Skill or eloquence?

By Li Ying Source:Global Times Published: 2015-12-7 18:28:01

Does being a native English speaker make you a better language teacher?

As China's appetite for English language learning increases, more and more foreigners, both native and non-native English speakers, have come to the Middle Kingdom to seek their fortune as English language teachers. Photo: IC

One month ago, a Reddit user who goes by the name of "fillingtheblank" raised a question on /r/China, the Chinese section of The question, "Will being a non-Anglophone implode my chances of being accepted as an English language teacher in China?"

The poster often heard of foreigners heading to China to teach English and "make some money on the side" but was concerned about whether it would be possible to find work as an English language teacher without English as a native tongue. The post received more than 130 comments from users across the globe.

"I've known many non-natives teaching English here in China, French, Eastern-European, West-African and Japanese even," wrote another Reddit user "sinofaze."

"Some do a good job; some don't. I've seen Chinese students despair at foreign teachers' thick Irish-accent or their heavy Manchurian dialect.... Bertrand Russell was a major academic in linguistics, yet he was never a native-speaker in any of the languages he explored."

"Do not undervalue yourself in the interviews if you have the necessary teaching skills and qualifications," the user advised.

China has been drawing an ever increasing number of foreigners, both native and non-native English speakers, to the country to work as English teachers. The low threshold and easy access make the job a worthwhile option for many who land in China.

It is true that Chinese parents are willing to pay more for a native English teacher. However, people in the English language training industry argue that the advantage of mother tongue is not tantamount to superior English language teaching skills.

Metropolitan talked to both native and non-native foreign English language teachers and Chinese English language teachers to thrash out which group is better at teaching the English language.

Passion, patience and an understanding of the difficulties English language learners face in acquiring the language are sometimes more important than native fluency, experts say. Photo: IC

The pros and cons of natives

Native speakers, inarguably, can be greatly benefited and advantaged in teaching the language of their mother tongue.

"One of the strengths of being a native-speaking English teacher is that we don't have to practice pronunciation. We also have a much richer vocabulary and expressions in the language," said Vivian Leonard, an Irish woman who grew up in Germany and the US. Leonard acquired a master's degree in Linguistics and started a career teaching English in Beijing in 2012.

She said her native proficiency in the English language enables her to focus on other things, such as teaching English in a fun and dynamic way to inspire students' enthusiasm for learning the language.

Some students are often more motivated and proactive while learning from a foreign teacher, according to some foreign teachers and Chinese parents.

"This is what the Chinese customer requires from us. When choosing an English teacher, Chinese parents don't really care about how well qualified the native speaker is," Leonard said.

The demand for native speakers makes it extremely easy for foreigners to land an English language teaching job in China. Leonard said that a lot of recruitment websites in countries such as the US, the UK and Australia, don't require a degree or work experience for positions to teach English in China.

"In a lot of English training companies in China, foreign teachers are being provided with all the teaching materials. In the beginning, they don't necessarily need to be qualified in teaching," she said.

Thus, one of the drawbacks of hiring native English speakers to teach is that a lot of them are not passionate about the job. Instead, quite a few are only looking for a year of experience, traveling and having fun in China.

"The whole point of their teaching job is to make ends meet. They need a job to finance their traveling," said Leonard. "Some of the teachers will spend a year in Thailand, a year in Vietnam, a year in China, that kind of thing."

Teachers from non-English speaking countries

Apart from bringing over native speakers, the current demand for English language teachers has also attracted the attention of non-native English speakers.

Twenty-five-year-old Mario Morales is one of them. Born in Mexico, Morales' native language is Spanish, and yet he makes his living teaching English in Beijing. He said he decided to move to China because he wanted a change from his life in Mexico where he worked as a cook and a customer service agent. Despite the fact that English is not his mother tongue, Morales said he has not encountered any obstacles in getting a job as an English language teacher.

"My English is more American, and most people don't notice I'm Mexican until I tell them, or they see my passport," he said.

Morales' job is to teach English to young kids mostly by using visual aids to create an English-only environment to help them get used to an English speaking environment.

Morales said that he comes from a large family and is used to being around children. "[Working with lots of kids] reminds me of back home, thanks to that I believe I have lots of patience for them, which should be a requirement to help educate others," he said.

However, he confessed that one of the drawbacks of being a non-native English teacher is the challenge in explaining English grammar clearly and accurately to Chinese students due to the different grammars of different languages.

Leonard agrees. "Take a Finnish English teacher for example. Finnish and Chinese are very different languages. When the Finnish teacher learns English as a student, he learns that some language structures exist in Finnish but don't exist in English, or something exists in English but doesn't exist in Finnish. It adds to the difficulties in explaining the structures in English that don't exist in Chinese," she said.

Chinese teachers

Chinese parents are obsessed with foreign teachers. However, the advantages of Chinese teachers should not be ignored.

"For Chinese students, it is better and more effective to mingle the teaching methods applied by both native and non-native English teachers," said Yuan Xinmin, a Chinese teacher of English language, an etymology expert, and author of Don't Recite Vocabulary Anymore.

Yuan said Chinese English language teachers, who have experienced the language learning process firsthand, better know the problems of Chinese students and can give solutions and advice that are more meaningful and targeted. "For example, one of the more urgent needs of Chinese people learning English is how to expand their vocabulary."

He explained that a foreign teacher might not be able to serve their students properly in this regard as they "don't have to learn English vocabulary because the words are memorized naturally in their daily lives."

Native speakers may also find it hard to analyze the English ability of their Chinese students because they grew up with their own standards, said Jin Wen, assistant professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at Fudan University in Shanghai.

"They might not be aware of what a Chinese student needs. For example, a particular English word might be easy for a native speaker but very difficult for a Chinese," Jin said. "[Also,] in English, many Chinese students are too serious to make mistakes. The students often struggle with their grammar and vocabulary, so they tend to write very simple sentences that appear naive. [Having gone through the process,] Chinese teachers are better at offering solutions to such problems."

Both Yuan and Jin argue that Phonics, a sound structure used to teach beginners how to pronounce English words based on the sound of the letters and letter combinations of the alphabet - the way native speakers learn it as children - which is now being promoted by many English language training companies in China, might not be a good choice for Chinese children.

"Phonics is more applicable for children who begin learning English early enough, and have been immersed in an English-only environment for a long period. But many students only have the chance to talk and interact with native English teachers for a while a day," said Jin. "I would suggest that, after building a stable language foundation, students go abroad to further improve their English language level."

In Leonard's opinion, one of the most valued qualities of being a foreign English teacher in China is whether they can speak Chinese. "Being unable to speak Chinese is not a big problem, but in order to know the students more, the teacher must understand the mother tongue of the learners, and be familiar with its grammar and language structures," Leonard said.

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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