Learning English in China: Is Communicative Language Teaching a Reality?

By Siemon, Anne | Practically Primary, June 2010 | Go to article overview
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Learning English in China: Is Communicative Language Teaching a Reality?


Siemon, Anne, Practically Primary


The purpose of my trip to China was two-fold. Firstly, having visited China some nine months earlier, I was interested to see what influence the Olympic Games had had, particularly in relation to the extent of the use of English. Secondly, I was interested in observing the pedagogical approach and textbooks used to teach English at the schools and universities we were to visit. Specifically, I wanted to know to what extent the communicative language teaching approach was being adopted.

My initial impressions of China in December 2007 were of Beijing and Shangai and were mixed. The use of English was limited. It was particularly surprising that, even in the hotels and taxis of Beijing, very limited English was used. Some signs were translated into English, but often with amusing results such as this one from the panda enclosure at the Beijing Zoo.

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On my return in October 2008 with the delegation after the Olympic Games, I found there was very little change in the use of English by the general population in the community. The signs remained rather interesting, such as this one seen on the Great Wall.

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Other signs such as this one in a park in Guiyang were translated into English, resulting in a very awkward and amusing interpretation.

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Large road safety signs, however, were not translated, but were supported by quite unambiguous pictures.

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In China, English is seen as a means of promoting modern scientific and technological advances as well as promoting commerce. The Chinese government has paid much attention to English learning and teaching since 1978, when an open door policy with the outside world was introduced to rejuvenate the economy. With the more recent big events of the 27th Olympic Games in 2008 and the People's Republic of China's admission to the World Trade Organisation, the Chinese people's interest in learning English has become more intense.

Most research indicates that Chinese students' English learning strategies are primarily focussed on reading and writing, on grammar and translation, and on memorisation of vocabulary. However, research has indicated that this traditional grammar-translation method 'failed to develop an adequate level of communicative competence (i.e. the ability to use the target language for authentic communication)' (Hu, 2002, p.93). It is felt that to promote international exchange, students' communicative competence needs to be improved.

Methods such as grammar translation and audiolingualism, which focus on the form of language gave way in Europe, America and Australia to Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) following the seminal work on communicative competence by Hymes in the early 1970s. While this has taken different forms such as task-based and content-based language teaching and more recently computer-mediated communication, the emphasis has remained on a communicative approach when teaching English as a second or foreign language. Researchers rarely offer a specific definition of CLT, instead referring to the teaching methodology, curricula, processes and goals as related factors. CLT is a way of teaching in which the application of communication activities and target language aims to develop a learner's competence of understanding and exchanging of concepts, ideas, behavioural modes, values, beliefs and cultures.

The fact that language and culture are so inextricably linked leads to difficulties in teaching English as a foreign language in China, as well as to Chinese students in Australia. It has been argued that what we teach and how we teach reflects our attitudes to society and to the individual's place in that society (Prodromou, 1988). The cultures of China and Western society are strikingly different and these differences influence the teaching of English.

So how is English taught and what is taught?

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Learning English in China: Is Communicative Language Teaching a Reality?
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