Saturday, March 24, 2012

Fostering Personal Growth in the Classroom

Although it has to be done carefully, I do think it is acceptable for a teacher to work to improve his students in ways other than direct improvement of language ability.

          For instance, I think critical thinking is important, especially to students who have been through an educational or political system that discourages it. (This includes many refugees.) This can be done by giving assignments, such as debates, where more than one point of view is to be expected. Or through assignments where more than one answer to the assigned question is possible or there is no obvious answer. Again, sometimes one needs to push and clarify beforehand what is expected. For instance, I give an assignment where students are supposed to use the internet to find a newspaper article that deals with plagiarism, summarize the article in their own words, being careful not to accidentally copy sentences or phrases without quotation marks, and then give their opinion on the story discussed. I always get a few where the opinion is, more or less, “This is a good article,” and nothing more. These are the times when it's a real good idea to ask the student to see you after class, during lunch or during office hours and work one on one with them to clarify what you mean.

            A goal of a good TESOL or ESL class is to increase independence of the student by enabling them to communicate better and to function better in situations where they will be using the English language. This is definitely the goal of a course for immigrant, refugees or foreign students studying in the USA. In such cases, naturally, one should address issues where American cultural expectations and laws might cause problems for your students. However, if this involves controversial or sensitive issues, then the issue needs to be addressed quietly and in as low-key a manner as possible. Not only can students become offended over some issues, but public relations problems with the outside world can arise. (I once saw a case where Americans accused an immigrant of stereotyping his own ethnic group when he stated that domestic violence was acceptable in their own culture and that people from his country need to be taught that it is not acceptable in the USA. (In fact, it was discussed on this blog.) This accusation, and the backlash against it, was not only ugly but distracted from addressing the underlying problem of encouraging safe adjustment of immigrant families to American life and working to prevent or reduce domestic violence among them.) Domestic violence, child abuse, age of consent laws, dating and courtship and driving laws are all areas where some foreign cultures have radically different norms. If you wish to aid your students with their adjustment to America, these issues need to be addressed, but they need to be addressed in a quiet, effective and tactful manner.

         A good TESOL or ESL program for immigrants, refugees and foreign students should include practical advice that they might need to live in the USA .This would include their rights when dealing with landlords, police and others as well as the expectations society has for them that might be different from in their home country.

       Role playing different situations can be an important part of both teaching English and providing guidance in problem-free behavior and social norms for immigrants.

       For non-immigrant, ESL or TESOL classes, I think, a good class should include information on the role of English and English as a “Lingua Franca” in the world today. Although most Chinese, for instance, do vaguely know that not all foreign people speak English, they still often tend to try and speak English to foreign people when they meet them without checking to see if those foreign people know or wish to speak English. Accurate information, for instance, on how widely spoken English is in South America and Europe is often new to Chinese students of English. With this should come information on how to do business or other tasks in foreign countries. Many Asian students have spent years studying English without being taught how to actually use it.

        Whenever time allows and it is socially appropriate, a teacher should try to spend some time outside of the classroom with his students. This serves several purposes. It gives them a time to ask informal unrelated questions about anything and everything. It also gives the teacher time to better get to know his students. It avoids a tendency among some teachers to overly focus on classroom problems and slip into an “Us Versus Them” mentality, instead of maintaining a healthy partnership.

        When teaching, one will have problem students. At times these students can be draining and dominate one's thoughts. (At Fudan, after one has punished a student for breaking previously stated guidelines concerning plagiarism or other issues, it is not uncommon to receive several e-mails from that student begging for an exception to be made in their case. As my students at Fudan are all graduate students and 22 years of age or more, I only recall giving such an exception once. On rare cases, when I have thought that a serious cultural difference might be involved, I've asked the office secretary for her opinion. Only once did she advise me to make an exception and then I followed her advice.)

         By taking the time to spend time with students who are not in trouble of any kind, you gain a much better and positive view of the students. Through knowing one's students one learns to respect them. I am often amazed at the variety and quality of work that students at Fudan do during their internships and such. Perhaps equally important, friendly social nteraction with students helps a teacher maintain proper perspective on who the students are. And the refugees and immigrants also can teach one many things. I have found my time with students from Burma (Myanmar) particularly interesting and it has inspired me to do outside study of their culture and history.

Cultural and Interpersonal Factors in the Classroom

I mentioned previously that teaching English as a second or other language is a
unique field in several ways. Another aspect of this uniqueness is that the instructor is
supposed to instill the ability to perform an action, that action being socially appropriate
English speech, in a socially appropriate manner. This requires confidence on the part of the
speaker. Therefore it is the role of the teacher to help instill this confidence.

          To the best of my knowledge, instilling confidence is not an issue normally addressed
by teachers in fields such as history or mathematics, for instance. At times, as a person who
encourages students to perform actions confidently that they were previously unable to
perform, an instructor of ESL or TESOL is more of a “coach” than a typical classroom
teacher. And we can learn from coaches and other instructors of physical techniques like
martial arts or dance.

           For instance, although I have not done so in depth, I have encouraged students to
practice visualization to improve their confidence in both public and conversational spoken
English use. (This actually is a topic I hope to explore through further research in the future.)

          This study of visualization techniques originated in research into how emergency responders,
such as firefighters and police officers, are trained to perform complex techniques under
great stress.

           I try to push my students to do a little more by the end of my class than they thought
they were capable of at the beginning. For instance, all my speaking and writing classes at
Fudan include a segment on public speaking, an area where foreign professors in other
fields have told me their Chinese students lag behind their European or North American
peers. At first the students are quite nervous about speaking English in front of their
classmates, but, by the end of the course, after they've done it a few times, they are much
more confident. Many students have told me that the public speaking was one of the best
parts of my class. (Which actually touches on an unrelated side issue, a good class,
especially a required class where the students don't all wish to be there, should include some
beneficial activities that the students could not do outside of the classroom setting. In other
words, a good class should utilize the classroom setting and the presence of a teacher and
peer-students in ways so that the student can not complain that they could do the activities
easier and faster on their own at home, doubly so if attendance is required. Fortunately, this
is relatively easy to do in language teaching.)

         On the other hand, a good teacher recognizes that students are individuals and some
have different strengths and weaknesses. For instance, although I expect all students to
speak in front of the class, and have never had any really complain, I have been known to
very quietly slide some students, those students who show signs of what may be a serious
anxiety order or stuttering, ahead in the queue so that they do not have as much time to
worry before their turn to speak arrives.

          Similarly, we have the paradoxical need to increase a student's confidence in their
English while simultaneously correcting errors and providing feedback when mistakes are
done. I make no secret of the fact that I do not consider myself the smartest person in the
classroom. Nor do I pretend to know every single English word. I make it quite clear that the
English language is a living, growing, changing, multi-faceted thing and that I will never have
complete mastery over all of it and neither will they. Nor do I deny that there are accents and
dialects of English, including English spoken as a foreign language, that I find difficult to
understand. I make it clear that when Americans, native English speakers, start a course in a
new subject, be that subject first aid, gardening or cooking, learning new terminology and
new vocabulary is a normal part of the process. Similarly, at Fudan I use an activity where all
students must bring in an English language article from an academic journal in their field.
They then use the article to practice making proper quotations and citations. I make it very
clear to the students that although I have two master's degrees and read voraciously, I still
cannot make heads or tails out of some of the articles they bring in. Examples of some pieces
that I cannot understand might be highly technical pieces from peer reviewed research
journals in the fields of management, finance, molecular biology and chemical engineering
among others.

           In teaching refugees, especially, one must be quite aware that just because a person
has a deficit in one area does not indicate diminished intelligence elsewhere. The example
that often comes to mind when I say this is a refugee woman I knew who was able to use her
intelligence to manipulate much of the refugee center staff to do what she wished, but who I
later discovered had no idea how to change a light bulb in a lamp. (Due to poverty and lack
of electricity in many refugee camps, many refugees do not know how to change light bulbs
in lamps. Often this can easily be detected by looking at their lamps and discovering broken
light bulbs stuck in the sockets. The broken glass comes from people trying to yank out the
bulbs, instead of twisting and unscrewing them. When I asked this person if she could
change light bulbs, she just looked at me and said, “Do I look like an electrical expert?”)

         Ideally homework should be of the sort where students who do it can see that by doing
the homework they are improving their ability to meet the goals and expectations of the class.
I have noted a clear correlation in many cases between poor performance on the final and
not doing homework. In fact, one important purpose of homework is to catch students who
have problems so they can be corrected before the final exam comes. For this reason, I do
not allow homework that is more than two weeks late. (At Fudan, some students request to
do all of their homework at the end of the course. I know of one case, fortunately, not in my
class, where a student began turning in all her homework after her final exam. This
emphasizes the need to make expectations clear, particularly when dealing with people from
multiple cultures. )

Imparting language skills

I teach primarily English as a second or other language. This is an unusual field in
many ways. For instance, in ESL or TESOL what we are literally trying to do is to help a
student to reprogram their own brain so they can think and respond automatically using a
new language that they did not know as well as they did before the class began. The ultimate
goal is that a student will some day be able to say anything they wish in English in a socially
appropriate way without having to give the matter any conscious thought. Therefore, unlike in
most fields where the goal is to increase retrievable, conscious knowledge, we are trying to
produce results that will be achieved ultimately through the use of unconscious mental

         Although I am a strong believer in the value of science and the scientific method, I
believe that in our field at the current time, the value of science is limited. In my opinion, we
simply do not know enough about how the brain acquires additional languages to create a
completely scientific method of teaching them. (For the record, I do believe that a time will
come when science will understand these things fully or close to fully, although I have no
idea if I will live to see it.) This is not to say that science and scientific research should be
ignored. If scientific research helps us understand one part of the big puzzle called human
language acquisition, then this understanding should be applied when appropriate. For
instance, I studied the role of language learning anxiety on classroom performance and feel
such research does lend itself to classroom and curriculum design. However, that is only one
small part of the puzzle of how people best learn additional languages.

        In the meantime, with so much not being understood by science, we as teachers must
utilize the techniques that seem to work the best to achieve the goals and results we strive

        Fortunately we have a wealth of such resources if we know where to look for them.
There is an incredible variety of techniques, drills, and other classroom activities published in
books, magazines and on the internet. Of course, these are of varying quality and utility, but
the material is available for a teacher to evaluate.

         When evaluating these materials, or designing one's own materials, a teacher should
evaluate them for their utility and “fit” for the classroom.

         To evaluate the utility of materials or teaching or learning techniques, a teacher has
several sorts of resources to draw upon. These include his or her training in language
teaching and language acquisition. This should not be underestimated. Nor should one's
personal experience in utilizing classroom drills and techniques be underestimated. It must
be remembered that some techniques, such as the proven method of singing songs in class,
for instance, just work better with some individual teachers than others.

         Other sources include interviewing people who have proven themselves to be skilled
at acquiring languages in real life settings. I have found, for instance, that some of the best
language learners I have met have been refugees from Africa and Asia. These people often
are able to communicate in multiple languages with the languages coming from multiple
language families. They are often quite willing to share their tips once one has made it clear
to them that you really do wish to know and want to hear what they have to say. (I once had a
Karen refugee from Burma respond to this request with “Why are you asking me? You're the
teacher.” I explained that I was asking him because he spoke six different languages at a
conversational level. Which made him laugh and then he began sharing answers.)

         I have also carefully read materials on learning languages written by military personnel
who needed to learn exotic languages for their assignments, but who were not trained
language teachers.

Classroom Assessment, Management and Setting Goals

Teaching does not happen in a vacuum, and a teacher cannot teach without students. And students, unless forced, would not seek out a teacher, unless they thought there was something that they could gain from that teacher that they could not gain from actions that they could take without using that teacher. Therefore it’s important to work to achieve a partnership between teacher and students where goals are met.

            Teaching is not something you can just talk about or plan or study and then have it take place. It must be done and it must be done through interactions with other people. And these interactions should follow a well-thought out procedure.

            First, you must assess needs and desires of the students, expectations of both the students and those managing or administrating the course, and then assess time allotted for the course and available classroom and external resources. A good teacher then assesses the possible way these things fit together and makes decisions concerning how he or she can best use the resources available, within the time and administrative framework that exists, to best produce a situation where the students can achieve as many of their desired goals and make as many of their needs met as possible.

           At this step in the process, the teacher is like a manager or a director or even, if I can allow myself a military metaphor, a commanding officer. He or she must take the responsibility of assessing resources and setting realistic goals to produce the most benefit for those connected with the course, both administrators and students. Of course, he or she should consider consulting with others, as necessary, during this process, but ultimately the teacher must take and show responsibility during this part of the process. Students can be consulted during this part of the process, under special conditions, but usually will not be.
There are several reasons why not, prominent being that course design normally takes place prior to recruitment of students.

          Second, goals and expectations of the course are stated and set forth before the students as soon as possible. This should be done on the first day of the class, perhaps even earlier if realistically feasible, and in the syllabus and through lecture and as often as is necessary. Students should be encouraged to seek out the teacher if they do not understand or agree with the goals and expectations of the course or feel that they do not fit them personally. When that happens the teacher should listen as dispassionately as possible and address the issue, perhaps by assigning the student extra or alternate assignments to help them meet their own needs, perhaps by referring them to an alternate class, or perhaps, in rare cases, even by modifying the course itself should it become obvious that the course will not meet the needs of the majority of students.

         In some situations, quite honestly, students will have personal goals for the course that do not fit those of the teacher or administrators. For instance, many students wish to get an A or as high a grade as possible with as little work as possible and have no real concern about learning the course content. I have taught EFL as a required elective and this was the case with a sizable minority of my students. Some students do not value classes but for reasons that are generally outside the teacher's control, take them anyway. In such cases, I feel, it is especially important to make it very clear as to not only what the expectations are, but that they will be enforced. And then, if the sad event should take place that students not meet these expectations, one must say “But you were told. Did you not understand?” and the pre-stated policies put into place. It is important in such cases that the teacher's expectations and stated goals be kept sensible, logical and non-controversial. (i.e. It is perfectly reasonable to expect class participation and attendance in a class where students are expected to develop their English through classroom practice and conversation practice in the classroom.)

          If the goals and expectations are clearly stated, and the results of students' efforts to meet those goals uniformly evaluated, then it reduces not only the possibility of charges of favoritism (which has not been a problem for me at Fudan) but requests for favoritism. (which, by contrast, is a constant problem at Fudan.)

         Although I take no joy in causing students pain or suffering, I have failed several students for not meeting clearly stated expectations (2 out of 117 in my last semester, for instance) and punished others for cheating and acts of plagiarism by lowering their grades after clearly stating I would do so. I wish to say that it is my belief that learning and personal growth often takes place through the enforcement of rules and even through failure. I say this as someone who once failed out of a high level emergency medical technician class I desperately wished to pass. It was the most effective lesson I have ever received in time management in my life, and I have never forgotten it and doubt if I ever will. This failure had a very positive effect in preparing me for graduate school later.

          Therefore I believe that setting and making clear the goals and expectations of a course, and then enforcing those goals and expectations is a very important part of fair and effective teaching.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Are schools in refugee camps "good enough" if they are better than most in their region?

Someone recently commented that in many parts of the world schools in refugee camps are actually better than the schools in the surrounding areas of the nations that host these refugee camps or the schools in the nations of origin of the refugees. Therefore, they asked, is it still proper to say that we should be doing more to school and educate refugees in refugee camps?
Although what you say is true, one thing about refugees is that, in my experience, if you look and talk and try to understand their situation, you soon run into needs, very real needs, that it would be good to address. i.e. I became interested in refugee concerns in the USA and because of that visited the Mae Sot area of Thailand and saw nearby Mae Le refugee camp. A friend of mine, a young Karen, the Karen being an ethnic group from the region, told me his parents sent him to the camp because a) he wouldn't be drafted as a child soldier there, and b) the schools were not only better than in rural Karen state in Burma but were also taught in Karen. However when I visited the camp, I visited some Burmese Muslims who were a minority in the mostly Karen camp. They said that their educational opportunities were limited because most of the schools were in the Karen language and they did not speak Karen.
Outside of the camps there are many "illegal Burmese migrants." Many of these are unregistered refugees who do not live in the camps. Others have come to Thailand seeking better economic opportunities. I visited, and did a little bit of volunteering, with their schools. In many cases, these schools could desperately use trained teachers or skilled teacher training. For instance, at the better schools, some courses were taught by college interns (sometimes from Hong Kong) who were teaching in English (a second language for both students and the teacher) and who were often teaching subjects that were basically new to them (i.e. Southeast Asian history taught by Chinese non-history majors) and who were inexperienced teaching with little experience with the students' culture. (Should anyone ask, honestly, I spent most of my first semester at Fudan dealing with adapting to the students' culture and educational style.) I saw one English teacher who spoke Engish and was very dedicated to his work, but who taught by having the students copy and rote memorize long passages of formal English. In my opinion, when you deal with refugees you can almost always find something more to do and it is usually something quite worthwhile that can make a real difference in the lives of generally hard-working people who will take advantage of opportunities when presented.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Are Chinese students respectful and well behaved? How do I deal with problem Chinese students?

In an on-line forum an American college ESL educator recently commented,  ""I think that it is interesting that many people say that Chinese students "adore their foreign English teachers". I wonder what happens to them when they come to the USA to study? I have had some very good students who do respect me and the other nationalities in their American classrooms, but I have had others who show no respect. They don't come to class because they figure they can stay home and study for the TOEFL and hope that they pass. They don't think that homework assignments should be completed on time. I have had some females who refuse to speak in a Speaking and Listening class."

I replied as follows,
What you are seeing are some cultural differences and differences in expectations between Western and Chinese education. I teach graduate students at a major university in China and these are all things I struggle with. I am definitely NOT saying that you should tolerate these things but that you should not necessarily interpret them as disrespectful. You specifically mention students who: 

1) do not attend class 
2) instead focus on home self-study for the TOEFL exam 
3) do their homework late or not at all 
4) students, female students, who refuse to speak in class. 

Been there, done that, in all these cases.

First, some background.

In Chinese higher education, the emphasis is on taking tests to enter institutions. Once one is in the institution what is important is your relationship with your advisor (they sometimes mistranslate this as "tutor") and this is more important than class performance. Most Chinese students, by the time you see them, have had many years of mediocre to awful English classes with the primary purpose being to pass the tests and move up the educational ladder. Any actual learning or ability to use English from these classes almost coincidental and tangential to their focus which is test passing. Therefore many students do not attend class and a surprising number arrive late. I teach graduate student and tell them attendance is mandatory unless they talk to me about it.  No one has ever come to me and said "Your class is so easy I don't think it fits me."

OTOH. once  I make attendance expectations clear I do get a flurry of e-mails each week claiming doctor's app'ts, funerals, requests by their advisor that they skip my class and instead attend a meeting or host foreign visitors or whatever, or statements that they cannot come to my class due to all day laboratory experimental work requirements. In America, I would not accept some of these as valid excuses (and might call some of their advisors and question their judgement). Here I just accept it as the norm. (I tried to get them to meet my expectations.They tried to accom0odate me. Chinese norms got in the way. Fair enough, I figure.) I grade on attendance and homework. Then every semester I have a couple students who show up at the very end of class and say "Can I take the final?" and I say "No, you already failed the class." --and they get very surprised and upset. I say it was explained several times in class and on the syllabus that attendance is required. And they say something like "But I had a job during class and I had to go to work." And I say, "Well, you should have talked to me first,not afterwards."

And these are graduate students at the #3 university in China. Of the Chinese colleagues I've talked to some say they would fail them, others say they would not if they could pass the final. so if we accept the premise that class is optional, and the test is the imporant thing, then why should the students come to class instead of studying for the TOEFL test?--additionally, your class probably emphasizes communicative competence instead of the TOEFL test-- To a Chinese student this indicates that your class is focused wrong and is not preparing them to be competitive at the time and place they need it. Many standard activities in Western classrooms strike Chinese students as a waste of time. (i.e. conversation practice activities or "free talking." --they prefer being lectured and repeating things back.) 

I mentioned students who don't attend class. Often when I tell them that they failed the class, mentioning that they did no homework, they ask if they can do it now. I always say "no, it's too late," and this shocks them. (perhaps reinforcing their stereotype that Westerners are lacking in humanity and compassion). When they say "Why?" I shock them again by saying "You didn't attend the classes on how to do the homework. How will you do it?" and they say "I will have my friends help me." (which generally means they'll get their friends to do it for them.) But many Chinese professors, even at the best schools in China, do accept absurdly late homework. A fellow foreign professor was telling me not too long ago that he needs to e-mail a student who was e-mailing him homework from the semester AFTER the final exam and tell her not to bother. Finally, you mention female students (you specified female, not me) who refuse to speak in class. I make it clear that all students must speak in class and they do. I start the class with public speaking in front of the class. I call on everyone at some point in class.
Again, this is not a personal attack or a sign of disrespect. "Shyness" and insecurity are common among Chinese students, and issues of "face" and public performance are common as well. Also, honestly, a lot of Chinese students have been subjected to so much academic pressure in their lives, with this pathological intensity, they are often both somewhat damaged and very insecure and often do not know how to function in many social situations or other environments. This sounds very harsh and judgmental but I've seen it many times. If you have the time and aptitude try to deal with the student one-on-one privately in a caring manner and expect at times to get several answers that sound as if they are coming from someone much younger than a college student. Some Chinese students are essentially test takers who cannot function in any other setting, --and these students often know something is wrong but don't really know how to cope with the many problems they are suddenly facing. Additionally, it should be said that many Chinese students prefer to isolate themselves among Chinese students and therefore don't see English language as something they need for anything more than classwork (and probably assume passing the class, like in China, is focused more on passing the test and "breaking the code" than actually interacting and understanding professors).

Anyway, hope this is some help. There's several complex issues thrown in here,but please understand the behaviors you describe are not seen as disrespectful to the professor by a Chinese student. . As for students who refuse to speak in class. I recommended dealing with them one on one. Be prepared, when you do this, what some of these people will do is try to come across as so pitiful and helpless that you will make an exception for them. This is not socially appropriate in an academic setting in the USA, but this tactic has worked for these people many times in the past to achieve their goals which is one reason why they still do not know how to speak in class without feeling great discomfort. Be sympathetic but repeat several times that the university, like all universities in the USA, has rules and these rules cannot be broken, even by you, the professor. They are very important rules established by the university and all students must follow them to pass and the rules say that all students in your English must speak in class and not even you can change or ignore those rules or you could get in big trouble with the administration. Repeat this sympathetically until they realize you actually do mean it. Then promise them that the more they speak in class the easier it will get. But the important thing is that they try. Tell them that in your class if anyone laughs at them, then you, the professor will make sure that the student is told not to laugh at them and will be punished if they do it again. (i.e. simultaneously emphasize uniform expectations and that the classroom will be as safe a place for communication as you can make it.) Tell them participation in class discussions is expected in universities in the USA and can be as important to their grade in some classes as actually taking tests.

Why should someone learn another language?

Why should someone learn another language?

Well, I think there are three possible choices. 1) Learning a language is useful because you can use it. 2) Learning a language is a good thing to do for reasons other than using it, and 3) learning a language is not a worthwhile thing to do. Of course, you could argue that these are not always mutually exclusive, 

For non-TESOL people, the first should be obvious. Health care workers, social workers, and law enforcement people among others can all benefit from learning minority languages.

Taking the second, learning a language can teach the benefits of incremental practice and mental discipline. It can also, in many cases, improve your awareness of English grammar and practice. I've met Lawrence Schoen, the PhD linguist who serves part-time as head of the Klingon Language Institute, and if one has the good fortune to meet him he can make very convincing sounding arguments that learning Klingon, the artificial language inspired by the Star Trek aliens, is a very positive, beneficial and interesting thing to do.

I can argue the third, but won't do so here.

In today's globalized, English dominated world, is it still important to learn a language other than English?

On January 29, 2012, the New York Times had several articles grouped under the headline, "English is Global, so why learn Arabic?"

The articles discussed the need for English speakers to learn other language sin the context of globalization. Someone asked for my opinion.

I can argue it both ways. For instance, I live in Shanghai, China. Despite having studied Chinese for years I really don't speak it all that much at any level above the basic one required for daily interactions in grocery stores and with taxi drivers and such. Too many people around me, Chinese and otherwise, speak English at a level that is higher than my Chinese. And even then, when my Chinese is better, there is still a constant struggle as many with low level English try to push me into using that language, instead of their own, so that they can practice using their English. Therefore those who say that it is not worth the considerable time and effort to learn other languages, particularly complex languages, in today's globalized, English-dominated world do have a point. However, I also believe learning a language, even a little bit of a language, other than English can be highly worthwhile.

Let me explain. First, I believe it is also best to define your goals in language learning. small;">
Some example goals could be "learn a smattering of everything so people like you and don't find you linguistically arrogant." In such a situation just learning to say "Hello" (or the basic greeting) can make people extraordinarily happy when you see them, particularly if they are part of an ostracized immigrant or refugee group. The pay off here is well worth the effort. Another example is that I definitely believe that an ESL or TESOL professional whose job is to inspire and assist others to learn languages should at least try to study a foreign language (or two or three.) Otherwise how can he or she really empathize or understand what the students are doing? I have little respect for TESOL people who consider language learning unnecessary for themselves but expect their students to do it. It's like having a fat guy who smokes and eats donuts for a football or wrestling coach. 

In fact, I think ideally a TESOL professional should try to study at least one non-Western language at some point just for the empathy and understanding it provides as this simulates the experience most of his or her students are probably having. I haven't yet mentioned the importance of intercultural communication. This should be obvious. Although those who argue that the need for those of us who speak English need other languages to communicate with foreign people is being reduced, it clearly still exists. Some argue that if you learn a foreign language you can integrate yourself into a foreign society and be accepted as one of them. Personally, I think the ability (or need) to integrate oneself into a foreign culture is rare for most of us and many cultures resist integration by outsiders. (I speak as a resident of China. Most Chinese do not treat a Caucasian or a Black as Chinese even when he speaks fluent Chinese.)

Having a reliable translator who you trust is important and this is a good reason why we should want people from our own culture to study other languages. We will always want people who can tell us what a foreign culture is saying or writing among themselves. (And, just for the record, historians sometimes go so far as to learn long dead languages simply to gain insight into long gone historical events and processes. 

So although, in today's world, you can get a surprising amount done today in English compared to long ago, there will always be several reasons a person should consider learning languages, especially if that person is a teacher of the English language. My opinion only.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Is immersion the best way to learn another language?

Someone asked me if immersion (being surrounded by people who speak the language you wish to learn and no other language) is the best way to learn a language. 

Immersion helps you learn a language but it's also necessary, I think, to find someone who will correct you when you make mistakes. Many people when dealing with a non-native speaker tend to not give feedback and the result is that you can easily learn a language at a communicative level while keeping many bad habits and fossilized grammatical errors.

Is an ESL school that offers "guaranteed job placement" likely to be a scam? I say probably yes.

Someone asked me in an on-line forum,

"How can I tell if A TESOL certificate school is a scam?

I am looking at a place that is offering me a 1 week course in TESOL for $900 and they offer a guaranteed job placement in Saudi Arabia where I would make $3800 per month and get free housing, and plane tickets. 

I find this very suspicious, yet I really really want to believe its true. How can I know who to trust in the business of certifications?"

First, I'm not an expert on teaching in Saudi Arabia. I've taught in China and Tawian and was once offered a job in South Korea, but never outside of East Asia. Yet I do know a bit about scams. The essence of a scam is to make you "to really, really want to believe it's true." 
Guaranteed job placement? Sounds suspicious. Let's use an analogy. You decide to open a school for plumbers and decide to offer guaranteed job placement. One day you get a student who has no aptitude for plumbing and should not be in the field. Every time he touches a pipe he busts it and floods a building. Every single time. What do you do? Oh but wait! You promised him guaranteed job employment, didn't you? So I guess you must send him somewhere knowing that he will cause thousands of dollars of damage every time he tries to do his job. Hmmm, this is not a good way to run a school and who would want their graduates? My advice. Run away! Run away! Don't look back! Especially if they are talking about also putting you on a plane and sending you to an oppressive middle eastern country with a medieval justice system as part of the plan. Run away!

There are a lot of scams out there in the world of teaching English abroad. It's a bit sad, really. Be careful, do your research. Remember if you've actually taken the time to find a blog like this, then you're one step ahead of many people who haven't, and be careful.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Is learning English overstressed in China? Often the answer is "Yes."

This ran in a recent issue of China Daily. My comments are below the text of the article.  

English overstressed in Gaoku: Yu 

 Updated: 2012-03-08 21:19


By Yan Weijue (



The founder and CEO of New Oriental Education and Technology Group, the largest English training agency in China, said the share of English scores in the college entrance exam, orgaokao, should be lowered, otherwise it will cause unfairness among students.
"The students spend too much time on English studies. But I guess no more than 20 percent of them will need to use it in their lives," he said. "What's more, due to disparities on the levels of teachers and educational facilities, urban students usually have better scores than their rural pals, averaging 20-30 points more in the gaokao, a decisive margin that could have a big impact on their choice of universities."
"Lowering the status of English studies won't affect those who want to be international. Because if they really long for overseas studies, they will definitely learn English."
Yu also suggest that colleges in China not consider passing marks from the College English Test (CET) – 4 and CET-6 as requirement for graduation.
"People may ask whether my proposal could affect New Oriental's business, but actually it doesn't," he said with a smile.

Someone asked me what I thought about it. 
Speaking as an English teacher / professor in China, what he said, basically was two things and I'm inclined to agree with both of them. The first is that English Tests play too much of a part in college entrance exams in China. He did not say the English language was unimportant in itself. The second is that although English is useful for many in China (he estimates 20%), most people in China do not have a need to learn English. They simply don't use it nor are they likely to.    
First, most of my graduate students have studied English for ten years with an emphasis on passing tests such as their college entrance exams. These tests, however, seem to be at least as much of a hindrance to learning to communicate in English properly as a help. They are stupid tests that do not measure a person's ability to actually use English in any sort of real world setting or application. 

Secondly, he said that the students who actually need English will learn it but that most Chinese do not need to know English. I agree. Now, to put this in context, today by contrast most Chinese study English AND most do not learn it.Why? Because their goal is not to learn the language. Their goal is to pass these stupid tests and get in to a good college. 

Since I teach at what is considered a high ranking Chinese university, I know many students who do well on these tests but can not speak or write good English. Much of my time is spent "unteaching" them the bad habits they learned earlier in their educational careers. 

As for do they need English? Since most of international business is done in English, and most international science research is published in English, most educated Chinese will benefit from learning English. My students,being graduate students at a prominent university in China, will find a knowledge of English useful in their careers. But do most Chinese need English? No.
To put his statements in context, according to: 
(and I've seen it elsewhere) the city of Beijing recently announced its plans for:

"- Toddlers will begin learning the language in kindergarten, to better prepare them for more advanced classes in later grades. 
* Every public servant under the age of 40 with a college degree must learn 1000 English sentences.

* By 2015, all government employees must learn at least 100 English sentences, whether they have a college degree or not.

* 60% of service employees, like waiters and hairdressers, must pass English tests covering vocabulary related to their jobs.

* By 2015, a certain number of guides in each museum in the city must be proficient in English as well."

Notice 1) the emphasis on rote memorization of sentences 
and 2) the insistence that EVERYONE will do this. 
and 3) the absence of market pressure or other means to allow citizens to make a choice as to whether or not they wish to learn English.

It's important to remember that having people learn a huge number of sentences through rote memorization is not a good way to learn to communicate in a language. Therefore most of these people who are learning English are not learning how to communicate effectively in English. And since few of them need to communicate in English, the system of teaching is not likely to change soon.

If learning English is truly valuable (and I think it is) then it seems quite strange that the Chinese government is not allowing people to choose to learn the language based on such things as free market pressures or a desire to share in foreign media and literature without an interpreter. I've joked with my graduate students that I think the whole thing is part of a Communist party secret plan to make the young people of China hate America because that's the only benefit I can see to come out of things like this.
Let me also say that MANY Chinese should learn English. MANY Chinese wish to learn English. Many Chinese are actually quite good with their English and communicate in it quite well. And many of these do wish to learn it for a specific purpose or to use it in a specific context. And that's the way it should be. 

My point is that by creating situations where a "non-communicative knowledge of English" ~(i.e. memorizing 100 sentences without learning possible responses) is a requirement for a situation where knowledge of English is not required (i.e. to keep a civil service job that has nothing to do with using English or to get into a college program where the medium of instruction is Chinese) just horribly muddles the situation for English learners and teachers in China. 

If there is a real benefit to studying "non-communicative English" then students will learn "non-communicative English."
Clearly it's kind of a confused situation. When I began teaching ESL here I tried to apply some of the principles I'd been taught. i.e. get the students to teach each other through using English to give presentations to one another. I soon ran into problems because not only were students not listening to each other's presentations, the presenter had often memorized a presentation that they themselves did not understand. (i.e. they were reciting words and sentences without understanding their own speech.) Once the students understood they were supposed to communicate with each other, and explain to each other new words that they felt they should use, things got much better. And, I think the classes got more fun and useful for the students, too. One thing Chinese graduate students tell me they like about their required ESL classes is that it gives them a rare chance to interact and meet students from outside their major, so when someone stands up and says "Hi, my name is Wang Min and I study microbiology and come Shaanxi province," they perk up and listen.

English Class Debates in the PRC ESL classroom

Someone asked me what I thought was the best way to select debate topics for debates in the ESL classroom. This can be tricky here in China, because, among other issues, China is not a free country and some subjects are forbidden for open discussion. And many foreigners are uncertain as to where the lines of discussion lie and don't wish to find out. (Which, of course, is why censorship chills discussion far outside of the area it restricts.)

Other times, I've found that an issue that I think is fascinating and thought-provoking and should be controversial, just does not grab the attention or emotions of my students who come from a radically different culture and background than I do. For example, here in China and surrounding nations, plastic and cosmetic surgery is quite common and the intent of such surgery is almost always to take an Asian person and make them look more Caucasian. Noses are made more sharp, tall and pointy, and eyes are made less almond shaped and given a double eyelid. To a Westerner, this is offensive and racist and should be met with outrage. However, to an Asian it's basically a non-issue. They, generally, think the results look good and do not warrant further discussion. And therefore, when I tried to focus a debate around this issue in a classroom, no one cared at all and it was a dead class. (By contrast, when I was in Taiwan, my class on debating the pros and cons of women bodybuilders, illustrated with photos of freaky, looking, steroid enhanced women who can bench press more than professional football players, met with an amazingly enthusiastic response. Almost everyone in the room wanted to say something on the issue of women bodybuilders.) But as for plastic surgery, Asians don't care. In fact, they see no offense in stating that Lucy Liu is "ugly: because her eyes are "too slanty."  But I digress.        

How exactly does one find a large quantity of topics for discussion? 

I have in the past dealt with this issue by assigning students to create a list of topics for debate and public speaking and advocacy. Just put them in small groups and have them come up with five or so things per group. Then cull and collect them. If you're in doubt, privately ask a Chinese friend or student if they'd feel comfortable talking about that subject. Some of what they feel is appropriate for class discussion surprises me. (i.e. inflation in China, which I would have thought was too controversial, housing shortages, the same) while other things I never would have thought about (i.e. Food in the student cafeterias, good or bad? what should we do with all these stray cats on campus?) i like to put all these topics in a bowl and have them pull them out.

That's my solution and it worked fine for me. All the best and please feel free to leave any comments you might have,  

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Teaching ESL in China -Random classroom management tips

 I teach at a Chinese university. I have everyone put their name on their desk and then I call on them all as often as possible. I make a special effort to call on the one's in the back. I especially call on them if I see them texting. I have not had people sleeping in my class. If they don't come to class for the majority of classes I fail them. I tell them all this in advance. I think this is what a good teacher does. 

I give out one e-mail address to students and encourage them to contact me if they have any problems. I think this is what a good teacher does. I also hold office hours. If nothing else, it alleviates my guilt when a student gets a bad grade. I was there to help them.They did not take advantage of it. 

I think once the students realize that I am serious about these things, they don't mind at all. 

I also lower grades for plagiarism. This, too, surprises them. I tell them I am serious about this but they never seem to believe me until I punish some of them. (In fact, i've had students plagiarize homework on why plagiarism is bad. In that case, I punished them and then told all my friends how stupid they were.)

Starting to Teach English at a Chinese University --Two (or Three) things I wish I had known

 I think the two (or three) things that I wish I had known when I started teaching English at a Chinese university that I did not are:

First, Chinese students are trained to think of English as a subject that is used to pass tests, not for communication. Many will focus on the grade, rather than focus on communication. The good ones will try to do "A level" work, but this is not alway the same thing as displaying good communicative English skills.

In other words, for instance, when I started, I found that when students were assigned to give a presentation on a specific subject, they would often simply memorize lengthy tracts, often only tangentially related to the subject, and then recite these memorized tracts in class without taking the time to look up words they did not know or taking time to learn the underlying meaning of the tracts they recited. In other words, when I assigned a presentation on "using English, travelling and doing business in Israel" (one of several countries that I used for this topic) it did not surprise me terribly much when a student stood up and recited "IF you visit a synogogue you should dress modestly" without having any idea whatsoever as to what a synogogue was.

If you emphasize communication in your classes, you need to state this and state it often and repeat it and show that you mean it so much that they eventually realize that, unlike most of their previous English teachers for many years, you actually mean it.

Second, plagiarism is endemic.This has several implications, one of which being that if you give homework assignments that involve writing, many students will turn in plagiarized work. One of my colleagues gives his written assignments primarily in class because of this. I feel this is not the best use of classtime, but he, his boss, and the students all like it. Dealing with a plagiarized paper is a major waste of time and energy and a real downer. Googling phrases to see where they come from takes a lot of time.

Thirdly, Chinese students are trained to "receive knowledge from the scholar at the front of the room." This is how they are educated. In ESL when the teacher says "Bobby, what do you think?" such actions do not follow this pattern. OTOH, if the traditional method worked well for ESL their English would be better. But if you use a lot of what they would describe as "free talking" then this requires an adjustment for them.

I use a book called "Harvard Business Essentials --Business Communication" and assign work and try to use the Socratic method (as I understand it) to see if they have read and understood it. So basically we are using English to learn public speaking. (then they practice.) I bought the original copy off of a pirated book cart and they get their copies down at the local print shop.

I hope that's some help. All the best.