Real English fluency: just for fools?

Yaojiayuan school language class.jpg
Migrant students at a suburban Beijing elementary school prepare for English lessons

Ralph Jennings is a journalist and long time resident of China. He currently lives in Taipei. From mid-2000 to 2006, he had an advice column in the 21st Century weekly newspaper in which he answered letters from thousands of students and young professionals. Below is a letter from the archive, with an introduction by Jennings.

Why study English in China vexes the masses who study for years without mastery. It baffles foreigners in China who find it hard to communicate even with college grads who have studied the language for more than a decade. This despondent letter from a cynical Chinese guy teaching English to fellow country people suggests that mastery isn’t the point. Language study is about memorizing just enough of it to pass standardized tests, and teaching means taking whatever steps needed to get there.

Student letters to a foreign agony uncle

Dear Ralph,

I've been teaching in my hometown for four years. I don't like this job. Because the students here are rude, and since I'm not a harsh person, I get nothing from them except low scores, which are a shame. At this school, there is ONLY one criterion to judge a teacher's talent -- his or her students' scores. So the result has embarrassed me, though I work harder than my colleagues. And the harder I work, the lower the scores are. I studied hard to get this job. I really doubt by ability and think this job may not suit me. The facts make me disappointed again and again. I don't know how long I can tolerate it. Just three years ago, I thought I could do my job well and can leave this small town to develop my career. Now it's impossible. What can I do?

York, December 2003

There are currently 5 Comments for Real English fluency: just for fools?.

Comments on Real English fluency: just for fools?

"Language study is about memorizing just enough of it to pass standardized tests, and teaching means taking whatever steps needed to get there."

As evidenced by the recent test showing Shanghainese High school students are the smartest in the world. It turns out they're really really good at test taking and, not much in terms of comprehension. Oops!

I think Japan has it even worse than China. I remember when I taught english in China a while back classes were filled with over 80+ students and I was supposed to teach verbal english...

Good thing you bring up the Pisa study. The high scores by Chinese students clearly shows that these tests have their flaws up to a certain point.
When I studied in China and worked with Chinese students, I was baffled to see some of the best students unable to argue even the simplest of points, if it wasn't in their book.
Of course these students can't be representative of all Chinese students. Nonetheless I think teaching methods are in essence very similar even in the best Chinese universities. They focus on learning by heart rather than encouraging independent thinking and being able to formulate an own opinion.
However I believe that being able to think outside the box is very important in order to master a language, rather than just knowing it. Especially when it is fundamentally different from your first language.


I like this kind of argument.

Any concrete metric differs from your opinion do not show that your opinion is wrong, but only that the metric is flawed. One should always trust personal anecdote/impression and vague metrics such as level of "independent thinking".

You really belong in the creationism crowd. No amount of physical evidence is going to change your faith and conviction in one thing.

Yes, HW, because creationists base their opposition to the theory of evolution on their personal experience with the Creation...

Spot-on analogy, buddy. After reading it I'm almost ready to concede that the Pisa test constitutes "(massive) amount(s) of physical evidence"!

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