Language Learning Around the World: East Asia

In the first of a series of blogs about approaches to language learning around the world, French and ESL tutor Lucy dives into the turbo-charged testing systems and culturally divisive world of English teaching and learning in East Asia, drawn from her time living and working in China, South Korea and Vietnam.

Teaching to the Test: English as a Commodity

In many East Asian countries students spend their entire school careers preparing for a single high-stakes, summative exam. This is teacher-speak for one massive, multiple-choice test at the end of Year 13 which determines essentially your entire life, from which university you can go to, which career you can aspire to and who you’ll be able to marry. A testing system like this demands the reduction of learning to measurable chunks of information that can be tallied up to generate a numerical result for comparison with that of other learners. There is absolutely a place for this kind of testing – it’s a useful tool for keeping an eye on how the mechanics of language, or any kind of rote-learned facts and figures, are being learned. When knowledge starts to exceed such measurable chunks though, the test’s usefulness starts to peter out. I mean, how do you reduce an entire language to a multiple-choice quiz? How do you judge a person’s spontaneous understanding and spoken communication; their written composition? What about pronunciation? As it turns out, for a start, you remove any spoken and compositional element. Then you give learners chunks and chunks of dull (I mean, deathly dull) passages with some bits underlined. Then you get them to say which of the underlined bits are grammatically wrong, or which ones you could substitute with another construction. Over and over and over again. I took one of these tests once. Turns out, being a native speaker and a trained language teacher does not guarantee anything near success. It is, however, quite an efficient way of eroding a lifelong love of language learning.

Unlike an A-Level student who can just drop the subjects they don’t fancy and zero in on their passions to gain entrance to university, in this system if you ain’t got English you ain’t coming in (imagine the uproar if all British universities suddenly started demanding A*s in Mandarin Chinese as a prerequisite for undergraduate entry?) The result of this then, is a system in which those who can pay for high-quality private language tuition, or send their kids to International School, or to an English-speaking country for a year or two, have a clear advantage over everyone else. As a starry-eyed new teacher and language lover, this dismayed me: the world language should be inclusive – it should be a means of opening doors and understanding each other better, linguistically and culturally. Instead, in this context it largely becomes a commodity. One which also functions as a tool of exclusion – of those too poor to pay the tuition fees; of those who aren’t as adept at one, rigid learning style.

Teaching and learning English in (post) colonial societies

The fact that the language being learnt is English comes with its own set of thorny issues. The existence of English as the world language has its roots in Anglo-American colonialism, which presents a deeper, nastier set of barriers to meaningful relationships between first- and second-language speakers and between teachers and learners. High-stakes summative exams have given rise to a booming private tuition industry and the streets of Seoul, Beijing and Hanoi are lined with private English schools offering cram sessions late into the night. They are notoriously shirty employers with transparently racist hiring practices: many straight-up advertise for white teachers only and will openly state that appearance matters more than qualifications. The biggest losers here are clearly the overworked students being taught by unqualified staff, but teachers also report having a hairy time, with unpaid wages, visa issues and the overnight folding of businesses common. What I experienced in East Asia was a widespread, boiling and kinda justified resentment of white teachers: in my case, although I arrived with the best of intentions I was just not aware of the multiple and multi-faceted obstacles my students faced, or of how my occupying a position of authority in their space and society was already problematic. As a white teacher, I was also paid more –  think up to  three times more – than my home-country counterparts for doing much less and getting to take more holiday. These discrepancies existed (albeit to a slightly lesser extent) in both the public and private schools I worked in. It’s very difficult to have meaningful cultural exchange with either students or colleagues when a relationship begins on such uneven turf, and I often wonder what the long-term effects of this will be.

How did you feel about this article? What was your experience of language teaching and learning? Let us know – we love to hear from you!

Lucy McCormick is Head of Client Services at Struck Fluent, a community of tutors specialising in Modern Foreign Languages and ESL. She has extensive experience as a teacher and tutor of French and ESL in the UK, China, Korea, Vietnam and India. When not teaching or language geeking, you can generally find her in the company of a book, a gin or (preferably) both.

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One thought on “Language Learning Around the World: East Asia

  1. […] A-Levels in each. This speaks to the seriousness with which competency in English is taken not only in Europe but worldwide. If you want to attend the world’s best universities (all in the US and UK) you need to pass a […]

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