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Can I Teach English In China if I Can’t Speak Chinese?

Chinese students

If I can’t speak Chinese and they can’t speak English, then…..

It has one of those statements for me, you know, the ones we classify under “If I had a nickel for every time I heard that one, I’d be…”.  The thing is, at one time I was guilty of asking this question myself: I want to be an English teacher, but how on earth can I teach English to Chinese students if I don’t speak Chinese? After a little on-line reading following my big decision to teach English in China, some websites were able to give me some peace of mind on the matter and were able to answer questions from my parents, grandparents, and basically everyone who knew – notice the emphasis on “some” peace of mind, I’d never been to China to teach English so I couldn’t really know for sure.

The thing I most feared, and I think many people fear when they ask this question is arriving in China and finding themselves standing in front of a class of children or adults who cannot speak any English. The thought process would then say that since the teacher cannot speak any Chinese, there would be no communication in the class which would result in major embarrassment for the teacher, students being unhappy, no learning happening– a big failure all around.  If only the teacher could speak Chinese, then they could really teach something!

The numbers on on the way up

There are a few problems with this fear which are important to know before you head off to teach English in China. First of all, research done by a Chinese student in the USA estimates that as of 2006 there were 250-300 million Chinese people (men, women, and children) learning English.  This is an astounding number-one near equal to the number of people in America.

Performance graph
These numbers suggest a few things related to our original question.  The first is that the number of classes where there is zero English knowledge is practically non-existent, if you teach English in China nearly every student will have a t least some English which you can build on.  The second is that with one-fourth of the population (or more) wanting to learn English there surely comes with a degree of interest, drive, and passion for that trend.

Two things in China that are definitely surging are the rate of growth in China and the number of English speakers.

Teaching English to low level adults

From personal experience, these two conclusions are typical, especially for teaching adult students.  I specifically remember an adult “Level 0” class in my first year teaching English in China. Even though my Chinese level wasn’t something I wanted to show off in class, and my student’s were considered level 0 – certainly no experts at English; we were still able to have productive class because of the passion and interest.  It also helped because most classes were designed around decent curriculum and were able to work around concepts the students had either a small understanding of or had heard in a recent previous lesson.

Adventures teaching English with Young Learners

Despite hearing from the language center when they hired me that it was “no problem” that I did not speak any Chinese, I still wasn’t quite sure how exactly I was going to teach English to Chinese students – especially with younger learners.  I always tried playing scenarios out in my mind and they always seemed like they would work, but I just couldn’t be sure.  In my TEFL training I’d read something about the best way to conduct a class to L2 (second language) learners was to make them speak in the language they are there to learn.  Let me first say that this idea alone wasn’t enough to turn me into a polished teacher, but at the same time the simple goal of getting students to talk in English (instead of me in Chinese) was something I could aim for in every class and get some positive outcomes from every class. In fact, a lot of schools actively discourage any Chinese in the classroom, from students or teacher as complete immersion in English is the preferred approach.

Teach English in China - Young Learners

Within a few months of teaching English in China I had worked out a strong foundation of strategies to get students talking in English.  I especially enjoyed working with the young learners (students aged 7-12).  During class we would do activities like art projects, playing language games, and singing songs, and engaging in activities that would challenge them to learn a new piece to the English language puzzle.

Overcoming the language barrier

I found that the way to get students to engage in these various activities was often as easy as language modeling.  This would consist of presenting a new language point, then saying it myself.  After showing the students how to do it and giving a little guided practice which required no Chinese, we’d shoot off into a new activity or game where they could use the new language point while having a blast with their foreign teacher and classmates.

Using some of these tips, I was able to overcome the “language barrier” and really enjoy myself teaching English in China.  Employing strategies like these and time logged in the classroom will no doubt help anyone overcome this language barrier.  Knowing it for myself and seeing many others succeed without even speaking a word of Chinese, I can tell you for sure:  You don’t need to be able to speak Chinese to teach English in China.

James Goode has been teaching in China for almost 6 years now, and uses chopsticks very well.  You can follow him on twitter at @texinchina.  He admits to loving Texas, his university, China, food, and his family.  He sincerely hopes you don’t tell his wife that his room is messy.

Read more articles on living and teaching in China here.

Gold Star TEFL Recruitment has been assisting teachers secure the very best teaching jobs in China since 2009 and has close connections with China’s leading schools. For details on teaching jobs at Disney English, Wall Street English and English First have a look through our website and submit an application today.

Comments

  1. Hugo Baw says:

    Why wouldn’t his wife know his room is messy?

  2. Becky says:

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    on the web. I am going to highly recommend this website!

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