09May2013

One Benefit of Learning English in Chinese Schools

Space babies and a space dog in kitschy Chinese art.

Handwriting has never been a strength of Zac’s. He’s a lefty, and started writing aged three.

Then, because current British thinking is that young children should be left to “experiment with mark-making” by themselves – which is ideal if children are “mark-making”, rather less so if they’re actually writing – he wasn’t taught how to shape his letters until he was six.

By that point he’d been writing for roughly half his life.

Further, once instruction did begin, he was taught how to shape his letters the right-handed way, not the left-handed way.

Then I had a go at helping him do things the left-handed way, with worksheets, but he doesn’t like to angle the paper, because it looks weird, and, further, I’m right-handed.

All of which is to say that, between his method, the school’s method and my stab at the left-handed method, his handwriting’s a complete mess.

He’s copying down the lyrics to The Carpenters’ Yesterday Once More at the same rate as the rest of the class. Who seem a little surprised by his unfamiliarity with this seminal classic of American music…

While we’ve unschooled, he’s written almost entirely on the computer, which has done wonders for his actual writing by taking the handwriting element out of the equation.

And stints in English and Balinese primary schools didn’t dent his tendency to print things, although, being older and so more coordinated, he printed things more neatly than before. Calligraphy didn’t take, either.

One week learning English in Chinese middle school?

He’s writing cursive. Painfully neat, but also fairly fast and fluent cursive.

He’s copying down the lyrics to The Carpenters’ Yesterday Once More at the same rate as the rest of the class. Who seem a little surprised by his unfamiliarity with this seminal classic of American music…

As surprised as his teacher will be when he has never heard of that worldwide celebration, International Children’s Day. .

Asked to write an essay, he writes, well, an essay. “But I think I did it wrong,” he says. “You’re supposed to parrot. Not even paraphrase. Just parrot.”

It takes Zac a while to get to grips with the nature of learning English in Chinese schools. Asked to write an essay, he writes, well, an essay.

“But I think I did it wrong,” he says. “You’re supposed to parrot. Not even paraphrase. Just parrot.”

For this is how English is taught in Chinese schools.

You fill in the “right” word in some slightly stilted sentences, or select the right word from a multiple choice sheet, or do a multiple-choice listening comprehension.

You practise a series of essays using sentence and paragraph templates, filling in the gaps with your own interests/hobbies/favourite subjects.

And, fundamentally, you rote learn the template. Divergence from the template is….

… Well, getting it wrong, frankly.

One reason why so many Chinese students, even the most able, struggle when it comes to getting into Anglo universities? Any variation from the required template, let alone initiative, independent thought or creativity, are actively frowned upon in English class from primary on.

“But, why now?” “Because it’s embarrassing. I’m the only English speaker in the school and everyone’s handwriting is better than mine.”

“What’s with the joined-up writing?” I ask him, as we look at his notebooks from school.

“I’ve just started doing it,” he says.

“Why?” I say. “I mean, it looks lovely. But, why now?”

“Because it’s embarrassing. I’m the only English speaker in the school and everyone’s handwriting is better than mine.”

No one has taught him cursive. He’s taught himself.

Largely, it appears, by copying his Chinese peers’ uniformly neat and excellent handwriting.

And, further, he would like me to buy him Tippex.

Go figure.


Propaganda image courtesy of Adam Rice.

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