By Jakub Sajkowski, Polish, teacher of Spoken English in Zhaoqing University.
My Polish friend is asking me: “How is it going in China?”. To be honest, I do not know how it is going in China. It has been already one year and three months there, definitely not enough to get even a small insight into the complexity of Chinese mentality and culture. Maybe only enough to learn the language on a basic level, and that's it.
But, as I say to my students trying to learn English, no pain, no gain. There may never be a full success, the students there will never speak English like a native, just as foreigners in China will never speak Chinese like natives. But the sheer effort is absolutely worth trying. Getting to know more about different countries' culture, by learning about art, music and watching films is a real eye opener. Learning about each new language and culture develops your skills and is a great exercise for your brain.
Just as I say to my students, you will not be graded for speaking English perfect, because it is not possible. What I do is to encourage them to work harder on their skills, even if they are very basic in the very beginning. They will learn that they can benefit from sheer effort and constientiousness by trying to think different, by getting less shy and more confident to speak. They will learn they can benefit from the sheer contact with the different and the foreign, although it may be a bit tough to understand in the very beginning.
The language of the classes for an English teacher is English – no matter my level of Mandarin, if it is HSK1, HSK3 or HSK6, I will never speak it during classes. Not (or not only) because I cannot, also because I do not want to do it. Yes, in the very beginning some student may get scared when they do not get all the information. But that is what they are subjected to when they go to a foreign country. They do not understand everything and they still, by guessing from the context, need to deal with the problems. Learning English, then, teaches them not only to speak, but to be good and attentive listeners, because generally you need to be more attentive when you listen to a person who is not speaking in your mother tongue.
For a beginner, listening to a foreign language is like a puzzle – you hear distinctly maybe 30 per cent of the utterance, and these are your clues to get the meaning of the whole text. Some student at this point may get discouraged – and the role of the teacher is to encourage them and persuade that actually solving this puzzle is beneficial not only for their language skills, but – in general – for their future attitude to challenging things, for their self development, for being more attentive listener – all those skills they will need in their future life after graduation.
My previous experience shows that Chinese students are very enthusiastic and attentive, so they do not get so easily scared at the point of listening. It is a bit more different with talking to the teacher. Some of them get blocked at this point, for fear of losing face, for fear of making mistakes, for fear of getting embarrassed. The role of a language, teacher, then, is to create a good atmosphere during classes, be patient about students making mistakes, teach them that making a mistake is not equal to commiting a crime.
They learn, and you, as English teacher, learn too – little by little, step by step, you find out the differences between their mother tongue and English. That is why, despite the fact that – as I said – the language I use during teaching is only English, learning Chinese does help not only in everyday life, but also at work. It helps to focus on most recurrent mistakes which most often stem from incorrect translations and translating literally Chinese constructions into English, which results in inaccuracies and awkward constructions. For instance, a huge number of Chinese students uses a construction I have arrived in seemingly funny situations. Like, I have arrived into the classroom. Usually we use the verb arrive to describe the movement by some means of transport, not a five-minute walk from the dormitory to the teaching building. But when you yourself know the construction 我来了， you know that the mistake comes from an incorrect translation of the phrase which in Chinese has a broader meaning than in English. This knowledge will make your explanations more clear and effective.
There are more examples like this, but of course every foreigner should be aware, that even a profound knowledge of the language is not enough to understand perfectly Chinese mentality and culture. However, it is worth the effort. The enthusiasm of Zhaoqing University students and their
warm welcome every class gives you lots of power and motivation.