Chinagog: What’s The Value Of Native-Speaking TEFL Educators?

Chinagog - Value Added

Most of my students are studying at an English training school with the intention of enrolling in a Master’s program, or at least attaining a Bachelor’s degree from an American university. During my time here I’ve had a soul-enriching load of students accomplish just that, as they’ve gotten their IELTS scores (a British-Australian test to measure English language proficiency in both general and academic English) and entered various BA, BS, MA and MS programs across the country.

But while some of their success can be attributed to my instruction, most of my best students came in (and exited) my class with amazing study skills and positive attitudes toward learning. (There are many more who possessed none of these attributes and promptly failed, but let’s not talk about them yet.) A lot of students are whipped by bureaucracy or a sense of obligation to overachieve. For example, the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission (many of my students are Saudi) gives them eighteen months, regardless of their prior language education, to get their English up to university-grade level. Those who buck up tend to make it.

Yet there are those who have an innate difficulty learning foreign languages. I try to motivate students who get frustrated with the grind and struggle with English by using my personal experience as an example. I came to China able to say “你好” and “咖啡.” I am what Scott Thornbury described as a Bad Language Learner. I was also quite intimidated by the effortless abilities of many of my fellow foreign coworkers, especially since the only fluent thing I could do for months was order a beer and “yangruhschwar.” To this day I can’t say 服务员 with enough of a coherent growl to get any service. At the suggestion of a friend, I started making shorter-term language goals. Having short conversations with Chinese people without giving up and resorting to friends to act as translators. Having a conversation in Chinese on the phone. Ordering Sprite at McDonalds. And while I don’t speak academic Chinese by any means (I’m functionally illiterate), I can confidently say that I speak Chinese. My stories have connected with a few students, and I’ve helped them develop unorthodox strategies for practicing at home. Spending half an hour a day conversing only in English with their spouses. Taking the same small bite out of their day to write up flashcards, and then categorizing them. Walking into a BMW dealership and seeing how long of a conversation you can have with a sales associate before they realize you have no interest (or means) for buying one.

The frustrating thing about all of this as a teacher is that I have to do a lot of mental gymnastics justifying my existence as a teacher even when my students have immediate, apparent, life-affecting language needs. Getting into an American university will improve their life, sure, but many students are sold academic English courses when they don’t possess either the language ability or study skills necessary to take full (or any) advantage of the services they’re buying. I wouldn’t call it a scam, but like a lot of higher and private education in America, a lot of classes are sold with more of an eye toward enrollment.

All of this renders the value of native-speaker TEFL education in foreign countries dubious. It might lead, say, a Chinese parent to ask: If the accredited academic English program I’m sending my kid to in the United States might not be providing me any value, what does that say about the private language school he goes to every week here in his hometown, or the foreign teacher his primary/middle/high school teacher employs?

I’ve seen numerous online comments denouncing TEFL education in China as an outright scam. They’re right in many cases. Both public and private schools in China are stocked with teachers who are checked out, drunk, unmotivated, ineffective, boring, borderline-illiterate or any other educator-insulting adjective you can think of (reply with more in the comments, I guess). A sad majority of schools are interested mostly in boosting short-term enrollment and throwing as many students at newly minted white teachers as they can handle. Foreign “professors” in Chinese universities “teach” 200-person classes. On top of all this is the fact that the ultimate goal, the gaokao, is focused mostly on non-verbal English skills, while a lot of TEFL theory focuses on improving speaking and listening skills, as we use them to communicate.

Now that my cynicism has backed me onto a hypothetical ledge questioning not only my value as a teacher, but the value of my profession as a whole, I have to offer a rebuttal. While the quality of education can vary across subjects, countries and schools, I find it hard to judge any kind of education as inherently worthless or “scammy.” Looking back on my time in grade school, middle school and high school, I have a hard time identifying any single piece of knowledge that helped shape me into who I am today. I can’t remember a damn thing I specifically learned in Mrs. Burroughs’ eighth grade English class, but some part of it drove me to study English in college, and eventually pursue a career in education. I didn’t fall in love with literature by accident; I was guided into it by some excellent teachers. I’ve only used my high school French during a couple of short trips to France, but over the years it’s helped me dive back into French cinema and don a comically amusing French accent on command.

I’m sure I didn’t reach all of my students in China on a fundamental level, but I know that a lot of them left my class not only as better English users, but also possessed a greater appreciation for the language. I hopefully helped them improve their critical thinking skills and broadened their cultural understanding. If some of them choose to major in English down the road, I wish them a strong wind at their backs upon that rocky path. While STEM teaching gets a lot of (deserved) credit as a measurement for academic development, the humanities serve as a necessary means to creating an enlightened, intelligent and awakened society. I’m not changing the world as a TEFL teacher, but I feel that I’m serving a small, necessary part.

Greg is an ESL instructor who spent two productive years teaching in China. He currently lives in Colorado.

Previously: What “Chinese With Mike” Does Wrong, And What It Does Right

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    11 Responses to “Chinagog: What’s The Value Of Native-Speaking TEFL Educators?”

    1. Gay Chevara

      I work in one of those ‘Two Plus Two’ factories where they accept all the kids that have failed the Gao Kao. It is very very hard work as it is very boring and the kids are highly unmotivated. They see it all as ‘systematic’ and total bullshit, if the teachers try to instill life in the class or the program it is met with disdain and apathy.

      Two things seem to have happened – one Chinese students have the balls to say that the Chinese education system is stupid and irrelevant and two society has created a middle class in which these kids can just keep on trying at various institutes until they ‘graduate’.

      I have many students in this program that are unable to have even a basic conversation in English and many others that are just tired and have given up – I’m either telling kids to stop sleeping or asking them not to use their iPhones in class.

      I feel that for the most part my job is a glorified babysitter to 19-year-olds who couldn’t care less.

      The school is happy if I turn up and go to class as everything looks ‘productive’.

      I imagine that soon there will be similar institutes for 16-year-olds that have failed the Zhong Kao. I’m sure many schools are actually waiting with glee for that to happen.

    2. GuestBob

      The guiding principal behind the prominence of NETs in China is the desire for a standard to work towards and emulate. This desire originates within China.

      I would challenge your assertion that students in China come pre-packaged with excellent study skills. True, they often work very hard but they certainly don’t always work effectivley. Take practicing speech as an example: how many times have you heard a student repeating a clause, or perhaps a three or four word phrase, at breakneck speed? Not only is it a challenge to articulate the sounds correctly but stress timed intonation and any prosodic stress goes totally out of the window. You do this for long enough and you’ll train yourself in the bad habits. But most students are concerned only with the noise they make and have no grasp of what spoken language actually is and does (the CEFR places alot of emphasis on ideas like “suasion” which one simply never encounters in China-domestic textbooks).

      Students would be better served by building independent study skills and developing their knowledge of how language works. Empowering students by giving them the tools to set their own language standard, which certainly doesn’t have to be a native like standard, and then developing their ability to work towards that standard is key.

      But tell that to the Chinese education system.

      If you are teaching students who are targetting a Western university (or a university in Hong Kong) then a teacher from the target environment can be a great help. However, this isn’t all about language – it should be about study skills, academic literacies, argumentation and composition, exploring how students can represent themselves in a second language and a whole host of other issues.

      The notion that students *need* a native speaker to improve their speaking skills beyond a certain level is rubbish (and not supported by study data). That students might *want* one is a different matter. A mixture of fetishism (“oh such active classes!”) and a poor grasp of how language actually work is at the heart of China’s obsession with NETs and the sooner the education system can wake up and realise that it can put a white-faced sticking plaster over deeper flaws in how languages are taught and assessed then the better.

      Things are beginning to change – the university in which I work has recently begun to group students into 15-person half ban classes for alot of their skills based courses (including speaking). We are the exception rather than the rule, but it shows what can be acheived, even down here in tier three, when the will and the means to effect change are in alignment.

      • Scribbled

        I always assumed a lot of the demand for native speaking teachers was to ensure the language was upto scratch. It is very difficult for East Asians to learn European languages (and vice versa of course), which together with the less than ideal educational system in China means that many foriegn language teachers here simply don’t speak that language to an acceptable level. I’ve repeatedly run into English teachers here whose English was not upto my level of Mandarin (HSK6) and I couldn’t imagine ever proffesionaly teaching Chinese.

        • philash

          “… don’t speak that language …” Which language – East Asian or European? If you are going to criticise the English-language levels of others, be sure to learn how to make a point clearly and how to spell “foreign” and “professionally” correctly. Otherwise you look like a fcukwit.

          • GuestBob

            Yeah, whipping yourself into a towering frenzy of pedantry makes you the bigger duckhead here sunshine.

            Point still stands: China places far too much stock in the notion of native speech as a model and this has caused a huge demand for paleface teachers. When demand outstrips supply, the standards drop and we are left with article after article about the terrible challenges faced by barely competent people who had trouble enough in their own country let alone working across a culture and language barrier.

            Again, the root of the problem really is the marketplace and the fetish which the education system has for NETs. English is absurdly overvalued by the education system as a whole which officially mandates a CLT approach without the resources, training or even textbooks to support it. Whitey comes in as a sticking plaster because there is a vague understanding that what happens inside most classrooms is “grammar maths” and not language teaching but the results are less than ideal because the main factor in play is examination – which is standardized.

            For most places that value of NETs is as a marketing tool – which is why I’ll never work outside universities.

            • philash

              Good points (apart from the “duckhead” jibe which my wife rather liked), well made in coherent English. As was your first post.
              However, I reserve the right to pick up anybody abusing the English language, especially when concurrently assuming an intellectual superiority. Pedantry can be fun on a slow day.

    3. King Baeksu

      Saussure introduced the concepts of “langue” (system) and “parole” (usage) his “Course in General Linguistics” (1916).

      While Chinese teachers of English may often master the “langue” of English, meaning the formal rules, grammar and vocabulary, they are often less adept at its “parole” dimension.

      Indeed, what you find is that while Chinese ESL students often have a very high level of the English “langue,” they tend to marry it to a Chinese-style “parole,” which can lead to all sorts of awkwardness and fumbling.

      Enter the native ESL teacher. Ideally, their job is to help their students activate and practice their English “parole,” which includes culture, psychology, gestures, humor and arguably even word connotations. Only when the two have become seamlessly integrated has the student become fluent in the language. (What is “Chinglish,” after all, than English “langue” assraped by Chinese “parole”?)

      There is a reason why native speakers teach “Oral English” at Chinese universities. The education authorities here are hip to Saussure whether they know it or not.

    4. laowai88

      I think the demand for “native” speakers is a function of the fact that most Chinese English-learners never learn proper phonics. In most Chinese public schools the English teachers are ususally Chinese people who have majored in English at university, and whose pronounciation leaves a lot to be desired themselves.

      In western countries, the idea of having a non-native speaker teach a language would never even cross a principal’s mind. All foreign language classes are taught by native speakers.

      • BS.

        100% not true.

        My Mandarin teacher in Sydney was a white dude. He taught me more in a few months than any of the Chinese tutors I had in Beijing. My high school French teacher was also not a French woman or native speaker.

    5. GuestBob

      The vast majority of language courses in British schools are taught by non-native speakers (and that’s in Europe, where working across borders is quite straightforward).

      The monolingual language teacher is something which is infrequently seen outside English language education and the only reason it’s seen insde this field is because of the peculiar status of English.


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