Behind The Scene What’s Really Being Taught in China’s ESL Classes

A student once asked me why a wise man and a wise guy were opposites. I didn’t understand the logic of my own native language. English can be a hard language to learn. I realized this more when I started teaching it in China.

My text books are designed by the school  so I decided to keep the school anonymous (and to keep my job). This article does not speak for all of China but I can’t help but think this may be the case for many of the schools. The issue seems to be that the classes and books are designed by the Chinese rather than a native speaker of English. This wouldn’t be an issue if the Chinese teachers were any better than the students with English.

I’m provided books with lessons plans to teach my students with. Every student has one. For the most part, the books are too advanced for the level of English my classes are in. In the first unit, the words technologically, regularized, philosophy, and administration are used. I didn’t know what to expect on my first day so this was a surprise  given that I thought the book was somewhere around their level. I learned soon after to never expect anything in China.

Some of my students

Some of my students

In every unit there are activities meant for group work. These are meant to help build conversation and work together. Here is an example of one activity:
Work in groups of four, with each playing one of the following roles.
A. an AIDS victim
B. A’s best friend
C. A’s mother
D. A’s counselor
The plot goes like this: A is diagnosed with AIDS. He is sad and scared. And he doesn’t know weather he should tell the news to the people around him. A’s mother insist that this is a family secret and nobody should ever know, not even friends or relatives. A’s counselor, however, suggests he should tell people in whom he believes, and who can help him. A takes the counselor’s advice and tells his best friend B. how would B react to this? Please give an ending to this story!

Those are the exact words from the book. Think what you want of it. I did not do this activity. I refused to.

In every unit, there are dialogs. These are meant to replicate an English spoken conversation.

  • A: Is the terrible weather? B: Yeah, I’m pretty wet, I can tell that!
  • A: Why not? Isn’t it a good idea to go and live in a foreign country? B: They have never got the idea. I would ever want to leave home and go so far. A: Poor you.

Next are expressions in spoken English. Here’s a list of a few they provide as examples in the book:

  • The computer really turns me on.
  • Do be careful! It is the rush hour now.
  • In China today, even schoolchildren know e-mail.
  • I take yours words for it.
  • You scared me out of my mind, coming behind me suddenly.
  • The new bookstore is right opposite our university.
  • I just can’t tell you how saddened I am when I get the bad news.
  • Take easy! You may easily get lost there.
  • I think you must hand in your report tomorrow.
  • I buy that idea.
  • I’d give anything to have a change to go on with my research.
  • Good Heavens! It’s a wonder you are still alive.
  • Get the hell out of here!

Some are just small grammatical errors and native speakers can understand by the context spoken. Since I started learning Mandarin, I’ve been able to understand why they say things in certain ways. Still, these students are being taught incorrectly and I come along shattering what they’ve been taught. There are signs posted throughout the school to encourage students to speak English more often (which doesn’t work) and even the sign makes no sense, “Everybody comes on!”.

Everybody Comes On by Stephanie

Everybody Comes On by Stephanie

Does the University or any University in China actually care about their English learners? I feel these Universities believe they know what’s best for teaching English and usually ignore any advice given by foreigners. An example of this is the book I pasted above. The more lucrative majors in China are technology, industry, and a few others. These majors foreshadow Chinese English learners thus making it a less serious major. I am in essence a fulfillment of a national requirement to have a foreign teacher. Most ESL teachers are oral English teachers while reading and writing are exclusively for Chinese teachers. Given the book I was provided, they don’t seem to be doing a great job.

While many of my students are eager to speak English with me, they are more interested in getting the chance to interact and learn from a foreigner rather than learn English at all.

One sure way of understanding a culture is becoming a teacher in that country. Not always an ideal way to learn about a culture but it will be one hell of a learning experience. A motivational sign posted in one of my classrooms says “Learn English, make China stronger”.

47 Comments

  1. Jack and Jill Travel The World on November 23, 2010 at 10:45 am

    Wow… that’s just hilarious and sad at the same time. What could they possibly be thinking with the AIDS discussion piece? Is HIV a big problem over there in China?

    I got to say that my fave is back and forth dialogue. Is B saying just because it’s currently raining outside it’s time to think about moving to a foreign country? Huh?

    • Michael on November 23, 2010 at 9:40 pm

      Not so much compared to other countries. China has controlled that pretty well. I’m really not sure why that was in the book.

  2. Jack and Jill Travel The World on November 23, 2010 at 11:45 am

    Wow… that’s just hilarious and sad at the same time. What could they possibly be thinking with the AIDS discussion piece? Is HIV a big problem over there in China?

    I got to say that my fave is back and forth dialogue. Is B saying just because it’s currently raining outside it’s time to think about moving to a foreign country? Huh?

    • Michael on November 23, 2010 at 10:40 pm

      Not so much compared to other countries. China has controlled that pretty well. I’m really not sure why that was in the book.

  3. Sally on November 23, 2010 at 11:28 pm

    Wow. I’ve been teaching ESL off and on for the last 12 years, and I can honestly say I’ve never seen sentences quite like those! Of course, I’ve had to tell students a number of times “Don’t EVER say this”, but I guess I’ve been lucky enough to work with materials that have been designed by native speakers. That being said, I don’t think it’s always the non-native speakers who are to blame for designing classes and materials that are simply not educationally sound. I’ve worked for some private schools and heard stories from other teachers about schools where the curriculums were designed by native speakers who had absolutely no idea what they were doing. One guy, who was working for a Canadian-run company in Korea, told me he was teaching TOEFL prep courses to 7 year olds (mind you, TOEFL is an exam taken by students to get into a foreign university… I doubt many 7 year olds really need to get that kind of jump start on their university applications!). Whether we like it or not, English learning has become a big money-making operation (personally, I don’t mind it as it means I always have a job!), but this means a lot of people get into it thinking they can make some cash… but don’t give a second thought to the students or the quality of education.

    • Michael on November 24, 2010 at 1:50 am

      Hey Sally! Where have you taught? China has the same problem with hiring clueless native English speakers. The only requirement is being born in English speaking country. Most schools hardly do any sort of background check. It’s especially true about money being more important than education.

  4. Sally Thelen on November 24, 2010 at 12:28 am

    Wow. I’ve been teaching ESL off and on for the last 12 years, and I can honestly say I’ve never seen sentences quite like those! Of course, I’ve had to tell students a number of times “Don’t EVER say this”, but I guess I’ve been lucky enough to work with materials that have been designed by native speakers. That being said, I don’t think it’s always the non-native speakers who are to blame for designing classes and materials that are simply not educationally sound. I’ve worked for some private schools and heard stories from other teachers about schools where the curriculums were designed by native speakers who had absolutely no idea what they were doing. One guy, who was working for a Canadian-run company in Korea, told me he was teaching TOEFL prep courses to 7 year olds (mind you, TOEFL is an exam taken by students to get into a foreign university… I doubt many 7 year olds really need to get that kind of jump start on their university applications!). Whether we like it or not, English learning has become a big money-making operation (personally, I don’t mind it as it means I always have a job!), but this means a lot of people get into it thinking they can make some cash… but don’t give a second thought to the students or the quality of education.

    • Michael on November 24, 2010 at 2:50 am

      Hey Sally! Where have you taught? China has the same problem with hiring clueless native English speakers. The only requirement is being born in English speaking country. Most schools hardly do any sort of background check. It’s especially true about money being more important than education.

  5. Tyson on November 24, 2010 at 12:31 am

    Hello Michael,

    The majority of my EAP students are Chinese highschool graduates and for that reason, this post is a revealing look into at least one example of how English accuracy is overlooked in China. I encountered it to a certain degree in Korea too, especially in the mid-90s.

    Thank you and best of luck in adapting to and working with this obvious downside.

  6. Tyson on November 24, 2010 at 1:31 am

    Hello Michael,

    The majority of my EAP students are Chinese highschool graduates and for that reason, this post is a revealing look into at least one example of how English accuracy is overlooked in China. I encountered it to a certain degree in Korea too, especially in the mid-90s.

    Thank you and best of luck in adapting to and working with this obvious downside.

  7. backpackingmatt on November 24, 2010 at 12:39 am

    Really enjoyed this .. good glimpse into your life as a teacher.

  8. backpackingmatt on November 24, 2010 at 1:39 am

    Really enjoyed this .. good glimpse into your life as a teacher.

  9. Kirsty on November 24, 2010 at 1:20 am

    Absolutely brilliant! We found the English in China very strange, but that role play is werid! We’re getting our TEFL whilst here in Chiangmai so it’s always interesting to read insights into teaching 🙂

    • Michael on November 24, 2010 at 1:41 am

      Thanks! Are you thinking of teaching in Thailand? The English program there is a lot better than China.

  10. Kirsty on November 24, 2010 at 2:20 am

    Absolutely brilliant! We found the English in China very strange, but that role play is werid! We’re getting our TEFL whilst here in Chiangmai so it’s always interesting to read insights into teaching 🙂

    • Michael on November 24, 2010 at 2:41 am

      Thanks! Are you thinking of teaching in Thailand? The English program there is a lot better than China.

  11. tomschinablog on November 24, 2010 at 3:52 am

    Why is a wise man and a wise guy so close yet so different?

    We take so many things for granted… and I’ve actually learned a lot about the english language by being here. I have a good one for you! Why do we use “articles” (the, a, ect.) {did you even know what an article was?} in front of some nouns but not others? Can you imagine how hard that must be for non-natives?

  12. tomschinablog on November 24, 2010 at 4:52 am

    Why is a wise man and a wise guy so close yet so different?

    We take so many things for granted… and I’ve actually learned a lot about the english language by being here. I have a good one for you! Why do we use “articles” (the, a, ect.) {did you even know what an article was?} in front of some nouns but not others? Can you imagine how hard that must be for non-natives?

  13. enrolled agent course on November 24, 2010 at 5:13 am

    A friend has been teaching ESL in Taiwan now for almost three years. Good thing, she has not encountered an incident like this. There is only so much you can do especially when you are being provided with the materials to work with.

  14. enrolled agent course on November 24, 2010 at 6:13 am

    A friend has been teaching ESL in Taiwan now for almost three years. Good thing, she has not encountered an incident like this. There is only so much you can do especially when you are being provided with the materials to work with.

  15. goteresago on November 25, 2010 at 5:20 am

    Very interesting post. From an Editor background, and me being stubborn, I’d be absolutely mad with this!!

    • Michael on November 27, 2010 at 7:39 am

      I’m not really mad and didn’t want it to come out like I was complaining because of the ways they do things. It’s just the way it is and an observation of the Chinese university culture. I’ve adapted and my students are really fantastic kids. They are all really kind and makes the job very worth it.

  16. Transcendental Gypsy on November 25, 2010 at 6:20 am

    Very interesting post. From an Editor background, and me being stubborn, I’d be absolutely mad with this!!

    • Michael on November 27, 2010 at 8:39 am

      I’m not really mad and didn’t want it to come out like I was complaining because of the ways they do things. It’s just the way it is and an observation of the Chinese university culture. I’ve adapted and my students are really fantastic kids. They are all really kind and makes the job very worth it.

  17. Andi Perullo on November 25, 2010 at 5:29 pm

    I don’t know whether to laugh or cry after reading this!!! I can’t imagine how frustrating your job is. Btw, does your computer turn you on??? 😉

    • Michael on November 27, 2010 at 7:34 am

      I don’t let it get to me. It actually makes the job pretty funny and the students think its funny when I translate what they really mean. Days go by faster for sure.

  18. Andi Perullo on November 25, 2010 at 6:29 pm

    I don’t know whether to laugh or cry after reading this!!! I can’t imagine how frustrating your job is. Btw, does your computer turn you on??? 😉

    • Michael on November 27, 2010 at 8:34 am

      I don’t let it get to me. It actually makes the job pretty funny and the students think its funny when I translate what they really mean. Days go by faster for sure.

  19. Nostrabellafamilia on November 29, 2010 at 11:08 am

    Hello Michael,
    I appreciate the insight of your experience in an educational environment and would like to see more in depth information to their general education of China, including unusual mandated classes and a comparative list. However, many of us seem to forget that other countries including our own have many issues through-out the educational system. Actually, considering the country’s’ political stand, I give China a bow to mandating another language in their educational system and attempting to expand their cultural language. Unfortunately, you are encountering many mishaps because of politics and/or political agenda, Nevertheless, you must feel really proud of yourself that you are making a difference to many young students and teaching the correct English dialog and in turn, they carry that on to other young adults as well.

  20. Nostrabellafamilia on November 29, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    Hello Michael,
    I appreciate the insight of your experience in an educational environment and would like to see more in depth information to their general education of China, including unusual mandated classes and a comparative list. However, many of us seem to forget that other countries including our own have many issues through-out the educational system. Actually, considering the country’s’ political stand, I give China a bow to mandating another language in their educational system and attempting to expand their cultural language. Unfortunately, you are encountering many mishaps because of politics and/or political agenda, Nevertheless, you must feel really proud of yourself that you are making a difference to many young students and teaching the correct English dialog and in turn, they carry that on to other young adults as well.

  21. KG on November 30, 2010 at 10:32 pm

    I’m hoping this was like a Hollywood film trailer, and you just showed us all the most shocking parts–but even if the rest of the book were perfect, this is crazy! lol.

    • Michael on December 1, 2010 at 1:51 am

      Haha well I did highlight some of the worst parts but it’s really not that much better through out the book.

  22. KG on November 30, 2010 at 11:32 pm

    I’m hoping this was like a Hollywood film trailer, and you just showed us all the most shocking parts–but even if the rest of the book were perfect, this is crazy! lol.

    • Michael on December 1, 2010 at 2:51 am

      Haha well I did highlight some of the worst parts but it’s really not that much better through out the book.

  23. Steven Sirski on December 9, 2010 at 9:19 pm

    Great article. It’s funny that a lot of people in the West assume that China is the next big power. They COULD be due to their sheer size. But they still have a little ways to go, and English curriculum-making is one of them. They’ll get there, which is a bonus for all of us English-speaking passport holders of Canada, US, Britain, etc.!!

    • Michael on December 9, 2010 at 11:15 pm

      Thanks Steve! They could be the next big power but so many changes need to be done before any thought of that could make me believe it could happen anytime soon.

  24. Steven Sirski on December 9, 2010 at 10:19 pm

    Great article. It’s funny that a lot of people in the West assume that China is the next big power. They COULD be due to their sheer size. But they still have a little ways to go, and English curriculum-making is one of them. They’ll get there, which is a bonus for all of us English-speaking passport holders of Canada, US, Britain, etc.!!

    • Michael on December 10, 2010 at 12:15 am

      Thanks Steve! They could be the next big power but so many changes need to be done before any thought of that could make me believe it could happen anytime soon.

  25. Roman on April 22, 2011 at 10:14 pm

    Haha I love me some Chinglish! After a year of teaching English in China nothing surprises me anymore. Last night I ate dinner at a restaurant called FAT FAT PEOPLES

    • Michael on April 22, 2011 at 11:54 pm

      Haha. Was the serving size larger than usual at least?

  26. Roman on April 22, 2011 at 11:14 pm

    Haha I love me some Chinglish! After a year of teaching English in China nothing surprises me anymore. Last night I ate dinner at a restaurant called FAT FAT PEOPLES

    • Michael on April 23, 2011 at 12:54 am

      Haha. Was the serving size larger than usual at least?

  27. Elle on May 28, 2011 at 11:06 am

    Holy cow, I wouldn’t have done that AIDS exercise either.  Some of the language you’re are supposed to teach is ridiculously advanced.  If I were them, I would feel completely overwhelmed looking at words like that.

    • Michael on May 30, 2011 at 7:42 pm

      Yeah, I gave up using the book and decided to teach my own lessons.

  28. Elle on May 28, 2011 at 12:06 pm

    Holy cow, I wouldn’t have done that AIDS exercise either.  Some of the language you’re are supposed to teach is ridiculously advanced.  If I were them, I would feel completely overwhelmed looking at words like that.

    • Michael on May 30, 2011 at 8:42 pm

      Yeah, I gave up using the book and decided to teach my own lessons.

  29. […] C. Riley ————————————- 2010: What is actually taught in Chinese ESL classes 2014: Updated Chinese ESL black list – part […]

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