Category Archives: East Asia

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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On the politics of English names in China

Roughly 12 hours after landing in China, fresh off the back of a messy break-up and fresh out of Europe for the first time in my life, I staggered up to the Reception desk of my new school and introduced myself as coherently as I could manage as the new English teacher.

“You need Fish and Shopping”, the receptionist announced.

“I’m sorry?” I replied, my neural synapses fizzling around vague notions of an Omega-3-and-retail-therapy-based jet lag cure.

“Fish. And Shopping. The HR managers. This way please”

Hang around any group of ESL teachers in the Middle Kingdom for more than five minutes and the subject of their students’ English names will come up. Some are convenient Anglicisations of names or surnames (I taught a lot of Lees and Lynnes); others choose favourite fictional characters (High School classes were rarely without at least one Harry Potter namesake, Draco and Severus included) whilst still others opt for any noun they feel affinity with (my personal fave: the gym aficionado named Muscle).

And to be fair, there is undeniable humour to be found in hearing yourself yell ‘Muscle, Challenge!’ during a heated game of ‘Just a Minute’ with a roomful of teenagers.

But. But. I always felt slightly itchy about not knowing my students’ real names. The standard reason given for the practice of taking English names is that foreigners can’t remember them, or that they’re too tough for us to pronounce. In fact, my school didn’t even list students’ Chinese names on the register. And sure, Chinese names are different to European ones. But…isn’t that kind of par for the course when you go and work in, er, China? It felt disrespectful for me as a teacher to be ‘renaming’ my students for me own convenience. There’s also a particularly nasty history associated with the ‘giving’ of European names by white people to people of colour, which made referring to Xiu Ying as ‘Tina’ especially uncomfortable.

When I approached this topic with my students, their answers surprised me. There was only one who refused to take an English name, reasoning that his two syllables – one of which had more or less the same pronunciation as ‘way’ – would not be beyond the reach of even the most hapless of foreigners. ‘And anyway’, he said, ‘it’s my name. It’s who I am. Foreigners don’t take Chinese names, so why should I change mine?’

His classmates, though, found his attachment to his name as a marker of identity a bit odd, and in fact paradoxically foreign, citing the many times Chinese people have traditionally changed their names to mark a new stage of life. For many of them, an English name was also a handy way of opting out of the finickity etiquette around forms of address: first names are only used for those on the same or a lower social level, otherwise an honourific title must be used. The advantages of bypassing this system – particularly in a business context – were clear.

I was interested to learn that it was my own Eurocentric conception of identity that had contributed to my unease around name-changing. However, the nagging feeling that the practice was part of an unbalanced relationship remained. As my student had said, surely if Chinese names are so hard to remember the difficulty is reciprocated so why wasn’t I ever encouraged to become Liu Xi?

There were to be many more dents in my Eurocentrism by the time I left China, and many more questions than I could hope to explore around the imbalance between the Western world and our expectations of everyone else. But the politics of names and name-changing remains a fascination and I always love to hear views on the topic! Please comment below and let me know your thoughts!

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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Three things UK schools can learn from East Asia. Hint – they’re not what you think

In my last post I looked at the dangers of UK media and policymakers’ championing of the East Asian educational model, and mentioned some of the drawbacks to a system that values high-stakes summative examinations over all  else.

In this post, I’m looking at the positives we can take from the East Asian approach – again, I’m focussing on my time teaching ESL in Korea but my points also apply broadly to many other countries in the region.

Disclaimer: I am not for a second suggesting we adopt the following principles exactly as they exist in Korea – our cultural contexts are too far apart for that. However, I think they may offer some interesting food for thought and could be worked into the British context to our benefit.

  1. Attract the Best

Once a highly respected profession, the status of teaching has taken a huge knock over the last couple of decades. As job conditions have worsened, media attacks on the teachers have become de rigeur. Add to the mix the fact that salaries pale in comparison next to alternative professions and even a die-hard bleeding heart like me can see the attraction of Anything But Teaching.

To address the resultant drop in young people going into teaching, routes into teaching have diversified. In addition to the traditional PGCE, prospective teachers can choose School Centred Initial Teacher Training (SCITT), the controversial Teach First or – a new addition since 2012 – School Direct, which enables graduates in shortage subjects to apply directly to a school and join the teaching team immediately. In spite of this, the dropout rate continues to skyrocket, currently sitting at around a third within the first five years.

In Korea, by contrast, education is held in high esteem as the principal route out of the devastation of the Korean War. Teaching also commands a pay packet way above the OECD average at senior level.  Primary teachers must all train at a select number of institutions and whereas Secondary teachers have more varied options for training, the huge numbers vying to get into the profession mean that schools can afford to be selective.These are just a few of the reasons why teaching is a highly respected profession, is extremely competitive to get into, and has unspurprisingly high retention rates.

2. Let them do their job

Many of the graduates currently rejecting teaching will themselves have come through a State system that has progressively strangled much of the joy out of teaching and learning via a series of ever-changing targets and ever-narrower assessments for both students and teachers.

Over in Korea, although students labour under the yoke of the standardised test, teachers have a much higher level of autonomy – exactly as you would expect of a trained professional. Though my methods (Communicative Language Teaching) differed from my Korean colleagues’, I was largely given free rein in the classroom which allowed me to be vastly more creative, to try out new approaches, and to pick myself up and carry on when they failed. I genuinely believe my teaching improved more during that year than any other as a result.

3. Let them be human!

The real work of teaching lies not in subject knowledge, theory of pedagogy or target-meeting. That’s not to dismiss the value or challenges inherent to these, but any teacher will tell you that the real meat of the job is in building human relationships. Mainly, what this looks like is an attempt to establish mutual trust and respect between yourself and a child in order to get them to allow you to teach them. In the UK, as in much of the Western world, this is a tough call. We are used to compartmentalising our lives – professional v personal; work v home – and we are taught that there are strict limits on how far we should interfere even in our families’ lives and decisions, let alone our students’. Students come to relationships with teachers from the same perspective, making any attempts at trust-building a tricksy balancing act at the best of times, and that’s before coming to students who have additional needs.

While the Korean system is far more academically standardised than our own, and far more stressful in some respects, I observed and was part of pastoral work that I could not have done in the UK simply because we conceptualise the teacher-student relationship so very differently. While Eurocentric depictions of East Asian teachers tend to focus on authoritarian figures, this is only one side of the story: there is a long history of teachers being considered ‘second parents’, with students encouraged to rely on, and form close personal relationships with, them. At first, this was a huge culture shock: when my colleagues blithely commented that their students saw them as family, urged me to take a struggling student for coffee in town to get to the bottom of their troubles, or wondered why I hadn’t accepted my class’ Facebook friend requests, my Safeguarding alarm bells went doolally. And while – again – I wouldn’t recommend following this model to the letter, it made me consider how hard it is in the UK for teachers to break down the barriers between ‘them’ and ‘us’, and how good it felt to be supported in helping my students as whole people in this way.

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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Toughening Up: Changes to UK Assessments and the Fascination with East Asia

The last few years have seen politicians, commentators and the media showing an increased interest in East Asian education systems as a preferable model to our own. Michael Gove’…choice statement back in 2010  that he’d like to see a ‘cultural revolution just like the one they had in China’ (yes, you read that right), the BBC’s School Swap: Korea Style last year, and their provocatively-titled Are our kids Tough Enough? in 2015  are just a few examples of a phenomenon which has accompanied growing criticism of our ‘lazy’, ‘coddled’ pupils and a shift in how they are assessed at GCSE and A-Level.  Coursework has been all but done away with and assessment is now focussed on high-stakes summative examinations, with grade boundaries and course content re-jigged in order to make the exams more ‘challenging’.

The general consensus seems to be that our kids are, in fact, not tough enough – certainly not compared to their East Asian counterparts – and that a return to ‘traditional methods’ and ‘academic rigour’ is the solution.

Here’s the thing though: given that most of the Cabinet have never set foot in a British state school for longer than a photo op, it is highly unlikely that they have spent any length of time in an East Asian state school. While I don’t consider myself to be an expert, I do think my time spent teaching ESL in China, Korea and Vietnam has given me some insight into the impact these decisions are likely to have on teaching and learning in general, and on the teaching and learning of Modern Foreign Languages in particular. The following observations are based on my time in a Korean state school, but many of the principles apply equally to schools in China, Singapore, Thailand and many other East Asian countries.

Teaching to the Test: Turbo Version

For most students, the Su Neung (the standardized university entrance exam) will decide their future. At the age of 18, all students in the equivalent of Year 13 sit the same exam on the same day. On that day, the country stands still: planes are delayed and roads blocked so as not to disturb exam-takers, invigilators wear slippers, and it is not unheard of for students running late to get a police escort to the exam.  If you are a Korean student, the Su Neung marks the culmination of your school career and the finish line of a marathon for which you began competing against every other person in your age group in primary school. If you attend one of Seoul’s more elite schools, you know how you rank against every other student of the same age in the country. By High School, your timetable likely looked something like this:


(BTW, this is for kids in the equivalent of Years 11 and 12. By Year 13, it ran from 6am – 2am).

If the voracious studying doesn’t pay off and you don’t get into the university you hoped for, you might resit the Su Neung the next year. Other than that, it’s the end of the road. There’s no equivalent of adult education, so you can’t go back to college at 25 and do your Su Neung again in order to improve your prospects, and in any case even a year off the expected path is greeted with suspicion by employers, future parents-in-law and society at large. Whatever happens on that one day aged 18, it sets you – for better or worse – on a path for life.The top companies predictably only hire the top graduates of the top universities, and with prospective marriage partners depending on the university on your CV as well as your career, it’s hard not to feel like your whole life has been decided by one very high-stakes exam. For this reason, as well as family and social pressure to do well, if your school was like mine it might have had ‘safety bars’ on the windows, or windows that didn’t open past a certain point.

So what is this test actually like? Typically, it consists of a series of multiple-choice questions in a range of subjects including Maths, History, Sciences, Korean and Modern Foreign Languages. Students will prep for all of these by literally sitting in front of a Su Neung textbook with a ruler and memorising it word for word, line by line. You would think that this couldn’t work for Modern Foreign Languages – after all, how can you test the ability to communicate with a set of tick-box questions? The answer is simple: there is no test of spoken or written communication. At all. This in turn means that teaching focusses entirely on rote-learning vocabulary and grammatical structures, and on exam skills. All the UK teachers you hear getting irate about being forced to teach to the test, and it being the thin end of a wedge? This is the thick end.

Impact on Language Learning

Needless to say, this doesn’t lead to the most confident speakers, writers or in-context users of language. Conversely, my East Asian tutors have been universally appalled by what they saw as my stupidity and laziness (high points include the Chinese tutor who would hit the table and shout ‘NO!’ every time I mispronounced a tone – which was often – and my Korean tutor’s genuine mystification at my inability to learn 100 new words a day).

Meanwhile, I was merrily teaching away according to contemporary ESL methodology which is based on Communicative Language Teaching (CLT). CLT basically aims to make students talk to each other as much as possible: the vast majority of lessons consist of peer-peer communication in pairs or small groups. The teacher acts more as a facilitator, grouping students strategically then initiating and monitoring interactions between them and providing feedback. New grammar or vocabulary is introduced and drilled by the teacher, but thereafter students practice the language together in realistic contexts. Rather than the teacher simply correcting errors as they hear them, they are put on the board at the end of a stage or a lesson for students to mull over and correct together with discreet monitoring and guidance. Aside from upping the time students spend interacting in English, this is intended to reduce anxiety around making mistakes – it’s less stressful to be corrected by a peer during group work than by a teacher in front of the whole class.

I noticed, though, that even in groups with whom had a strong rapport, many students felt stressed by making the switch from their normal teaching style to the communicative method. This was partly because of a morbid fear of mistake-making and loss of face, and partly because there seemed little point wasting an hour learning how to do a Western-style debate when it contributed not a jot to the very high-stakes exam they had been preparing for since the age of 6.

And here’s the rub – there was plenty of good to be found in my Korean school, and in the generalised East Asian approach to teaching and learning, too. In fact, I’ll talk about it in my next post. But it was certainly not to be found in high-stakes assessment methods, or in the ‘toughness’ expected of the students. I fear that the current, much-oversimplified and un-nuanced representation of East Asian school life in the context of such changes to our own system will do our pupils more harm than good.

Lucy McCormick is the Owner and 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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