By Doyin Oyeniyi
When recently approached by a Western visitor, high school graduate Xie Jing said, “This is my first time talking to a foreigner, so I am nervous.” Xie, who lives in Xiejiaqiao, a rural village near Hangzhou, isn’t alone.
Although Xiejiaqiao is a small village, even students in cities like Beijing don’t interact with foreigners enough to practice their English and gamely try to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves.
Likewise, Xie’s confession is a common sentiment among Chinese students. According to Guoyuan Sang at Beijing Normal University, English has been part of the school curriculum in China since the country’s curriculum reform in 1963. That year the foreign language subject was changed from Russian to English.
In an e-mail interview, Dr. Sang said that the change may have been a response to a breaking up of the Sino-Russia relationship and also as a response to the need to integrate into mainstream international society.
Yet today, a lack of capable teachers and proper exposure to the language has produced many Chinese students who graduate high school with an inability to carry on a conversation in English, the language widely promoted as a ticket to better opportunities in a globalizing world. Too often, the only thing many Chinese students have to show for their years of learning is a variation of English and Chinese, also known as Chinglish.
“If you’ve heard broken English spoken, it’s like that, but with Chinese characteristics,” said Kevin Lindsey, an American teaching English at No. 1 Middle School in Tong Liao in Inner Mongolia.
“[T]he number one reason Chinglish is so prevalent among Chinese learners of English is the lack of an exposure to the language,” said Craig Jenkins, who’s been teaching English in China for almost 20 years. He estimated that among 350 million Chinese who are learning English, few ever have the chance to immerse themselves in the language. Jenkins also noted that many teachers lack the qualifications to teach proper English.
Such inexperienced guidance can produce Chinese students who are unable to maintain normal conversations with native speakers.
“They can communicate to some degree, some better than others, of course, but with frequent errors in grammar [and] sentence structure and varying degrees of difficulty in understanding what is being said to them,” Jenkins said. “On average, the more ‘standard’ your speech, the better they can understand, but as soon as you begin to use more colloquial expressions and slang, you begin to lose most people.”
To address the problem, there are programs and schools all over China that recruit native English speakers to teach English.
Lindsey, who had no teaching experience and didn’t know Mandarin when he was hired, said the stipulations for foreign language teachers are pretty lax. “Their requirement was you have to be a native English speaker and you need a bachelor’s degree from the states,” said Lindsey, who applied to his current job after a recruiter came to his university in 2010.
While Lindsey said he understands the need for Chinese students to hear English from a native speaker, he thinks it can sometimes make it more difficult for the students when their teacher only speaks English. “It would be like learning French or Spanish [in the U.S.] from a… teacher who doesn’t speak any English,” he said. “That would be difficult for any high school student.”
Jia Minfu, an English lecturer at Capital Normal University, said the mastery of English depends more on the students than on the type of teacher they have. “[Students] cannot depend all on the teacher,” Jia said. “If the students put enough effort in they can learn English quite well.”
Most Chinese public schools don’t offer English classes as often as they should, Lindsey added. “Even if you have a foreign English teacher,” he said, “the English teacher only sees [the students] for one class per week.”
There are schools like the Beijing Xicheng Foreign Language Training School that try to fix this problem. Founded in 1989, the facility has both a middle school and a high school and offers daily English classes. Shi Xinyu, a student at Beijing Xicheng Foreign Language Training School, chose to attend the school specifically because of the emphasis on English.
“Before I went to this school, I heard someone say that the school is focused on our speaking and listening more than other schools,” Shi said.
In addition to daily English class, Shi’s English teachers also teach the class in English, while her friends at other schools report that their English teachers teach in Mandarin.
Next year Shi plans to study at the University of Alberta in Canada, but said she still feels like she doesn’t have enough time to practice speaking English. To make up for it, she watches American movies and listens to musicians such as Justin Bieber and Avril Lavigne to get a better understanding of English.
“[Students] spend hours watching DVDs in English, imitating the language they hear, practicing it over and over until they can say is smoothly, and without apparent difficulty,” Jenkins said. “But these linguistically gifted people do not represent the majority.”
To prevent Chinglish, Jenkins said that that early education from a qualified teacher and immersion in the linguistic and cultural environment of a language could help.
“[Students should] associate with native speakers as much as possible and take careful note on how they speak, including the structure of their sentences, expressions they use, the tone of voice they use when using those expressions and slang that is substituted for standard phrases,” he said. “However, there is no ‘fix’ per say; it is like trying to ‘fix the crime problem.’
“Democrats and Republicans will argue [such issues] until the cows come home, but [with English] in the end, it is all up to the individual, their motivation for learning and the methodology they use.”