A Foreign Teacher’s Life… Part Two: Yes, No, Toaster

By Charles Paquin

“Are your freshmen students doing good in English, Mr. Blogger?” I was just about to tell you about it, dear reader. Let them answer the question themselves: “Sorry teacher, my English is so poor!” is what they often tell me… In reality, some of them are good and a few are even very good compared to their classmates. But a handful of them don’t get much of what I say when speaking in Mr. Bean’s native language. The rest of them (the majority) are so-so. In order to depict the situation more accurately, we need to differentiate between their written and spoken abilities. They are almost as far apart as day and night.

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Their writing and reading skills are OK. I would say that they are equivalent to an English native speaker somewhere around grade 5. As for their speaking and listening skills, well… they are far less glorious. I have satisfactory communication with about three groups out of the eleven I have in total. With the four “intermediate-level” ones, I have to speak slow-ly and repeat a few times to make sure I’m understood. And then there are the last four groups with which every class is far from a walk in the park… At first I would lose patience because I had to repeat so much; I even got a bit frustrated at times. You know, repeating is not that bad; it’s part of my job. But repeating what I just said, finding out they still have not got it, then repeat again and see their eyes widen even more and slowly get filled with helplessness is certainly not an enjoyable experience for a teacher! And even less so when you know that they prefer having absolutely no clue as to what is going on than to ask for help…

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As far as Chinese education is concerned, a good student will usually NOT ask ANY questions WHATSOEVER (thanks, Confucius). Even if (and mostly if) he or she does not understand what the teacher says! Teachers and professors are the ultimate references; they are ALWAYS right (although in my case it’s true, haha). Thus their knowledge and point of view should never be questioned. To avoid any misunderstanding or to prevent students to think too much by themselves, the good old cramming method is used and there is consequently no room for thorough discussion and reflection in the classroom. Oh my, does it help students to develop good initiative, insightful opinions and acute critical sense (NOT!). In order to stimulate interaction with my students, I sometimes try to convince them to request help whenever they need it. So I tell them: “Yo guys. I am not one of your Chinese professors; you are ALLOWED and

ENCOURAGED to ask QUESTIONS to me. Where I come from, students who ask questions show their interest in what is being taught to them and tend to improve faster than others who don’t. (…) SOMEBODY SAY SOMETHING!!!” Almost every single time I try that, I find myself punched in the face by their deeply rooted “Chinesity” or by their weak English. Or both.

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Now let’s be fair; learning English over here does not seem as effective as, say, back home. (For the record, I am from Québec; you know that place in Canada where people speak French, eat poutine and curse using church words? Yeah they’re weird, but anyway.) Is it because of the lack of native speakers, a lack of motivation, or peculiar “Chinesity”? One thing is for sure: from what I hear and see, some of their teachers are not exactly extremely skilled. And all of them mostly teach them reading and writing, and certainly not enough of speaking and listening. Students are filled with preconceived phrases that they enthusiastically repeat whenever possible. Examples? For their first writing assignment, I simply asked them to tell me about themselves. A classic beginner mistake right there; I did not realize that I was about to put the tape in the recorder and press play. So Liu Lin would write: “My hometown is beautiful and my mother cooks delicious food. I like Yantai’s sea (…)”. Then Zhang Bei, inventive and original, would add: “My father is strict, my mother is beautiful and she cooks delicious food. I love my family (…)” Oh and let’s not forget Ma Junjie, who wished to stand out using delicious prose: “Hello teacher. I come from Yantai, I think it’s very beautiful and I have a happy family (…)”. And I swear I only barely overemphasize.

When I ask a question during a class and get no reaction from them, I like to confront my arising disarray by giving them a choice of answers. “Yes, no, maybe…?” If I still don’t get a decent response after that, I add: “…Toaster?” The least gifted groups are not only not very talkative, but they don’t even get my exasperated French Canadian teacher kind of humor.

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Charles Paquin is currently participating in the CE Teach in China program

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