Learning English, Chinese-Style

During the winter vacation, we asked our students to study English on their own, and so they ran across the street to China’s top English teaching company to take vocabulary classes. After school started back we noticed a sharp deterioration in our student’s English ability, so we looked into why. And when our students reported to us how they learned English vocabulary at the English school, we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), a three-hour multiple-choice examination that Chinese students must take in order to apply to US colleges and universities, is essentially a vocabulary test, and that’s why Chinese students will spend three years memorizing English word lists. The school in question specializes in creating mnemonic systems to help Chinese students crack the SAT.

Many are well-known: identifying common suffixes and prefixes, locating Latin or Greek roots, employing rhyming schemes, and visualizing words. But some teachers there have created and are promoting a mnemonic system that shows what absurd lengths Chinese students will go to in order to avoid learning English to take English tests.

At this school, our students said they spent eight days learning to memorize English words using pinyin. For example, in the word ‘famine,’ there’s embedded in it the Chinese phrase ‘fa mi ne,’ which means ‘hand out rice.’ So a ‘famine’ is when people need to be handed out rice.

That’s so clever and disingenuous it’s almost a pity that it’s so silly and useless.

And here’s a trick for remembering the meaning of the words fawn, pawn, spawn, brawn, lawn, yawn, and dawn: Fei lai de xiao lu Pa dian dang, xiao She zai qian cai chan luan, Bu yao ji rou Lai cao ping, Da ge ha qi Dao li ming. (This translates as: “The fawn that is flying this way is afraid of pawn; Only when the snake is in front does it spawn; You don’t need brawn to come to the lawn; Yawn once, and it is dawn.’) The capitalized letter is that which should be combined with ‘-awn,’ and the adjacent italicized words are the Chinese meaning.

This is perhaps the world’s most convoluted way to learn seven simple English words, and you’ll notice that it’s not perfect because in the phrase ‘Da ge ha qi’ the letter D ought to be the letter Y.

There’s a fine line between what’s stupid and what’s dangerous. Entertaining students with these silly tricks is harmless, but the teachers also encourage gullible and impressionable students to create their own mnemonic systems based on pinyin.

First, if students just love memorization and are making the effort to create mnemonic systems based on pinyin, wouldn’t it be more effective to just remember well-written New York Times articles? Or how about taking the same amount of time, and reading Anna Karenina?

Second, this methodology treats English as basically an oversized periodic table of elements: meaningless words to memorize for tests. That’s a short-sighted and counter-productive attitude to take, and by encouraging students to snuggle inside their small comfort zone, these teachers are also making it harder for students to challenge themselves, and to learn real English.

In fact, the teachers at the school have told our students that they’ve developed techniques for beating the SAT reading section without needing to read the passages on which the questions are based.

Ten years ago, the school reportedly found itself in a copyright infringement battle with Education Testing Services (ETS), which writes and administers the SAT. Beijing Television (BTV) interviewed me, and asked me if I sided with the school or ETS. My thinking back then is the same as my thinking now: the problem is society’s blind faith and heavy reliance on national standardized multiple-choice examinations to determine its winners and losers. This school is a multi-billion dollar that has taken traditional Chinese test-taking strategies (identifying common answers to common questions, doing statistical analysis of the occurrence of certain questions, etc.) and applied them to the Scholastic Aptitude Test with remarkable success. It has actually done humanity a favour by proving that ETS tests (the SAT and Graduate Record Examination) are simply a test of vocabulary that can be beaten without knowing much English.

That’s why our school doesn’t teach the SAT, instead emphasizing an ability to think in English through reading and discussing English books.

At first, there was fierce parental criticism and resistance—until our students went to the language school and reported to their parents that their English vocabulary was increasing much faster in our programme. Having experienced both our English curriculum and this vocabulary cram school, our students now appreciate how they’re learning to understand and use English in context through intense reading. A month back into our programme, with newfound conviction and motivation, our students’ English ability has improved dramatically.

Maybe we should make it mandatory to try out this other place after all…


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