How Learning Chinese Made Me A Better English Teacher In China
The following blog post is about an ITTT graduate who shares his story on how learning Chinese helped him to become a better English teacher in China.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Joseph S.
What do you call someone who speaks only one language?
A common saying imparted to me by one of my professors goes like this: "What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks only one language? American."
I have found this to be extremely true for the majority of cases, and, as a young student, it spurred me to want to learn as much of other languages as I possibly could. I grew up in a monolingual home, however, as a child, I spent much of my time working on my cousin's farm; his wife is from Bavaria. Given my family's distant German heritage, and our close relationship, much of my early-teens and throughout High School were devoted in part to learning the German language.
As I grew, my interest in languages expanded; a little bit of French, a little bit of Spanish, a little bit of this, of that, etc. I wouldn't consider myself to be fluent in any of the languages I've studied, but I can speak and read various amounts - from being able to do little more than read basic French, to being able to speak Chinese well enough to live in Taiwan on my own.
"My insights into their language and culture were incredibly helpful."
As my language studies, particularly in Chinese, ultimately took me to mainland China and Taiwan, I found that my insights into their language and culture were incredibly helpful when tutoring Chinese/Taiwanese students who wished to learn English.
Whilst spending a day with a local teacher in the United States who serves as my area's only ESL teacher, I found that my understanding of the Chinese language was incredibly helpful in understanding, for example, why a Chinese L1 would guess that the English term for a certain object might be X, Y, or Z.
To someone with no background in the Chinese language, it would seem incredibly silly to hear a student guess that the English term for a computer might be "electric brain," or some variation thereof. However, if the Chinese word for computer is translated directly to English, then that is exactly what the word translates to.
"Many Chinese are anxious about speaking English with natives - more so than is to be considered normative."
Likewise, with this understanding, a certain degree of insight is gained into what areas of English will be the most difficult for a Chinese L1 to pick up on - tenses and certain pronunciations tend to be the absolute most difficult aspects of the English language for a Chinese L1 to grasp. If an English teacher has some background in the Chinese language, they will know that it is precisely because the tense structure is so vastly different than our own as to almost resemble being nonexistent! Similarly as well, certain sounds made in the English language are totally nonexistent within Chinese, which makes it incredibly difficult for a Chinese L1 to properly and thoroughly learn certain phonemic expressions present within the English language. I say incredibly difficult, but it is most definitely not impossible.
One issue that I have found with the prevailing nature of ESL classes offered to Chinese students in China is that, despite these glaring difficulties, the proper usage of tenses and pronunciation are usually two of the least emphasized areas of the curricula. This has, in my experience, led to many Chinese L1s being very anxious about speaking English with natives - more so than is to be considered normative. I believe very strongly that by having some rather moderate understanding of their language and culture beforehand lends me no small amount of insight into what areas might be in need of extra attention, and much care.
Also read: Why Beijing Is the Ideal Place to Teach English
"The best ESL teachers are the ones with experience with the native language of their students."
Likewise, in my travels and experiences tutoring I have found that many of the best performing ESL teachers were the ones who had at least acquired a moderate amount of familiarity and experience with the native language of their students; that is not to say that it is appropriate to use the students' native language in the classroom, though. While difficult at first to avoid speaking to a Chinese L1 in Chinese during an English lesson, it is for the best to avoid "mixing" the L1 and L2 languages as much as possible - it has been very well noted that it may lead to quite a bit of confusion and impede the learning process.
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