The Main Problems Young English Learners Face In China
Learning English has become a necessary extra-curricular activity for many students in China. Since China has become a global giant as a result of her rapid economic development, many parents have picked up the momentum in raising their children’s proficiency in English. From learning and studying the TESOL and Young Learners’ sessions, there are three areas of hurdles observed. They are learning environment, technical differences, and students’ mindsets.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Angela W.
Although English is taught to children since pre-school years, many students do not have the exposure to this foreign language outside of the classroom. There is no encouraging learning climate for students to thrive in.
Even though students do have a session of English daily during their long school day, there is no need to use the language at all besides handling homework and taking the examination. Naturally, most students do not find learning English practical or necessary. For the majority of the population, there is no occasion and no reason at all to use this foreign language. Why should anyone waste any time or expense any energy on learning this language? This is especially true in tier 3 cities and remote villages. Unlike Beijing or Shanghai, English proficiency is expected and demanded among professionals and many customer service providers.
Besides, most parents do not know much or any English. Therefore, they cannot assist in their children’s learning process. For those who can afford to send their children to enrichment classes, their children may have a little more advantage in their learning process. Despite good wishes and high expectation, parents are mostly not involved in their children’s world of English at all. Language learning is a dynamic process including reading, writing, listening and speaking. If it is only limited to a classroom activity or academic pursuit that is more of a linear approach, students will have difficulty interfacing this foreign language with their daily living. Thus, the level of retaining this foreign language becomes questionable.
For young learners starting school, they are introduced to their mother tongue phonics system that also uses Roman lettering. Although both the Chinese and English phonics system use the same letters, their two sound systems are distinct with many similarities. As young learners are mastering their native language, it is confusing for them to grasp the two systems independently especially in listening and speaking. One may argue that students may draw from similarities and learn quickly. This is only true in a given language saturated atmosphere where teachers can help students process similarities and differences. It is an ideal scenario, of course.
Besides the pronunciation challenge, the grammatical structure is another obstacle. As students are mastering their native language, they do have a hard time processing the grammatical structure of English that is completely different from Chinese. Many mistakes made are due to their lack of exposure. Their reading and writing skills are adversely affected.
Students are trained to do translation and go through nationwide testing requirement. Many innocent mistakes made are due to a foundational misunderstanding of the grammatical structure as well as vocabulary definition. Young learners rely heavily on the dictionary definition. This is a truncated approach without considering the context of the sentences or the article at large.
Due to cultural differences and traditional practices, teachers mostly adopt a one-dimensional teaching method. As the teacher to student ratio is very high, as one teacher to fifty elementary students, it is not a setting conducive for teacher-student interaction. Students are to listen and repeat what the teacher has said. There is no time for asking the question at all. Young learners are therefore quite turned off from their classroom learning. Teachers do not use the ESA method of teaching. As one student said that she could not follow what her teacher was saying in the classroom and there was no time or opportunity to ask a question, she gradually lost her interest in studying English. Thus, the gap between learning and using the language become bigger and bigger.
The limited availability and variety of teaching material in the classroom is another drawback. Since effective language learning is not limited to listening to the lecture in the classroom and finishing worksheets at home, it is critical for teachers to utilize different resources Authentic material is a highlight for students who will find learning connected with their daily living. For example, having a simple English menu from a neighborhood restaurant will certainly arouse their curiosity in studying what is on the menu. Unfortunately, teachers rarely bring such material into the classroom. The use of non-authentic material seems to be a security blanket for both teachers and parents. Sadly, they think the students’ command of the language can then be quantified. No wonder there is such a huge collection of workbooks at the bookstore.
The lack of creativity and assimilated language activities make learning English monotonous and boring. Incorporating songs and games into learning is an effective and communicative approach. Again, due to the big number of students in the classroom and the standard high-volume English instruction, teachers simply do not have the time for fun activities. Quantity instruction seems to be a highly regarded method. Reciting vocabularies, sentences and even paragraphs are regarded as a mark of high proficiency.
Now with the advance development of computer-assisted language learning CALL resources, students can become highly engaged and interested in the process with teacher’s guidance. However, a computer is not common classroom equipment or household item. English learning remains to be a difficult process for many students.
For many young learners like some of my students, they have not chosen to take private lessons on their own. It was their parents who saw the need and pushed their students forward. As students who have completed their assignment, they are ready to drop all that they have recited or copied. There is always a gap between short-term memorization and long-term proficiency. Is there any real interest in learning? Or is it more of an obligation to please their parents and teachers?
Where are they on the motivation spectrum? Do they really want to study? Are teachers inspiring them? Don’t they already have enough homework and projects? Why would they take on more learning? Is it another performance platform where they must succeed to earn their parents’ approval?
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All in all, due to the lack of encouraging learning climate, various technical differences, and students’ passive mindset, the problems that the students are facing remain. However, it is slowly improving as the entire nation is advancing in all aspects. It is with great confidence that the difficulties mentioned above will slowly but surely be resolved.
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