments every month, because the young men here save up their money to buy their home outright in order to marry. The books are western produced and frequently they do not correspond to life in China.
        My husband and I decided to immerse ourselves more into the culture than many of the other international teachers who come her for a term or two do. More of our friends are Chinese teachers and professors here at the university rather than the international teachers. We have a small group of about 10 or so ex-students who have become like our family. We have sort of become their mom and dad while away from mom and dad. Their parents are aware of this arrangement and promote it. We have even had dinner with one of the students parents and it was rather humorous that “Elaine” was calling both of us mom at the table. Her mother and I hugged at the end of the evening and she thanked us for all the extra attention we had given her daughter. LOL, she even gave my husband a hug! We do have an advantage over many international teachers in that we have actual Chinese family through marriage here and we spend some of our holidays with them.
        I speak almost no Chinese and when I arrived I had decided that I would wait for a year or two before making an concerted effort to try to learn the language. I wanted to learn my way around the school and neighborhood first, location wise as well as how things worked here in China. So just this week I started taking lessons. I was teaching a Chinese major class for 8 weeks and at the end I asked, “Which student in this class is the most serious about becoming a teacher?”, all the students pointed to one girl. She is not my best English speaker but I totally expected her to be the one who would become my tutor based upon class discussions we had over the class term. I asked her if she would become my tutor and I would pay her for her services, that I would write her a letter of recommendation at the end of the term and I would give her a bunch of teaching tools to use in her future career. The young ladies mother is so please and proud of her daughter.
        Many teachers become frustrated to a distracted level when here and then just leave with many misconceptions about the way things are here. There is never a day that passes that I do not learn something new about China and her people. For the most part, they are the warmest, kindest, most helpful people in the world. Some Chinese people tell me that they are that way to me only because I am a westerner and they hope to garner my friendship for personal reasons, but I don’t think that is the only reason. People know when you are a genuine person. I stop to speak to all of the little children and now mothers, fathers and grandparents come up to me with their babies for me to make a fuss over. I don’t understand most of what they are saying and they don’t understand most of what I am saying but we enjoy our encounters. I smile all the time and people smile back. I say hello to everyone, especially the elderly. Sometimes they respond hesitantly at first but now when they see me we are like old friends passing in the streets and if I don’t say hello they will come up to me and make sure I do! When one of them uses a little English I make a fuss over them and they just beam with smiles. Likewise when I try to use a Chinese word they beam and then correct my horrible pronunciation and we laugh together.
        We are no longer charged “round-eye” prices by the vendors and shop keepers as a rule. This is our home now and it is important to become a part of the neighborhood. I treat everyone with respect from the president of our school to the street cleaners. I remember last term on the last day of class, most of my female students were hugging me as we said goodbye for the break with shiny eyes knowing that I would not be their teacher again. The class had emptied out of all students except one boy in the back who had been fiddling around with gathering up his things. Then he rushed over to me with his head down, he leaned in and gave me a quick hug and then rushed out of the classroom. I had to sit down and cry at that point. I had been holding it back all class.
        I love my students as if they were my own children and you cannot fool the kids. They know if you are just putting on a show or if you really care about them.
        I do my best to keep my teaching of critical thinking within the appropriate bounds. China is changing quickly in many things and not so quickly in others. Many may complain about the ways it is not changing quickly enough, but they must understand that with something as big as a country, or even an large company, if you try to change too fast it will result in chaos and possible downfall. One should not attempt to run before they can walk.
        LOL, one of my teacher friends was shocked to find out that I had some of my students go out and gather up some of the heavy clay soil outside and get some water and we played with mud for an assignment. I had discovered that most of my students had never played in the mud before. There are many common sense lessons to be learned from experiencing mud and not just seeing it. Understanding how it can be molded and how it changes as water is added to it. How it feels at each stage as it gets wetter and wetter. How it can be used as a binding agent for rocks. How slippery it gets. I try to include experiences into my English lessons as well as center them around real life needs of my students. I try to show them how the lessons relate to them personally. By doing so, I keep their interest and they are far more likely to remember what they learned when they leave. One thing I work heavily on is their confidence and developing a positive attitude. I want them to understand that every one of them is important. They may not see their sphere of influence but it is there just the same and it is better to put out positive energy than negative. They have lots of Chinese teachers who teach them English grammar and vocabulary so I teach them to not fear making mistakes because a mistake is simply a learning tool, and I teach them to overcome their fear of speaking in public. I teach them that to be prepared in advance is the best confidence builder they can have. I try to teach them to look for answers rather than dwell on the problems. I try to teach them self reliance, self accountability, self discipline. This is their first experience away from mom and dad. I remind them that they are now adults and must take on the responsibility of their own lives and actions. If you get them thinking about their future then they forget that they are nervous to speak in English and soon you have many wonderful conversations going on.
        This is what I was meant to do in life. This is where I was meant to be. I have never been happier in my life. No, I don’t make a lot of money. Yes I am far from my family and friends back home. But for me, home is where I am and the world is my family.

      • Zhang says:

        Thank you for your post Diane, it was very enjoyable for me to read with specific examples to your context. Thanks Again!

  11. Lao Why? says:

    “They stared back blankly, as if I was questioning a sacred law. ”

    I get this reaction all the time in many different situations. These are “Orwellian” moments for me. I just want to shake my colleagues and say “THINK dammit!”
    I know they are smart guys. It’s hard not to conclude that mainlanders believe thinking is dangerous. Better to do what you are told, follow procedures, don’t screw up, don’t risk questioning the status quo.

  12. Depressing. But at least the pay is decent!

  13. Anonymous says:

    Dear Tom

    What you are experiencing is what most teachers in any K-12, community college or even university in any subject in any country experiences. “Am I wasting my time? Are they learning anything? Is it just about the test and getting credit?” “When can I go home?”
    I am a language teacher in another country teaching a different language but experienced the same types of feelings. Very few if any of the local people can communicate even after 6 years of language classes and more if they move on to some kind of post secondary education.
    The “Why do I have to learn this stuff? I will never use it!” questions and statements from students(which are more prevalent in your home come country along with the F%’%’& Off statements from some students in mine) will always be there and the only answer that seems reasonable to me “The more skills you have, the more choices you have.” Whether or not you choose to convey such answer is wise or not depends on your perceived circumstances.
    Overall, people will gravitate to what they are good at and what they enjoy (positive feedback loop) and if 99% of the students you will teach can never put a sentence together for lack of opportunity to use the language or motivational but one person in the room(and there always is at least one) then it is not a waste of time. Sorry to sound preachy.
    Bottom line it is a waste of time for some but not for all but welcome to teaching.

    Sincerely
    Todd

  14. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    I also agree with you, Todd. For many years I have struggled to learn Chinese. I live in north Scotland with no opportunity to chat with Mandarin speakers and no college courses locally. Is it worth it? Yes! Yes! Yes! It is always worth it. Nowadays, I have finally acquired a Mandarin speaking Chinese teacher and despite seeing her for one hour a week only, my keeness to learn Mandarin has been replenished! The cultural rewards are great when acquiring any foreign language skills.

  15. Martin says:

    well, there are certainly quite a few fluent Spanish teachers in US. But Spanish (which is a fairly related language compared to Mandarin) ability of Americans is pretty poor.
    My impression is that you are assuming too much in your article

    • Tom says:

      The desire to learn a language is largely related to how useful that language is within ones daily life. Recent Spanish speaking immigrants, generally learn English within a generation, so if you are working in a white collar job, where everyone speaks English, there is relatively little need for it. The same is true of the newest immigrants, who live and work with other new immigrants, despite the fact that 90+% of the people around them speak English, many of them make little effort to learn, because there is no need.

      • Not to mention the fact that, in the United States, where the population of Spanish-speaking residents is much higher, rates of bilingualism are even higher than they are in Europe.

  16. Collins says:

    Apparently it’s different with migrants in the Pearl River Delta. I have found that a lot of female migrant workers here want to learn the language to advance to white collar clerical positions. (And to marry a foreigner.) They also want to learn Cantonese for the same reason: that’s the language factory owners speak.

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  18. Nice job with this article, and your other ones as well. You’ve been covering a lot of topical issues that definitely leave a lot of room for debate.

    I think you raise a good point in this article. One thing to consider, though, is that while the spoken English level is often really bad, there reading and writing tends to be much better. And that isn’t something as oral English teachers we often get to witness. But you would have to say that when your putting this much time into an English program, and even most college English majors in China can’t really put together a coherent sentence, something needs to be changed.

    In terms of mandatoriness, I do think China would benefit from taking the English section off their gao kao, and thus lessening the rational for mandatory English classes. Instead it could be like the SATs where you take optional subject tests to demonstrate your proficiency for those where English will be a critical part of their educational and occupation.

    And if China dropped the requirement, it means more resources could be channeled into the smaller proportion of students who would be studying English. Like for instance, oral English class with a foreign teacher 2-3 times a week.

  19. yvonne says:

    I read through the whole article and I see that argument that the author holds for his conclusion ‘teaching English is a monumental waste of time for the teachers, the students, and the gov’t’ is ‘they will forget what they learn when they don’t use so why bother to waste time to learn’, and he cited the example that farmers became illiteracy again after being taught with Chinese to enhance his argument.In my eyes, regretfully, his argument is completely silly and lame. Shall foreigners stop studying Chinese when they can’t even write a character after 2 yes studying? Shall those scientists and researchers stop experimenting after thousands of times of failure?

    All of these endeavor should definitely not be seen as a waste a time at all. Instead, rather than hold an negative attitude and complain it is a waste of time, the least what we shall do is to spend more time upturning this situation and enhancing teaching teams’ competency.

    Those educational officials did not even respond to author’s question cos the question is way too ‘low-level’. The author did not hold a sustainable view for this all. Globalization requires English learning. This is definitely important to all the nations incl China. Period. Students from rural area also need to learn English and take English exam in the college entrance exam since this challenge does not only mean equality but also opportunity.

    Letting rural students not study english or take english exam is like announcing they are lower than the urban students and depriving their chance of being engaged in the overall competition and development. In a long run, the whole group will be ignored. And author obvious are biased, he construes the whole rural group as at the same level – low level, a level that they can’t learn and use English well eventually.

    • Tom says:

      Hi Yvonne,
      While English could become a tool for equality in education, the lack of English teachers in the countryside make it one more subject for the students to fail, and further limits their ability to be admitted to a good college. Students in the countryside have a low level of English because they lack access to proper English education, not because they are in anyway less than city people.
      My point isn’t that learning English is a waste of time, my point is that trying to teach an entire country English, without having qualified English teachers is a fruitless effort. Instead of trying to teach everyone, course should be made optional, so that teachers time can be spent focusing on a smaller group of students that are actually interested in learning. It would be crazy to teach everyone in the US Chinese, since only a small % of people would actually use it.
      As for your final point, I think the gov’t has already shown that rural schools are of less importance than urban ones by the way they neglect to fund them.

      • yvonne says:

        You are right about 1 thing: the English education in rural schools are not as strong as urban schools due to the poorer quality of education forces and the finance gov put into this forces. This is truly a situation that needs to be changed. This is the weakness in China’s current education system, along with many other weak areas. And i truly agree that more attention should be given to rural schools, not only in the subject of English, but also all other subjects. The teaching forces are comparatively poor in a general sense.

        Gov should have encouraged and encourage more competent teachers to go to teach in rural areas and support them in all ways including financial ways. We see some efforts and improvement that gov made in recent years but there is still much space to improve.
        Like you said, you are trying all the efforts to contribute to rural school education and as one of the locals I really appreciate that from you as being one of the selfless educators from another country. And i wish more and more local and foreign educators will follow to do so. And i wish they are not anymore the educators that follow the old education pattern but people who would reform the education ways, transforming it from cramming to creative ways, so that the students inner interest to those subjects like English can be triggered; so that they will learn English in a more efficient and better way, so that they can not only pass the exams but can really apply this language, in this case, to work and life.

        You mentioned since it is not that all the jobs requiring for English so English should not be required as mandatory in the college entrance exam, then some would ask, ‘why do I have to learn advanced Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Politics, History since i dont want to become an expert in any of those fields plus I am really bad at that subject (I was seriously thinking of this when i was frustrated at high school studying science related subjects like Maths that i was really bad at). And I am afraid so far no one is going to give a perfect solution to it.

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  21. I have taught in those situations, where the course was compulsory but 90% of the students were completely uninterested in seriously studying English. As a teacher you wonder sometimes how much of that is your fault – are your classes not interesting enough? How much of the motivation should be coming from the teacher? It’s more difficult when you are not in control of the course texts, content, or pacing but must meet deadlines imposed by others.

    I am quite pleased at the moment to be teaching adults in a course that they choose to participate in, and which has clear benefit to their careers. THAT is not a waste of my time, or theirs.

  22. bill rich says:

    I think all foreigners should not comment on China, whether it is good or bad, because Chinese don’t want to be commented on, since China is perfect in every way, and there is no more room for improvement. Furthermore, that they have improved, and that they have plans to do better mean they are perfect already, and no need to learn to do better any more. I would suggest all foreigners trying to help China or improve China in anyway better stop, as these efforts are not appreciated at all by the Chinese people. If you want to make some money and enjoy yourself in China, that’s good. Just don’t try to improve an already perfect China.

  23. rasmushenriksson says:

    On top of everything it seems like there’s a never-ending demand for more English teachers (sites like http://www.teachergig.com/jobs/china has tons of new teaching jobs posted every day) which probably causes schools to skimp on the teacher requirements needed. Quality of teachers in China is really low (yea sure, i’m generalizing but all of you hard working teachers also know this is largely true)…

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  26. I disagree that China’s ‘gov’t has received a very poor return on the investment.’ You know from teaching there, as I have done, that the Chinese don’t actually care what they get out of English lessons. They merely do it for face. It’s their equivalent of Americans over-extending themselves financially to drive a bloody German car that’ll impress their friends.
    I DO agree with your emphatic punctuation of this: ‘Today the literacy rate is officially ~95%.’ You know very well not to trust a single Chinese statistic. They’re as fabricated as the goods they sell.
    You know too that the college entrance exam is merely an exercise in memorization (though it does indeed annually cause many, many suicides amongst high school students).
    I love this part of your post: “I even asked education officials why English is required at all for college entrance, they didn’t seem to grasp the issue. ‘English is an important language,’ they said.” The Chinese are masters at stating the obvious, yes? Yet, ask them how to get into a building you’re standing directly in front of and they say, “Mei ban fa.” (It can’t be done.) Anyone who lives in China for even the briefest period of time learns two things: 1) Don’t ask questions. There is a rumor that I have not found info to back up that the Chinese didn’t even know how to form/ask a question until the Brits gave them the “ma”. 2) Refrain from logic. You’re about as likely to find it in China as you are to find factual/uncensored news.
    This is an example of both: “Wouldn’t it be better to offer optional classes, instead of forcing millions of students learn a language they’ll never use?” We had to learn calculus and dissect rodents in middle and high school, yes? How much of either actually benefits most of us? I don’t begrudge the Chinese govt for ‘forcing’ English, just as I don’t begrudge American govt for forcing me to dissect a pig. These are options that lead to a more well-rounded education. It’s up to the individual to actually learn and use it.
    As for your last sentence: I was willing to help. I endured almost two years in China that felt like a bloody prison term. The only thing worse, I repeatedly imagined, was being held hostage in the Middle East.
    Congrats on being publicized by the Economist, though!

  27. Alphonse says:

    very accurate observation in how rural areas are in disadvantage with the English Language . Many people misunderstood your statement . But is true, how Childs from rural area or 3th and even 2nd tier city could compete against Rich kids who can afford private colleges with Teachers from USA , Aussies or Brits . Ive Been working in Zhejiang and jiangsu since 2005 and the gap between rich and poor is just getting wider.
    One of my best friends is an Accountant he lives in huzhou and he works hard for the money but cant afford a good private college for his daughter , His daughter recently took the Gaokao and she didnt do well on the English part , at least she could enter a college thanks to her good scores in the other areas but not good college at all . And that girl study alone or with her girlfriends , not private teachers or cram school and studying the whole week , She did everything a person could do with her resources. I bet she will continue studying English and i hope at the college she will Study The teacher will be much better and she will learn in 2 years the triple she learned in 6 years years.

  28. Ray says:

    Come to you from The Economist and got deep impression to your 2 points mentioned from the magazine, poor level of English and poor literacy from farmers. Also pay respect to your interest of communicating between China and the outside world.
    As to 3 hundred million English learners, it is quoted in the article, I’d say I believe it is true. And your doubt is also reasonable, as much Chinglish spreads. Why I think both are right? My saying is that the great majority of Chinese kid learners are in elementary level and it is hard to foreigners to come across the advanced learners.
    Hope to continue discussing the topic of narrowing the different opinions with you.

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  30. Bob Hale says:

    I’d like to put a slightly more optimistic point of view. I’m a qualified and experienced teacher, currently teaching in a Chinese city where , to the best of my knowledge, I am one of only four foreign teachers. As far as I know we are the only four non-Chinese currently living in the city. I have experience of only one school here, but in general that experience is positive. The Chinese teachers there are fully aware of the problems they face and their own limitations. I frequently have Chinese teachers attending my classes and watching how I teach and when I have asked them why I have discovered that they are interested in learning new techniques and in improving the quality of their own teaching. They understand that what they are doing is equipping students to pass an arbitrary and rather meaningless exam and they want to change that and give the students a genuine ability with English.
    As for the students they are like any other students. The class sizes (my largest has over eighty students) are problematic but there is the usual proportion of students who are keen but find it difficult, students who are keen and progress rapidly and students who don’t give a damn and would rather be out playing basketball. In fact they are just like students anywhere else.

    One of the biggest problems is one that I don’t think I have seen mentioned in the comments – classroom materials. It is clear from looking at the text books in use that they have been written by people with an imperfect knowledge of English and NEVER proof read by a native speaker. But once again the teachers at my school work brilliantly within the limitations. There is never a day when I am not approached by one teacher or another asking me for my opinions on some point of grammar or some exercise in one of the books. More often than not the teacher has a better grasp of the grammar than the author of the book and answers given in the answer keys are misleading or just plain wrong. We have long discussions on all sorts of teaching topics and my corrections to the answer keys are marked in and passed from teacher to teacher to incorporate into their lessons.
    I have been teaching for many years and have rarely encountered a more motivated group of teachers anywhere.

    In short there are problems but it’s my experience that everybody is aware of them and everybody wants to solve them. Is teaching English in China a waste of time? Whose time? It’s certainly not a waste of the students time as they are (mostly) bright and enthusiastic. It isn’t a waste of my time as the students are progressing in my classes away from the “listen and repeat” drilling into genuine interactions.
    It’s the wrong question. A better question might be “How can we make teaching English in China (or anywhere else) more effective?”
    And the answer to that has to be by engaging more fully with what learning a language actually means.

    • Megan says:

      “It’s the wrong question. A better question might be “How can we make teaching English in China (or anywhere else) more effective?””

      I completely agree with this. It’s time to move past the outdated models of education.

      I have taught English in Asia for over 10 years and I have gone through periods of utter frustration at the system in place: drilling for exams, oversized classes, poor materials.
      What keeps me going is the few who get it, who are motivated and excited to learn. Of course, teaching kids helps!

      • Dear Megan,
        I totally agree with you and decided to write again my comment that was published here in December. If you are interested in getting the software that will help you in teaching adults let me know and I will email it to you for free.

        I agree that learning English by existing methods is a waste of time, however, I would strongly oppose to a generalization that learning English is waste of time. The opposite is true: the growth of Global Economy has an intrinsic correlation with the success of learning English, especially in such countries as China, India, Korea, etc. We are faced with the problem: 300 million Chinese are trying to learn English and existing methods could not provide efficient results. We need a new method that will be based on latest developments in our Digital era and new learning habits of Digital Learners.

        The new method should provide the following solutions:
        • It is nearly impossible to think in Chinese and try to speak in English; learners should be given a tool that will automatically stop cross-translation and help them to formulate direct links between English words and images and situations which they describe without using subconscious translation into Chinese.
        • Learners should have access to learning materials 24/7 and use basically the same material with the English teacher who should be trained in the new technology.

        We offer for field testing the patented method for learning English based on a proprietary new learning paradigm that resolves two main obstacles in learning English by adults: (a) it eliminates cross-translation problem and (b) trains the brain to recognize sounds (phonemes) and word blocks in a new language.

        We provide free training and free software for field testing with individual learners or with a group of learners. Our objective is to form a joint venture for bringing this technology to China. But we will discuss it only after you will receive the proof yourself that the new method is more efficient than existing methods of learning/teaching English.

        Please contact me to discuss the details.
        Sincerely yours,
        Arkady Zilberman

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  33. Yes, it’s a waste of time. After 12 years of English classes, all most Chinese can say is “Hello, teacher”. They endure classes merely to pass the Gaokao.

    I was teaching rural students in their early 20s, who acted like kindergarteners. They just didn’t give a shit about learning: going to class was enough to please their teachers and their parents (who paid the tuition fees). Nobody in my classes actually wanted to be there.

    This meant that when I changed the mind-numbingly-dull, outdated Chinese textbook with WSJ and NYT articles, the students told the headmaster, who told me to revert to teaching nonsense “because the whole college will be tested on that”.

    For some students, however, it’s worthwhile. Students who want to learn are really rewarding to teach, and they’re the ones we should focus on.

  34. I agree that learning English by existing methods is a waste of time, however, I would strongly oppose to a generalization that learning English is waste of time. The opposite is true: the growth of Global Economy has an intrinsic correlation with the success of learning English, especially in such countries as China, India, Korea, etc. We are faced with the problem: 300 million Chinese are trying to learn English and existing methods could not provide efficient results. We need a new method that will be based on latest developments in our Digital era and new learning habits of Digital Learners.

    The new method should provide the following solutions:
    • It is nearly impossible to think in Chinese and try to speak in English; learners should be given a tool that will automatically stop cross-translation and help them to formulate direct links between English words and images and situations which they describe without using subconscious translation into Chinese.
    • Learners should have access to learning materials 24/7 and use basically the same material with the English teacher who should be trained in the new technology.

    We offer for field testing the patented method for learning English based on a proprietary new learning paradigm that resolves two main obstacles in learning English by adults: (a) it eliminates cross-translation problem and (b) trains the brain to recognize sounds (phonemes) and word blocks in a new language.

    We provide free training and free software for field testing with individual learners or with a group of learners.
    Our objective is to form a joint venture for bringing this technology to China. But we will discuss it only after you will receive the proof yourself that the new method is more efficient than existing methods of learning/teaching English.

    Please contact me to discuss the details.
    Sincerely yours,
    Arkady Zilberman

  35. jonnny says:

    i have to say any language is out of date, there are so many history/ feeling in it.
    if i say you look beautiful. there might be different understanding of the sentence by different person.

    the main focus there should be a new language created. so its easily be able to learn by anyone and its more straight forward like math.
    eg: in law nowaday you can argue so many different way, however in math i guess you can’t build a bridge by using but this but that.

    however in terms of communication, as long as you can speak your own language is enough. technogy will advanced so we can translate in same time. (AI is my project)

    my 2cents.

  36. Dim Sum says:

    You are lucky. In China, we get creepy teachers like mine in Nanyang, the Jerry Urban big fat man tells students he will hurt them outside of class if they do not do what they are told. He stands in front of us (really close…his nose touches our face) and steers us down and says I get you later. I have nightmares about this man. We can not just complain like you guys can about these awful foreign teachers.

    • Wut??? Then I suggest you tell that ‘teacher’ there’s a lawyer and biker waiting in Hong Kong for him to STFU right now. I would really like to sue him for his facial common assault on my fist and a class-action suit against his mother for negligence in bring him up the way he is.

      Tell him what Octavian said to Germanicus: “Stay not too long in my country, Germanicus.”

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  39. Anonymous says:

    Errrr, try living and teaching in Italy. You don’t have to go that far to encounter all of the aforementioned problems!!!!!!!!

  40. mousecool says:

    Bilingual education is never easy. China is not alone in this difficult situation.
    Besides, there are two types of motivation: instrumental and integrative. Not all English learners acquire the language out of job prospects or exams etc. Still I feel thankful that English is a compulsory subject in China. Had it not been the case, I would not have read literature, listened to songs, watched movies and sitcoms in English, and travelled around the U.S.
    Anyway, your observation is impressively penetrating. And you are right in the point that teachers should be properly trained. It’s also true that only balanced bilinguals can benefit from their bilingualism. Yet, there are few who are well-balanced, according to some linguists.

  41. Simon says:

    I started teaching English (VSO) in 1964 (sic!) in the Middle East and thought after that first year that it had been a waste of time. BUT! How the knowledge of English has LEAPT! forward in fact in the ME. I think it’s easy forget just how many English teachers there are out there plugging away and have been for a very long time. (My mother taught English in India in the 1930s and she joined a very longstanding establishment that had been routinely teaching English since the middle of the nineteenth century and that’s of course when the English language took hold there and gives India a huge advantage today but of course the majority of Indians still can’t and don’t need to speak English.) I’ve now come to the conclusion that English is actually a nasty infection :) and in my first lesson with a new class always apologise for that!:).

    • Indian_Anglophone says:

      Simon, I am not really sure where it was that your mother taught but English is a widely used language in India unike China (where I was an ESL teacher). Just an FYI note to let you know that India has come a long way since 1930 and in 2013, unless you expect the Queen’s English from a call center employee, you just may be surprised. Can’t vouch for the pleasantness of your surprise given the tone of your comment.

  42. I stumbled upon your post looking for info on teaching in China, and I must say I enjoyed your fresh introspective take on ESL in China. The main reason being it reminds me so much of the situation where I come from– the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

    PR is a Spanish-speaking country, but since 1898, it’s been a territorial possession of the United States. Nowadays, Puerto Ricans enjoy a quality of life well above it’s neighbors in the Carribean thanks in part to it’s connection to and incorporation of the American business model, however, this is still very much a different country, with it’s own rules and customs.

    Something you hear a lot when people talk about the island is the catch phrase, “Everybody speaks English.”, this is NOT the case. While English is heard and observed in many places, and in fact taught in primary school, secondary school, as well as college, and Spanglish is a new dominant force in slang, the truth is the majority of island native Puerto Ricans speak next to no English. The official stat is 17% fluency in English (which I think is lower than in actuality, but I won’t get into that)

    What got me about your article was that idea that learning English could be potential beneficial, the fact was, that potential was rarely needed in everyday Chinese society, and most people didn’t even really seem to care. That is so Puerto Rico! However, English pops up as an important skill here a lot more than China, I would assume, as we are US citizens and contact with the Federal government is a constant part of life. Still, people just want to speak the language they know already, speak better, and use of which is just more vital in their society. While knowing English here in PR can always benefit you, knowing it and living here doesn’t have as much value (unless you hang out with the middle-class American-esque Nerd crowd, like me!)

    This article and my personal experience leads me to a couple of conclusions about the Teaching of English Abroad;
    1. We native English-speakers (I’m originally from Pittsburgh) have a somewhat deluded opinion of how important our language is to the world. In the states, we learn second languages for fun and the general benefit they will give us, but other countries learn a second language, and always a specific one, because of the direct benefit they will give them.
    2. English is not so much a Second-language around the world, but an Auxiliary-language, to be used as a task-specific communications tool like in marketing or academics, rather than an actual additional tongue. Somewhat like how French and Latin were in medieval Europe among nobles and clergy, and Greek was long before that.

    I was wondering how this realization effects someone who is teaching abroad. Is there a balance point between teaching English as a language in it’s entirety, and teaching them the parts of the language they have a use for?

  43. sam says:

    Maybe you should learn to write English properly before you start sounding off about the Chinese.
    “He argued that efforts to teach rural peasants was a waste of time” is bad English.

  44. Chelsea says:

    Hi! I’m graduating with a B.A. in Psychology in May. I was offered a position (informally) to teach English to University students in Wuhan. I am obviously very excited about this opportunity, but the salary they’re offering wouldn’t even begin to cover student loan payments if I used the whole month’s earnings to make a payment. I found another possible opportunity through an organization called the Chinese Culture Center or http://www.chineseculturecenter.org. Have you heard anything about this organization? The perks they offer seem to good to be true, so I am a little hesitant. I did apply, because they didn’t ask for anything that seemed to be “too much”; just the basic information, a resume and a picture(?). Anyway, I will be speaking through Skype with the gentleman who made the original offer and I have prepared a lot of questions. I can’t afford to pay for the flight to China myself AND by out of my apartment lease which ends July 15 (in his initial job offer through email, he mentioned that he might want me to come to China in May after I graduate). I’m not familiar with the proper way to negotiate with a person from China. If I were negotiating with an American I would be frank, explain my situation and just ask. Something tells me this is unnacceptable.

    Anyway, I would appreciate ANY help ANYONE can give me on any of these issues. I have lived alone abroad before. I was a Rotary exchange student for a year in Romania when I was 16 so I’m prepared for the feelings of culture shock and doing without.

    I’m more worried about without negotiating terms of a contract, such as salary, a benefits package, accomodations, whether or not the university or school will pay for my flight UP FRONT both ways, health insurance, etc. Please help with any advice you can give as soon as you can. This is happening very quickly.

    • Globetrotter5K says:

      Chinese Culture Center looked to sketchy for my comfort. They have had the exact same photos and information on their website since I ran across them 2-3 years ago. And they sent me emails every weeks for months saying that I had been selected for their program.
      There are a lot of other companies out there that you can go through. http://beijing.usembassy-china.org.cn/acs_teach.html

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  47. Zhang says:

    Let me explain why English classes in CHina get recycled 30 year old ELS junk after the fourth year of study in China, because China needs to follow a Chinese study, not an adult or childrens ESL western study. When I went to college in Nanyang, Henan, my English teachers were all a joke. I had Greg Rhue the girl touching drunk, Jerry Urbanthe stupid and violent, and Robert Baggio the sociopath pedophile. They all “taught” this old ESL grammar/game/scenario English class. It was nothing more than a waste of time. The teachers were all losers from their own country who had some sort of professional god complex because they speak English. I hated it actually. I hated to see them touching my girlfriend in class, yelling for no reason, and lecturing to us how China needs them in the classroom because they are experts on being creepy. China, hire real teachers that teach real subjects. Set benchmarks for English in high school! In college, teach a class that can be easily taught in another language such as public speaking. Not baby grammar and old 30 year old western ESL flawed mehtods. Have foreign teachers hold the same social standards as the Chinese teachers. If a teacher goes to class drunk, then he needs to go back home!

  48. joe says:

    I am from Hong Kong. In my life, the only PRACTICAL use of English is on the Internet and school examination. Except you work for consumer services / tourism or any other industry than need to communicate with foreigner, the only usage of English in Hong Kong is on the Internet, so as China.

    Actually during British colony in Hong Kong, English level for public is much much more worse than today (after handover to PRC), because most people don’t have internet access and no practical need for English communication.

  49. Diane says:

    I am currently teaching English in China. There are times I feel very frustrated and angry, but I know that I am making a difference. My husband and I are not only teaching students, but every term we also teach a class of teachers. Introducing them to western style teaching. One of the posters here was correct. The teachers are being told to teach the children “critical thinking” skills, but they don’t have any idea what that is or what it entails. My students usually hate me the first few weeks of classes because my teaching methods are so foreign to what they are used to but once they catch on they end up really loving the classes. I have been voted the most popular teacher in the language department and that is out of 75 teachers, most of whom are Chinese. I get to understand the problems the teachers are facing with the students. I have gotten to understand some of the problems the students have and the stumbling blocks that are inherent in Chinese culture. We have made many Chinese friends. In fact, I would say that we spend far more time with Chinese people than we do with the other international teachers by a large margin. Many teachers have come to me to have me tutor their young children. I am massively pushing my “Reading for Fun is Fundamental” program. So far it is rough going. They seem to think that if it is fun then it is a waste of time. The small number who are actually doing it are showing great improvement. Fast and measurable improvement. My husband was so impressed by what he saw with my tutored children that he got the school to purchase a couple hundred copies of “The Hobbit” and is having his classes read it as a requirement. Of course, the students are having to pay for the books but if we can even get just one-fourth of the students hooked on reading they will pass that love down to their children. Reading for fun ties up the critical, negative part of the conscious brain so that the pliant, positive subconscious part of the brain can soak up things like vocabulary, sentence structure, the tenses, punctuation, spelling, etc., while also showing them a whole new world and ways of thinking about things. They think that reading the classics is better for them but their reading skills and comprehension levels are not ready for that. They need “young adult” novels. The classics are too hard and they end up losing interest quickly. The students are great once you break down their innate fear of making mistakes. Most of the work I have them do is opinion based. I tell them there is no such thing as a wrong opinion because it is “their opinion”. This significantly reduces their fears. Though I teach “Oral English” I hardly ever work on pronunciation. Their Chinese English teachers cover that in spades. I work on oration skills, getting over the fear of speaking in public while also working on honing their critical thinking skills. Without getting my hands on them when they are younger, there is no way I can perfect their spoken language, so I work on things that will assist them in their working lives.

  50. Hi there, just wanted to mention, I enjoyed this article. It was inspiring. Keep on posting!

  51. Vance says:

    Diane,

    I’ve been working on how to bridge some of the cultural differences that obstruct Chinese students– and their teachers. Resistance to the new is universal, and what you most probably do daily with your students is breaking new ground. However, I suspect it may be somewhat easier to accomplish precisely because you are NOT Chinese. But what of the Chinese teachers? How do they cross that threshold? How can they incorporate new learning paradigms without massive resistance from pupils, parents, and the school alike? Clearly a gradual and careful evolution is the answer. But what is the best way to start?

    I would value any ideas that you or any of our thoughtful commenters have. (And I have enjoyed and learned from the article’s author and from all of the comments, having read every one.)

  52. What’s up, just wanted to say, I loved this article. It was funny. Keep on posting!

  53. Damas Motega says:

    China will not avoid English if it has to hold responsibilities as a global super power and largest economy.

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