What is so Unique About the Chinese Learner?
In my opinion the answer to this question is, not a lot. Nevertheless, there are some clear cultural traits that distinguish Chinese students from, for instance, Europeans or other language learners in the world.
As far as I can reflect, I reckon there are 14 valid and significant generalisations we can safely make to serve as a handy reference point for people who are new to teaching English in China.
I have deliberately left out specific mention of grammar and phonology because this post is not about error correction; it is about being a more culturally sensitive, and thus, a more effective educator. 1.
Students are used to and comfortable with, a teacher-centred classroom. I believe teachers need to do as much as possible to rectify this attitude and encourage students to forget about the way they learned English in school.2.
Pronunciation is the biggest single problem. 80 per cent of communication breakdowns are because of poor pronunciation, not grammar. OK, this is true in any language but Chinese happens to have a particularly narrow range of sounds in comparison to English which makes it all the more difficult.3.
Students are very good at reading and writing. Speaking and listening skills are usually much weaker. See point 1.4.
The strong point of many learners is vocabulary. Often they have too much passive vocab which is redundant for the level at which they are at, as communicators.5.
Difficulty with numbers. Of course, Asian people use a completely different numbering system to English speakers and as such, learners at all levels of the spectrum need persistent practice with expressions of numerical value.6.
They are shy and quiet. This is truest below LI. There is certainly a common fear of making mistakes among many students at all levels and, unlike Americans, Chinese people do not naturally feel comfortable showing off or tooting their horn. This strategy is designed to minimise the risk of face loss and patently has adverse effects in the language classroom; where communicative risk taking is the key to an individual’s progress.7.
Humour is almost always acceptable. Chinese students of all ages and social status like to enjoy the process of language learning and, unlike Europeans, do not take themselves too seriously. They tend to be relatively enthusiastic when it comes to group work, game playing and competition.8.
Age is to be respected. Again, this attitude loosely but consistently underlies Chinese culture. Even if an older student is noticeably dragging the class back, confrontation or direct rudeness is always avoided.9.
They are test oriented. Students excel in the traditional mode of education which includes high levels of memorisation and are result rather than process oriented. The grade matters in China, sometimes more so than the understanding. This can encourage cutting corners but in general, effort and persistence are valued more than ability. 10.
Adult learners appreciate intellectualism. They tend to be detail and precision oriented. In the classical manner, they like to learn for personal development, not just for economic necessity.11.
They can be more passive during larger group sessions and fall victim to groupthink; whereby there is a reluctance to go against majority opinion or speak up and disagree with the teacher.12.
Chinese people avoid conflict - sometimes with a unique brand of diplomacy and politeness while at the same time being disarmingly direct in their questioning. 13.
Chinese people tend to smile more easily than westerners when they feel difficulty or embarrassment. The old nervous laugh is used to good effect in China.14.
Lower level students can become a bit anxious about being in front of a foreign teacher or being directly questioned by one. Be aware of this; be gentle and passive but try to change it.
Finally, remember that all these aphorisms will be constantly proven wrong and can also be applied to western students. This is why it’s best to take any cultural generalisations and stereotypes with a large pinch of salt.