Monday, April 22, 2013

Is Our Children Learning English?

Sometimes I hear from students that I used to teach.  I received a text message from a high school student the other night.  She asked:
"What's the difference between A MAJORITY OF and THE MAJORITY OF?  which one is used more often by native speakers?"
I sensed that she had encountered one of many trick questions that the English Education Cabal uses to make learning English one of the more challenging things a student in China will try to do.  I answered:
"Either is OK."  
I then received two messages, back to back:
"which one is formal in written English?"
"I mean in the exam"
I knew it!  It was one of many questions that appear on their abysmal written exams!  The sadists who create these exams have no desire to show how well students have learned English.  They don't care if kids learn English or not.  They only want to trip them up.   The Chinese "experts" responsible for creating the curriculum for English education are nearly complete failures.  A few students manage to learn English in spite of the schools, but they do this by seeking outside help.
First the schools concentrate on vocabulary, and much of it is irrelevant to every day lives of students.  They keep having to learn new words every day, which they are tested on in written tests.  They never use the words, and they become forgotten.  During the Olympics I saw a vocabulary list for a fourth grader that included "javelin" and "Greco Roman wrestling". 
Later, in high school, the exams concentrate on obscure grammar, and much of it is obsolete.  It seems that the intention is to make something akin to a high stakes TV game show rather than to teach the language.  There is little effort to exercise common language, and virtually no students graduate from high school with and ability to carry on even a rudimentary conversation.  Here is a common encounter that a foreigner will have on the street in China:
Adolescent Boy in a group of adolescent boys:  "HELLO!"
Foreigner:  "Hello."
Boys all laugh.
Foreigner:  "How are you?"
Blank looks from the boys followed by nervous laughter.
This actually happens a lot.  I have stopped answering adolescent boys who say "hello".
Getting back to the text messaging saga--I felt that a Chinese English teacher could explain this better since they might know what the "correct" answer was on the exam.  I answered:  "I have no idea.  This is one of those crazy questions that only happen in Chinese English exams.  Ask you Chinese English teacher."
When I taught high school students questions like this were a daily occurrence.  Generally, I could provide the grammatically correct answer, and often I would tell them that even though this was technically correct, we never actually spoke like this.  Then I would tell them the common phrase.
I'm glad to be teaching kindergarten now.

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