Tag Archives: ESL teachers

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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Teaching Materials Series: Videos

People get tetchy at the mention of using videos in the classroom – and sure, there’s little educational value in learners zoning out in front of a cartoon with no context! But done right, video is a great way to engage learners, enlarge their horizons and – our crucial aim here at Struck Fluent – encourage them to produce language.

Here are a few of our fave video resources and how we use them:

TED talks

A language teacher’s manna from heaven, TED offer engaging material on a host of topics from social issues to environmental concerns; from philosophy to the latest scientific research. In other words, material to suit the needs and interests of every learner – this is great news for us as we’re all about tailoring our sessions to learners’ individual needs! TED talks are mainly in English which make them a go-to ESL resource but there are a few foreign-language talks too. The one above is a firm fave of mine addressing the status of English as a global language and the harm it may be doing – guaranteed to get even the most reticent second-language speakers talking!

Once I’ve selected a talk, I’ll use a range of techniques to approach the video. I might begin by discussing issues around the selected theme, then watch the video once in order to establish its gist. I’ll then do a second watch with some more detailed questions to answer, and end with sharing views on the speaker’s position or (if it’s a larger class) a debate. TED also include transcripts of all their talks, which are useful for detailed listening practice and language study. As an added bonus, you’ll find all kinds of accents and dialects in the talks, which is great for reinforcing the concept of World English and introducing learners to new sounds and expressions.

The News

We tend to use a mix of target-language clips like this one (ie those for and by speakers of the foreign language) and those specially created for language learners, like A la Une, above. Resources like these are great for leading engaging sessions around current affairs and present the opportunity to learn and practice grammar and vocabulary in a meaningful context. Research shows that this makes it much easier to remember, which is great news for our learners!


Similarly to picture books, these are a great way to build confidence for lower-level learners as they tend to use minimal words and focus on visual images. For this reason, we often like to play the infographic with the sound off to begin with, allowing learners to glean and discuss the overall meaning of the clip, before adding the sound and moving onto a more detailed discussion of the information.

To state the obvious, infographics are particularly useful to quickly show learners concepts or processes that might be boring or time-heavy to explain in words, and will definitely not appeal to visual learners. To this end, I’ve used infographics to introduce learners to the difference between England, Britain and the UK (tricksy distinctions for non-Europeans in particular – my Korean students were surprised to learn they were not one and the same!) or to processes like the water cycle in the clip above.

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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