… and why I know I shouldn’t

I admit. I might very well speak a little too much Chinese to my Chinese students during class, and I know my supervisor has advised me to focus more on speaking English in class all the time. I completely understand the idea of immersing the students in an all-English environment at school, but when you are teaching young children, like I am, who, before they started your class, had little to no English capabilities at all, I find it impossible to never use Chinese with my students, and expect to keep them motivated, engaged and sometimes, in line.

Having an entire lesson where you only speak English, is great. And it does happen. But communication goes both ways, and it doesn’t really help, if you are the only person talking. I have very few students, who have a proficiency in English where we can talk and do a class in English all the time, but the ones where I know they can, we do. For the most part, I make it clear to my students that I do speak Chinese, but since we are having English class, we should all speak English. I teach a couple of students one-on-one and they are generally higher-level students. This means that even when I explain new words to them in English, they know so much already, that they just pick it up. My younger, lower level, students, though, get frustrated and bored when they do not understand. And there are, simply, just some words, that you cannot mime, or paraphrase or whatever.

I use Chinese in my classroom, mainly for classroom management. I refrain from teaching in their native language, but use Chinese to let students know to sit down, not to talk and such things. I always try to use English first, and I can feel that the students understand the words by hearing it in English, and then listening to me saying it again in Chinese. They are picking it up, and they remember the English word next time I say it, making classroom management gradually easier.

I use translation exercises during class as well, sometimes checking for the meaning of a word by asking the students to say it in Chinese. It helps confirm that they know the word and an added bonus is that, sometimes I will take a minute for the students to teach me the word as well. Also, being able to speak Chinese, I think I can form a closer bond with the students. I am not fluent, but I understand 60 percent of what they say, and I can usually answer back. I speak English to my students first, and then resort to Chinese if I must. In class, I tell my students to ask permission from me, before speaking Chinese, which means I can control how much of it they use.

But with little kids, I think it is unfair to throw them in  a room with a foreign teacher, and expect them to learn in English. There are, supposedly, theories that support the notion that, the faster you start learning English, the better you will ultimately become. Fair, enough, makes sense. But a three-year-old, who has never studied English before, can barely speak Chinese in a classroom with a foreigner who doesn’t speak Chinese and keeps blabbing in English? Sure, you repeat it enough times and they will eventually repeat after you. But what happens when the child needs the restroom, falls and gets hurt, feels sick or doesn’t want to sit in his/her chair? I can look at them and yell all I want, all they see is the funny bald man screaming, seemingly with no purpose.

Yes. Students should speak English, that is why they are there. Yes, we should try not to use their native language, but we have to be fair and balanced, I think in what we expect from teachers and students. I do not expect someone who has never spoken Danish before, to stand in front of me and have a conversation. I can teach him, sure, but I cannot manage him. In order to be in a classroom, that is English-only and immersive, students will need to have a basic understanding of the language and it’s use. If not, there should be a permanent native assistant in the room, to help manage when they need to pee or start fighting. The problem with that, is the students start following the assistant rather than the teacher, making the teacher obsolete.

This is my main problem with private training schools, like the ones I have, and still am, working with in China. Enrolling students are getting increasingly younger and we can have a class of 6 students aged 3-4 all by ourselves. We can have a TA for a couple of months, but eventually we have to teach the class on our own. The teaching part is fine, but managing the students? They do not understand when I tell them to sit down, or to stop fighting. I hear you saying from behind the screen, “So, teach it to them!”. It’s not that simple. Students understanding and knowing the meaning of the word, doesn’t necessarily mean that they will follow it. How many times have you told your own child, to go clean up their room without them doing it. I can teach my students, the meaning of “sit down” and be “quiet”, but what do I say when that doesn’t work? Do I just repeat myself until they listen?

What about TTT (Teacher talking time). We are supposed to talk a little as possible, to let the students speak more, correct? So is it efficient use of classroom time for me to try and explain a word or a grammar structure in English, if they students do not understand and I re-explain. What if, instead of using English for 10 minutes, I can explain it with Chinese in just 2, and use the remaining 8 minutes for the students to practice in English with each other? Isn’t that more effective use of everyone’s time? I am no expert, I am merely speaking from my own experiences here.

I have 5 VIP classes, (one-on-one) they are all 10-11 years old, except one who is only 5. Two girls, both 10, have a good and very good level of English. I teach them for 1½ hours once a week, and we speak English 98% of the time. They have the basics, they understand enough to have a fluent conversation and teaching them is a breeze. One boy is 11, his English is good, we speak English maybe 90% of the time. Another boy is 10, we may reach 85% but we use Google Translate a lot to help learn how to say things in English. Lastly, my 5-year-old needs a little more help, I’d say we are at about 65-70% English. For me, a 5-year-old doing 70% of a one-hour class in English, is pretty good.

But you cannot just judge the age, it is about level. I have a group class of 5 students, all 10-11 years old. Active kids, some more motivated than others. But their basic understanding of English is not very good. I got these students transferred from a Chinese teacher, and I expected them to have a good command of English and at least understand basic classroom language. But they do not listen or understand instructions in English and they seem determined to not respond unless I address them in Chinese. 50% English.

I have 4 young children’s classes of 6 students each. Their level is not very good, but they seem eager to learn. They are always happy to see me and we have fun in class. With them, I use Chinese to speed things up, save time explaining and my students know that me telling them to sit down in Chinese, means it’s time to do what they’re told otherwise a punishment is coming. I have taught them the basic language and classroom myself, they had more or less no English when they started, and because they know me, trust me, and know that I can understand when they ask permission to speak Chinese. I tell my students, today, no Chinese. And we make it a goal, and we try. We always fail, but they are trying to speak English, even to each other. They are from 7-10 years old, and in these classes, we are at 75-85% in English, depending on the topic and how hard it is for them.

Lastly, I have two classes with young learners aged 3-5. Words and sentences are taught in English, I try to illustrate and model games using English as much as I can, but classroom management, is, for me, mostly done in Chinese 45% English. And believe me, these little kids take you far more seriously when you sound like their dad, than the funny bald foreigner yelling words that make no sense.