Learning English: A Chinese Challenge

As an English teacher, I’ve worked with students from all across the world. From business executives in Tokyo and Hong Kong, to elementary school kids in the Japanese countryside, and fresh of the boat immigrants from Eastern Europe. In my 10 years of teaching I have seen it all. I’ve worked with some wonderful students, and some truly awful ones!

However none left as big an impression on me, or fascinated me as much from a linguistics point of view as my students from China.

There is something unique and indeed quite beautiful about the way Chinese people acquire and use English. Chinese English speakers also throw up a great many challenges to English teachers. Today I thought I would look at some of these as we examine the question of what makes Chinese English unique in today’s cross-cultural society.

Firstly, one immediately notices a difference in tone and volume with speaking with Chinese learners of English.

To the uninitiated, Chinese people can sometimes come across as angry or aggressive, particularly at the early stages of language learning. That is they sound as such until you hear them speaking their local language.

I recall my first trip to Guangzhou many years ago, to visit some friends. At first I genuinely thought my friends were arguing with each other, but then I realized this is just part of the beauty and vibrancy of the Putonghua language. It has a certain “assertiveness” or “aggressiveness” to it, which, after a period of initial reluctance is overcome, can actually become quite endearing.

It’s also important to remember that as much as modern China is a huge country united under one central authority, it’s multi-cultural, multi-ethnic origins are also reflected in its linguistic complexity. Whilst Putonghua is the undisputed language of education, commerce and government, China actually has more than 80 different languages and dialects widely spoken within its massive borders.

This linguistic diversity also passes into how they learn English. A native Hakka speaker will sound quite different from a native Shanghainese speaker, who in turn will sound radically different from someone from the northern autonomous regions, whose native dialect has more in common with Mongolian than it does Putonghua.

Understanding these differences is crucial if one wishes to teach English effectively to Chinese students.

Pronunciation is another key area. In some ways similar to Japanese learners, Chinese students of English also have issues with confusing the “L” and “R” pronunciation. During visits to Beijing and Shanghai, I have often been in bars where the friendly staff have kindly offered me a “lum and coke” or a “soda water and rime”. However, rather than mock these basic errors, I find them endearing. However they do pose a unique set of problems for English teachers and their students.

As with any pronunciation issues, repeated drilling and practice, overseen by native English speaking teachers will, in the fullness of time, produce a marked improvement.

As I touched on earlier, appropriate volume and usage is another issue for Chinese learners of English. This particular obstacle is as much cultural as it is linguistic.

Let me use my own experience as an example.

When I first arrived in Hong Kong back in 2010, I didn’t really know any local people. I sought to quickly make local friends and learn as much about the local culture as I can. As a former journalist, I have always taken pride in my ability to communicate with and relate to people, regardless of their culture, background or status in society. My outgoing nature saw me do a lot of socialising in those first few formative months in Hong Kong.

One of my Chinese friends remarked: “Oh you are aggressive, you make friends easily.”

I was initially shocked by this statement. “Aggressive” is not a word by which I would ever wish to be described. It has an overwhelmingly negative context to most English speaking cultures. However, the closest translation for “aggressive” in many Chinese dialects actually constitutes a largely positive meaning. It suggests that someone is assertive, determined and does what is necessary to succeed and impress those around them. Indeed such qualities are greatly admired in a culture as fiercely competitive as China.

However for the English learner, and conversely any native English speaker who wishes to acquire Chinese language ability such wrinkles in translation can throw up a number of complications. Knowing when it is appropriate to use such words and phrases is another key issue to overcome if one wishes to master a foreign language, especially one as complex as English.

Again, practicing conversations, dialogues and studying situational English usage alongside native speakers is the best way to overcome these linguistic obstacles.

In general, Chinese English speakers, from my own observations at least, seem to have a greater level of English in general than the likes of their neighbours Japan and Korea.

Is this due to Chinese languages being more compatible with learning English, or is it due largely to the greater tenacity and desire for learning that drives Chinese learners.

To be honest, I think it’s possibly a bit of both.

One thing is for sure, teaching English to Chinese learners has been a hugely enjoyable and rewarding exercise, and one in which I feel privileged to have partaken.

At AF, all our English courses are taught exclusively by highly trained, native speaking teachers. We have a range of courses from beginner right up to university level. Contact us today and see how we can help you take your English to the next level.

Entrance interviews: Tips from a survivor

Interviews, be they for jobs, schools, colleges or universities are a highly stressful business.

In both my academic and working life, I have had to undertake numerous interviews, and, thankfully I have a success/fail ratio of about 2 to 1. In short, whatever it is that most interviewers expect, somehow, I seem to have it.

Of course as a journalist, a teacher and an occasional trainer, it could be said that I do have the “gift of the gab” as it were.

Indeed, I always do my best to promote my interpersonal skills as a major selling point at every opportunity when applying for new jobs or courses.

However, there is more to passing an interview than simply knowing what to say.

Here, there are my top tips on how to navigate that final, often fatal hurdle to realizing your college study dreams:


1. Think Independently

Especially in the context of university or college entrance interviews, in almost all cases the interviewer is far more interested in your capacity for independent thought and improvisation than in hearing you regurgitate the same stock answers that you think they “want to hear”. Do not follow a script, do not just say what you think the interviewer would like you to say. Instead, make rough notes on the broad range of topics and key points you want to cover in the interview. Be prepared to improvise, to change tack and to adapt your answers in order to fit with the natural flow of the conversation.


2. Over-preparing is just as bad as under-preparing

Anybody who has ever watched US drama or comedy shows on TV knows how much Americans love to talk! This is why, especially in the context of US universities, it is often the case that admissions staff cite the failings that students from China and other Asian countries are “too shy, too quiet, and too indecisive.” You need to challenge and defeat these ill-conceived stereotypes by speaking clearly, confidently and with the conviction and the belief that what you are saying is genuine, accurate and appropriate to the situation. Preparation is key. Research the school, its history, its standing and its more illustrious alumni. Have a clear vision of why this is the school you want to study in, and why you should be allowed to do so. Think not only of what the school can do for you, but also consider what you can bring to the school and its community. How will your being admitted enhance the school’s standing? What contribution can you make? You need to consider this point carefully and be sure to articulate it as best you can at the interview.

Conversely, it’s also important not to prepare too much. Especially at the higher end schools and universities, there will be a huge number of candidates interviewing each day. You may only have a few minutes to show the interviewers your best. If you waste that time waffling through page after page of pre-prepared notes, you could irreparably damage your chances of admission. Don’t do it. Also, engaging your audience is a key part of an interview or indeed any similar such verbal assessment. You don’t want to come across as droning, boring or otherwise tedious candidate. Keep your answers succinct and to the point. Elaborate where you can, but be aware of your audience. The minute you see their interest begin to wane, wind up your answer and prepare to answer the next one.


3. Be professional and mature at all times

In both the US and the UK the words “well-rounded”, “mature” and “professional” are often banded around by colleges and universities when we ask them to articulate how to describe their ideal candidate. But what do these “buzz words” actually mean?

Let’s look at well-rounded first of all. Again, common criticisms of students from this part of the world revolve around them being too timid, too focused on academia, but again this is usually not the case, but in interviews with foreign institutions we need to challenge these prejudices by projecting an image of confidence, both academic development and an accompanying “common sense”.

Maturity is perhaps a little easier to define. Going to university or college is for most people that final step from adolescence to adulthood. The interviewers want to see this newly emergent adulthood in you when you interview. Don’t sit there playing with your phone while you wait to be called, don’t bring mum and dad with you to the interview. Of course your parents want to be supportive, but if you project the image of being overly dependent on them then it hardly projects the image of confident, self-assured young adult.

Professional also ties in, to some extent with maturity. We need to project the right image. Dress smartly. A suit may not be necessary, but jeans and a t-shirt is certainly not appropriate. Get there early, but not too early. Know exactly where you need to be and when, then plan to be there about 10-15 minutes ahead of time. Any less and you risk being late, any more than that and you risk being an imposition to the institution you are attending. As in all cases, it’s important to strike the right balance.


4. Above all, stay calm, and be confident.

College interviews are some of the most stressful encounters you will experience in your adult life. Their outcome and your eventual academic destiny will leave a lasting impact that will echo through the rest of your life. Remember however, that you must have something that they like, otherwise you wouldn’t have gotten the interview in the first place. Keep that thought inside you as you enter the interview, do your best and with a bit of luck, all will be well.

Expanding Horizons: Why Study Abroad?

Today, our world is one of constant and ever-accelerating change. With this increased change comes a greater interconnectivity. Never before in human history have the borders between nations and cultures seemed so easily broken down.

As the social climate continues to evolve towards greater integration and globalisation, there are even greater demands on higher education institutions around the world. Today’s universities and colleges are being tasked by employers with producing not just well-rounded, work ready individuals, but global citizens. Citizens who are able to move beyond the comfort zone of their own home country and embrace an international outlook.

For an economic powerhouse like China, this has led to a massive increase in the number of citizens choosing to study abroad.

Whilst Chinese domestic universities and colleges frequently score highly on the world rankings, they haven’t quite yet earned the international fame and reputation that the Likes of Harvard, MIT and Stanford enjoy in the US, nor the prestige that comes with the likes of Oxford and Cambridge in the UK.

For the greatest chance to secure the best positions, with the highest profile employers, both at home and abroad, Chinese students continue to look west to the US and the UK to give them the edge on the domestic talent pool.

Of course, it is not only about the end results. Besides benefiting your future career prospects, studying in the US or UK affords those fortunate enough to do so a variety of other benefits too.

For example, let us look at the method of instruction.

In most traditional universities in China, teachers and lecturers tend to subscribe to a more traditional, Confucian teaching methodology. Following this teaching pattern, most learning is done via a lecture format. Students listen, they observe, they make notes. Very little time is given to discussion or debate. The teacher, or lecturer’s learning outcomes are presented as “matter of fact” and students are not encouraged to question or seek clarification directly from their teacher.

In the UK and US, asking questions and debating outcomes is seen as a vital element of “Enquiry Skills” which in many disciplines are given an equal weighting to “knowledge and understanding” when it comes to final assessment.

More importantly, these skills also foster a greater sense of self-awareness and independent thinking in students which will serve them well in their future careers, especially if they wish to embark on any kind of entrepreneurial or creative enterprise in the future.

On the subject of independence, this is of course another great reason to study abroad. Living independently, in a new place, surrounded by new people and without the safety net of friends and family close at hand can be one of the most empowering experiences of your life.

As someone who has lived outside of his country of origin for the past 10 years, I can say without any doubt that moving to Asia, to seek my own independence was one of the best decisions I ever made. It made me confident, determined and it enlightened and empowered me in more ways than I could ever express in simple words.

Simple things, like learning to communicate in a foreign language, getting to grips with a radically different culture, with differing societal norms and expectations, will give you an exhilarating rush like no other.

There is also the chance to rub shoulders and exchange ideas with the future leaders of the world.

Take for example, the current government of the UK. More than 60% of the current front bench cabinet attended the same finishing school, Eton. Likewise, almost all of them went on to study at Oxford. The networks they built up during those formative years have carried them all right through to the very highest levels of UK society.

Likewise in the US, you will find that the likes of Harvard, MIT, and Stanford also boast a great number of high ranking members of present and former US governments amongst their illustrious alumni.

Whether you think it is fair or not, the fact of the matter is that in today’s world, those who study at the top schools have the best chance of landing the highest profile jobs later in life.

Even if you decide not to follow on into a multi-national firm after you graduate, should you decide to go with a domestic company or even strike out on your own, the friends, contacts and social network you will build at these elite schools and colleges will serve you well throughout your working life.

At a simpler and more base level, studying in the UK or US will greatly enhance your English skills. Communicating every day, in English, at an academic level for the duration of a 4 year degree will, hopefully leave you with a near-native level of speaking, reading and writing ability. You will also develop a better sense of correct usage and appropriacy, which can come only with consistent, native level interactions on a daily basis.

So in short summary, studying abroad will benefit your personal development, your language abilities, your self-confidence, your communicative and interpersonal skills, and most of all, your future career prospects.

At AF we offer a complete one-stop service to help you make the best choice of where to go for your study abroad program. Come see us today for a consultation and take that all important first step towards realising your full potential.

Excelling in English Writing: Tips From a Professional

For as long as we have had written languages, there have always been scholars, artists, poets and writers looking to get as much as they can out of the written word.

Whether it’s a 10,000 word thesis on chemical compounds, a passionate poem for your lover, a 3 line haiku, or even just a 120 character, expletive-ridden rant on social media, the written word has always had the power to leave a definitive and long lasting impression.

How many words do you think that you actually read in a day? Whilst it certainly won’t compare to the tens of thousands that the average person speaks and hears in a day, it’s probably a lot more than you may think.

Some writings tend to stick in our mind more than others. An evocative newspaper column may have you considering various issues and arguments for days afterwards. Likewise a dirty joke you read may also have you rushing to tell all your friends before someone beats you to it.

Writing is a thing of beauty, and is there to be explored and admired.

But what makes a good writer, and how can we emulate them?

As someone who has had the good fortune to have his work published in around half a dozen countries, I guess maybe I can offer some advice. So here for you today, I present some of my top tips to improving your writing.


1. Keep it sharp, keep it simple.

Often, some of the most impactful and memorable pieces or writing we see are incredibly short. Newspaper headlines are a classic example. How do you sum up a potentially world-changing event in just the 5 or 6 word limit that front page headline gives you?

When getting creative with your writing, one must always resist the temptation to get too flowery with one’s wording, and in an attempt to add further texture, tone and colour to one’s own ramblings, become somewhat disconnected from the stated goal of the piece and thereby slide off into superfluous hyperbolae. The previous sentence is a prime example of this!

Getting too wordy will only alienate your readers. It’s not big, it’s not clever and, especially in an academic context, it won’t impress anyone.

Read some of the journalists in the international press. You’ll notice that even in the quality broadsheet press, the vocabulary may be more elaborate, but the writer still retains a short, sharp, punchy prose style that keeps the reader onboard.


2. Do not use words that you don’t fully understand.

I get it, we all like to give off the impression of being well-educated, especially in an academic or professional setting. However, we must always resist the tendency to use a word that we think sounds intellectual but whose full meaning and context we are not completely sure of. As a case in point, I get really annoyed when people say things like “It’s literally raining cats and dogs out there!”

If that really were the case, I think the animal welfare groups in your community would have a lot to say about it!

Of course, the error here stems from the writer confusing, perhaps unintentionally, the meanings of “literally” and “figuratively”.


3. When in doubt, follow the “5 Ws”

Is your writing detailed enough? Have you included all the relevant information? In particular, non-native speakers of English, who make up the bulk of the students I have taught in my time, have a tendency to leave out a lot of information, believing that they lack the vocabulary to fully express themselves.

Contrary to their belief, it doesn’t necessarily take a huge vocabulary to write a detailed piece.

The 5 Ws I referred to in my headline are: Who, what, where, when and why. Each story that you write, and indeed each sentence, must aim to address as many of these as possible. Indeed, in my days as a journalist and editor, I could say conclusively that any story that did not answer all of these 5 points would not be approved by me for publication.

As an example, here’s a sentence a student of mine wrote. The aim of the exercise was to get the student to write at least 70 words on the theme “What did you do during summer vacation?”

Here is what she wrote:

“I went to Kyoto, it was fun.”

At seven words, it isn’t even close to the target, and it would seem there is little hope for this student. Not so if we apply the 5 Ws.

I asked her to write, in note form, the 5 Ws. Here is what she wrote:

Who: Me, my family

What: a weekend trip

Where: Kyoto, Kinkakuji Temple, Kiyomizu Temple

When: Last Friday

Why: Because we wanted to see historic places in Japan.

Using this information, I asked her to redraft the sentence:

“Last Friday, my family and I took a weekend trip to Kyoto in Japan.

We wanted to see many historical sites, so we visited the Kiyomizu and Kinkakuji Temples. It was a lot of fun.”

With just this one small thought exercise the word count has multiplied by a factor of 5 to 35. Still not quite at the required level yet, but a massive improvement for sure.


4. Drafting is good, but don’t overdo it

Writers, much like painters and craftsmen can have a notoriously fiery artistic temperament. We are always looking a ways to make a piece that little bit sharper, more impactful or perhaps funnier. In truth, once your writing has gone through multiple drafts, what you are left with may be radically different from what you had initially intended. In doing so, you lose the essence of what you were originally trying to write.

In order to avoid this, as a general rule, I only redraft work once or twice. After 3 drafts, I feel it’s probably as good as its going to get, without compromising on the feeling of the piece. Other writers may disagree with me on this, but as someone who is frequently published internationally, I have to say it is a methodology that has always worked for me.


5. Above all, take pleasure in your writing.

At the end of the day, human nature is such that we naturally perform better in a task when we enjoy it. This is why in school I was frequently top of the class in English and social studies, but rock bottom when it came to mathematics and religious studies. The latter subjects never interested me and as such my performance waned.

Write about things that interest you, write at your own pace and above all, don’t force it. When you hit a wall, take a break and regather your thoughts. We all have the writing gift inside of us somewhere, the key is knowing how to bring it out.