Don’t speak Chinese….but I’m in China?
If you are reading this article, you are probably thinking about starting one of the most exciting experiences of your life: living and working abroad. What are the expectations for such an experience? Simple: try new food, make friends, immerse yourself in a new culture and learn a new language, just to mention a few. What would your reaction be if your new boss tells you: ‘Don’t speak the language’.
Taking this out of context, it does sound like a strange idea, but put that in the context of an ESL classroom and then, the rules of the game change completely. If you come all the way to China, Korea, Japan or Taiwan, learning the local language should be on your to-do list. The reasons to learn the local language of the country you’ll call home for a year or more will bring you endless advantages and opportunities, like making new friends, being able to order at local restaurants and have a more independent more culturally immersed life.
Since you are reading this, it means you may soon be a valuable member of the many academic teams Gold Star places around Asia. Say you will join the team of a well established school near Beijing and while your new Director of Studies has introduced you to the free on-line Chinese lessons and the in-school lessons (also free), at another training session you hear: Don’t speak Chinese. What?
The phrase “Don’t speak Chinese” is a phrase that you will hear often in ESL classrooms, but why? Well, simply put, ESL teachers want to encourage their students to communicate in English and to provide them with an English speaking atmosphere so they can get the most out of the couple of hours they spend in the classroom.
However, this has been at the center of arguments and disagreements across the board. Some argue that a three year old cannot effectively learn a second language without the instructor speaking in their first language, Chinese (also known as their L1). While some will argue that a three year old will learn faster if the instructor only uses the second language, English (also known as their L2). This debate can be the basis for many articles, the main point here is to remind you, the future ESL teacher, of the importance of delineating when and where the local language will have a role. To better illustrate, let’s have a look at an example.
How to Prepare Myself?
As you jumpstart your career in ESL, you will find yourself in a new country, China for example. Let’s take our well-established school near Beijing as the setting. Even before arriving, try learning some basic expressions, even if your pronunciation is wrong, the fact that you are trying will take you further than if you don’t know any words at all. At your school, after completing the initial training period, you will start attending on-line Chinese lessons as well as classes in school that will help you learn Chinese fast. After a couple of months, as you get to know your students better, you will also get used to some common classrooms expressions, before you know it, you are speaking in Chinese to your students!
If this was an article about the use of L1/L2 in the classroom then the debate would have started, but this is just to advise you. It is amazing that you can develop and acquire a second or third language so quickly, amazing, but use caution. Is using Chinese in the classroom helping at all to achieve your lesson aims? Are you blurring a professional and personal line here? Is the classroom the best and most appropriate place for you to be practicing our newly acquired language? Probably not, whenever in doubt, approach your Director of Studies and if you are really brave, go ahead and spark a debate with your new colleagues.
To conclude, learning the local language has several advantages and one of them is that you will be able to better understand your students, however, remember that you have a lesson with an aim, make sure that remains your highest priority and that the students can have as many opportunities to communicate in English as possible.