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Once, a female student from Shanghai shared with me her frustrations on the campus, because she was unable to speak like a native speaker. Both her parents are college professors in Shanghai. “Honestly I cannot find anyone who speaks like a native speaker,” she cried, and complained to me. And I was her English teacher! Shanghai is one of the most advanced cosmopolitan cities in mainland China…a playground for the rich and the famous in pre-communist China, and has a large colony of foreigners living and working in China today. Why did she come to Xiamen, a small city and with less foreign population? She is coming to a wrong city to learn to speak like a native speaker, I said to myself. She should stay in Shanghai! I said nothing to her.
What native speaker? I asked her. “I want to speak like a native speaker,” she said. British English? American English? Chinese English? I asked. If you are on a Chinese campus, you might hear British English, American English, or Chinese English. I was told in China, most children are exposed to British English when they first enter primary school. Because English teachers would expose elementary school students to British language tapes in the classes. It is no surprise you would encounter students speaking with an exaggerated British accent in college speech contests. This is China. One student won the national speech contest and was proud to announce, “I prefer to speak the Queen’s English”. An anglophile to the core of his being, he eventually went to UK to pursue advanced studies in finance.
I told the female student from Shanghai that when it comes to speaking English, and if she has opportunities to travel beyond China, she will be exposed to different people speaking the English language in the world. That there is more than one way to speak the language. That almost every country under the sun has its own distinctive way of speaking English. Of course, we had Indian professors teaching in Xiamen campus, and by now most students shared their difficulty listening to them speaking with a strong Indian accent. Many Chinese students had problems with Indian professors speaking Indian English. And I confess I was one of them. I met a few of the Indian teachers in the guest house when I first arrived. Though I went to high school in Malaya with Indian students, I don’t remember having difficulty talking to them or working with them in our classrooms. But the young Indian professors I met at the guest house in XMU campus spoke a different kind of English, difficult to understand because of their strong accent. Interestingly, the majority of them were teaching in the medical school. And the majority of the medical students were from Indian and Sri Lanka, a few from Southeast Asia.
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But if you are in London, you would see some fair-skin Indians speaking perfect Queen’s English, as television news reporters, a few as TV hosts or news anchor persons. One of my sister’s best friends in England is an Indian woman who married a Brit. In fact she taught me how to cook authentic Indian curry the Indian way. I had cooked the Malaysian Indian curry but now I learned from her how to add some new condiments to my cooking: curry leaves, anise, and actual pieces of cinnamon sticks. And coconut cream. I love the new taste of authentic Indian curry. Many Indians are born and grow up in UK, not in India. And they speak lovely British English!
Native speaker? I told the female student, “You are not going to find the perfect, ideal one on a Chinese campus”. So what kind of English would you hear on a Chinese college campus?
The tragedy in China is that from primary through junior through high school, many Chinese teachers continue to use Chinese to teach English, thus depriving students the opportunity to learn the spoken English. Most students are taught to read the English textbooks, but seldom exposed to oral English in classes because most teachers do not and cannot communicate in fluent English. Many students confessed to me why they are not able to speak English fluently, including students who are majoring in English. I became a friend of an English teacher who had taught English in the same high school for over twenty years, and she told me that she is still struggling with the spoken English. And when she talked to me, she talked very slowly like a primary school student in America. Because she is not used to speaking English. And this tragedy continues when students attend colleges or universities. When I confronted a few teachers on my campus, they would say, “You need to understand, many students will fail if I insist on speaking English in classes”. So teachers themselves are not comfortable speaking English to the students. That is the absolute truth. While English major students will have English classes for four years, all other students will be exposed to some kind of English for the first two years in college.
And Andrew, a political science student at XMU, is one of them. I was teaching journalism when Andrew and I met because he was looking for someone to help him improve his spoken English. In China, the school would allow most students to “audit” in classes they are interested in. And Andrew was there in one of my classes. But he would wait after each class so he could talk to me, personally and privately. It was a struggle in the beginning when all he could say was “Good Morning” or “Good Evening” or “How are you doing?” He was taught English since he started primary school, and all his teachers could teach English but did not focus on helping students to speak the language. That is one simple reason why most students who attend colleges today have difficulty with spoken English. It reminded me
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when I learned German when I was in college. To me, then, it was like learning an ancient language like Greek. But I started my German learning by listening to spoken German. Don’t worry about grammar. Don’t worry about how to write a sentence in German. Learn to listen, repeat and then learn to speak. That is how children learn to speak their mother tongue. And it is only logical we should also use the same method teaching adults how to learn a new language. Listen, then speak! Andrew was determined to practice his spoken English with me. And now, even though he was not an English major, he and I could have a decent conversation in English. Every now and then, I would be tempted to practice my own Putonghua with him. And that is how I have also improved my spoken Putonghua!
It did not surprise me when an English teacher in Chongqing, China confessed in a note to me that after over many years of teaching high school English in China, that she still has problems speaking English in class or to me. One day, she told me she would be taking part in some kind of competition in her school, to see who is the best English teacher, based on observation and evaluation done by fellow English teachers. This is China, a rather strange practice, and something new and foreign to me as an American teacher. She received third prize in this competition. She seemed satisfied and happy with the result. She spoke clearly but very slowly to me. It was obvious to me when listening to her that she continues to struggle with spoken English despite over decades teaching high school English. Now you wonder why so many Chinese college students refused, hesitated and avoided speaking English to me.
This is China.