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TEACHING ENGLISH IN CHINA.

Anyone willing to teach English in China meets with a voracious demand for their skills. As the country steps further onto the world stage, its people seek to communicate in the leading international language. These are a few impressions and hints, necessarily selective, based on my year teaching English in Beijing.

My first direct impression of China was a pleasant surprise at the quick and efficient way the Chinese Embassy in London produced my 'Z' work visa in eight days. The further necessary documents were supplied shortly after arrival by the Foreign Affairs Office at my employers, the Beijing Second Foreign Language University, after they had provided new members of staff with an expenses-paid medical and x-ray examination. The most important document was the green passport-type residence permit. One is supposed to carry it at all times, although it must be said that checks on foreigners in major cities are rare, away from nightspots.

Guidebooks to China rapidly go out of date; formalities tend to be fewer and facilities better when one arrives. Especially if you plan to teach outside one of the main cities, you are well-advised to get up to date information from someone who has taught there recently, or to register with the US-China Educational Exchange. http://members.aol.com/eduexchange/USChinaEdExchange.html and get Yong Ho's excellent China File.

If you plan to teach in China, you first need to decide whether you want to serve as a volunteer or to be paid for your work. One source of volunteer recruitment is Britain's VSO. Another is the British Council Teach in China scheme. Guides to opportunities can be found in the EEL sections of libraries or on the internet.

You also need to examine your motives. If you are planning to leave behind a failed marriage, an unsuccessful career or money worries, forget it. Coming to such a different culture, where you are probably a complete stranger, will not solve your problems or make you rich, and your hosts, the Chinese students, have the right to expect that your mind is fully on the job in working hours. If you are a Christian Evangelical hoping to come to China to propagate your version of Christianity, you should know that proselytizing is forbidden under Chinese law, although it is permitted to discuss religion in class from a cultural point of view. Otherwise, there are only three subjects which you should avoid raising, or weigh your words about if they are raised with you: the status of Taiwan, the 'leading role' of the Communist Party, and alternative lifestyles. As in any country, common sense and common courtesy suggest that one should avoid offending the deeply-held beliefs of one's hosts.

You can certainly get teaching work without any qualifications or experience, although established institutions in the cities now generally expect at least one or the other. If you are new to teaching, you owe it to yourself and your prospective students to obtain either the RSA/UCLES Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults (the Cambridge Certificate) or the equivalent Trinity Certificate. These are the only two basic qualifications for the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language recognized by the UK government and are, incidentally, required for teaching in schools which are accredited by the British Council in the UK or overseas. Being a native speaker may make you a useful role model and source of cultural information, but is no guarantee that you will be a success as a teacher. Chinese students are generally cooperative and good-humoured but they have been known to protest against incompetent teachers and teachers are occasionally sacked. In particular there is good money to be made for the c ompetent teacher of Business English, but teachers who do not deliver can expect short shrift. RSA and Trinity courses are widely available in Britain. They take four or sometimes five weeks. They give an intensive grounding in teaching methods and an introduction to sources of information on teaching materials, grammar, vocabulary, and phonology. The cheapest course in London is at Westminster College, where I trained.

Trainee teachers are asked to digest such handbooks as Learning Teaching by Jim Scrivener (Macmillan Heinemann, 1994) and The Practice of English Language Teaching by Jeremy Harmer (Longman, 1991). It may also be a good idea to have a look at these if you are not sure whether you want to teach English as a Foreign Language and want to know more about what is involved. The basic books you are likely to need as a teacher are available much cheaper in big cities in China than in Britain, under agreements with the British publishers. Reference materials for teachers are usually available at schools and universities, who often prescribe the textbook to be used. (Enquire before you arrive.) For preparing lessons, there is nothing to beat the convenience of having your own copies of a good dictionary (Oxford or Longmans), Michael Swan's Practical English Usage, Murphy's English Grammar in Use and still (although it has its limitations) Anne Baker's Ship or Sheep? If you want or need to choose your own teaching mate rials, there is ample available from major publishers. When choosing it, bear in mind how appropriate it seems to be for China culturally; publishers have recently made big efforts to eliminate cultural bias. Local textbooks vary in quality. Some are full of misprints, errors and inappropriacies; others can stand comparison with imported texts. The main outlet in Beijing is the Foreign Language Bookstore in Wangfujing Street. Teachers planning to go to other cities should check out bookstores in advance and pack some materials as a precaution.

Generalizations about what you can expect as a teacher are difficult, but some attempt may be helpful. Teaching is generally conducted without close supervision, unless the school is one of a chain like Berlitz, which has just opened in Beijing. Chinese administrators tend not to volunteer information, and it is wise to be armed with a checklist of questions. Universities often assign a young teacher to act as 'liaison officer' or waiban. Students' names are usually given in pinyin, the Romanized version of Chinese characters, but sometimes only in characters. The teacher has to get the students to interpret. Often they have English names that bear some relation to the sound or meaning of their Chinese name. Older students make more adventurous choices and I have taught a Genghis Khan and a Jeff Adams. Some of the names they choose are unexpected, such as June (for a boy) and Hugh (for a girl). The funniest of all was a young lady who called herself Scarlett. (Was she Miss Scarlett about to do the dreadful d eed in the dining room with a dagger?) My classes have ranged in size from 22 to 29. Facilities can be basic and not always clean, and photocopying can be limited. But cassette and video recorders are usually available on request or at least by arrangement. Chalk is more common than board pens. Some teaching environments, however, particularly in companies, are state of the art.

Students are rapidly becoming as assertive and demanding as those in the West. Partly this is because in the new, more competitive economy, jobs depend on good marks. Broadly, students' language ability at university entrance is two to three years behind that of their peers in the West, as is evidenced by the kind of public examinations they are required to take. But they are catching up as secondary school teaching improves. Basic grammar is often well known, although students tend to limit themselves to simple tenses, which can render a dull and lifeless impression. Pronunciation is highly variable and natural intonation patterns are generally non-existent. Students' formal vocabulary can be quite extensive and the more advanced sometimes produce somewhat bombastic performances. Because in Chinese one thing is generally represented by one word, students find it difficult to cope with the large numbers of synonyms and near-synonyms in English and press for detailed explanations of the differences. For examp le I was once asked what was the difference between 'true', 'real', 'sincere' and 'genuine'. Giving examples ('collocations') is the best way out. Written assignments are often thought or written in Chinese and then translated, giving rise to such 'Chinglish' as 'TV and I grew up together', to recall one example I discussed with a Chinese colleague.

For cultural reasons, students often have difficulty in critically evaluating propositions and coming down on one side or the other of an argument. One is frequently reminded that every coin has two sides. A technique to overcome this is to hold debates and have the students evaluate their opponents' arguments and produce summaries of both sides' positions. Western communicative methods are increasingly accepted, although sometimes hampered by fixed rows of seats. It can be useful to discuss proposed activities with Chinese colleagues beforehand, who may help by preparing the students for anything unfamiliar. A key point in winning acceptance for new methods is to present a clear aim and offer to demonstrate what has been learnt through mini-tests.

Chinese students expect to be tested more often than their Western counterparts, and the pass mark, I soon discovered, is not 50 per cent but 60 per cent. Teachers are indeed expected to give high marks, reaching into the 90s. One reason, I am told, is to enable the students to qualify for scholarships. Standardization meetings are rare, but departments and school directors reserve the right to moderate marks (usually upwards), which has sometimes led to disputes with Western teachers.

Qualified teachers who are already in China are welcome to apply for training as examiners for the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). The test is run by UCLES, the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (the same people who run CELTA) in partnership with the British Council and IDP Australia. Centres for the test, and training for examiners, are administered in China by the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy (British Council). They plan to increase the number of examiners significantly in response to demand for the test. Two years' post-CELTA experience is generally required to become an examiner (although teachers with less experience are sometimes accepted for training). You should usually be available to examine on two weekends every month and be planning to stay in China for a reasonable time. Examiner training is demanding (as it ought to be). Examiners also have to be ready to abide by a code of conduct, especially in regard to maintaining security ab out the answers to test questions and the criteria for assessment. Full and clear explanations of the test are available to candidates over the internet or in booklet form. In fact, there are no secrets to scoring well at IELTS beyond the information published by UCLES and what can be deduced from any reliable textbook. (For more information about examiner training apply to Sun Jia-Li, Examinations Services Officer, British Embassy, Beijing, telephone 6590 6903 x 286.)

You have to be prepared to make some appreciable adjustments to a different lifestyle and surroundings if you come to China. It can be quite a shock, if this is your first time there, not least because so many signs are only in Chinese characters. That said, you will find Chinese people understanding and helpful; and their, perhaps disconcerting, habit of giggling in unfamiliar situations is not usually meant unkindly. A few words of Chinese, which you can easily pick up, are appreciated. Learning Chinese beyond survival level, however, is quite an undertaking, even confining oneself to the spoken language. Good teachers can be hard to find. One method is to exchange lessons with a Chinese teacher.

English English is preferred in China over American English. There is no obvious reason but there are several factors. First, even fifty years after the end of Empire, Britain still has enormous prestige in Asia. The peaceful handover of Hong Kong took place as recently as 1997. English English is one of the major languages in the EU. Most of all, I believe, English English is preferred because of the number of British textbooks available in China and the fact that a high percentage of those Chinese teachers who have been abroad have been in Britain. The British Government should reconsider its policy on fees for Chinese students as part of developing new ties with China, which is already the world's seventh-largest economy.

Whilst you can live a totally Western lifestyle at a pinch, and at a cost, it seems a pity to do so having come so far. If your idea of good nosh on a Saturday night is chip butties washed down with Newcastle Brown (meaning no disrespect to those traditional items of British fare), you will go a long way to find them in China. In fact, most of the British style pubs are dreary places with indifferent food, uncannily like the 1970s versions they are presumably modelled on.

Chinese food in China is quite a bit different from the Westernized version served in British restaurants, although it is far from being exclusively spicy. The Chinese diet is largely vegetarian, but chicken, pork, beef and fish are among the staples. Usually only chopsticks are provided to eat it with. Bottled water, soft drinks, and rather mild lager-type beers are offered to drink, along, of course, with tea and, increasingly, coffee. Waiters do not expect tips, although Western-style restaurants may add up to 15 per cent service charges. Daily necessities can be bought cheaply, but Beijing has both an international and a local economy, and prices for fashion clothes and consumer goods match Western levels.

Beijing has a fairly extreme climate, and further north and west it is even more so. The light clothes which will do for summer need to be changed for serious woollens, hoods and gloves for the freezing winds of winter. Luckily, everything you need is available locally at very reasonable prices. Dress in class is informal, although men should consider a tie for more formal occasions. The Chinese generally expect a degree of formality from teachers, especially in business situations. For examinations I put on an Oxford college tie, which comes off when the job is done.

Pay in the university sector is modest, but the package can look a good deal better when (as at BSFLU) a well-equipped free apartment is included with all utilities found. Also there are many opportunities to earn more through part-time teaching, proof-reading, copy editing and so forth. I have helped produce two textbooks and revised the English version of a travel company's website. Pay in commercial schools is much better, but you often have to find your own accommodation, which tends to be expensive, and your choice is subject to legal restrictions. The current rate of exchange is around Y11.50 to the pound.

Transport in Beijing is plentiful in the shape of regular buses, minibuses, subways and taxis. There are also curious red-painted contraptions known as pedicabs, a sort of (motor)cycle-and-sidecar. The buses and the underground are cheap and the taxis reasonably priced. But the buses can be horribly crowded at times and are often held in the long traffic jams that snarl up key points at rush hours. Beyond the Fourth Ring Road, minibuses currently ply the same routes as regular buses and the conductors eagerly solicit riders. If you have the courage to get on, you are more likely to get a seat than on a regular bus. As in any public place, keep hold of your valuables. Only once though did I suspect having a few kuai 'lifted' from a pocket. You tell the conductor your destination when you get on; the newer the bus, the more chance that they will speak some English. Anyway there is usually someone to help communicate. There are at present two underground systems in the central area and several more are to be bu ilt by 2007. Taxis are readily available, but unless you are certain of finding your destination without help from the driver, or your Chinese is above survival level, never take a taxi without a map (preferably bilingual) or the address written in Chinese characters. Few of the drivers speak more than a few phrases of English, and many of them are from outside Beijing and unfamiliar with the city.

Entertainment to suit most tastes is easy to find by consulting one of the many English-language magazines which are available free in hotel lobbies. English-language films can take a bit of tracking down but are there to be found. Cheap videos and CDs abound, although some are poor quality, If the internet has become part of your daily life as it has for this expat, you can get an hour's surfing for a few Kuai at one of a mushrooming number of internet cafes. Some of the big US sites are blocked from China because they contain material which is deemed to be in some way offensive. Or you can possibly save in the long run by picking up a laptop for $300-$400 as I did with the help of a Chinese colleague. Some universities offer visiting staff free internet access, or otherwise one can get hooked up after making a few enquiries. Email is a lifeline for many, although regular post to Britain takes only about five days. The alternative is IP telephone cards, which for Y50 and up give you a code to access the com puter-based international telephone network, which offers excellent sound quality. Internet newspaper sites are a far better way of keeping in touch with events back home than papers from Britain, which are usually at least a week old and pricey at that.

Local news in English can be read in China Daily, a tedious, though improving, official publication. The big 'washout' is TV. Most major US networks, and the BBC, are not available, leaving only Star Sport, which most people seem not to like, and C-SPAN, a worthy but rather limited American news and current affairs channel. The BBC and VOA are receivable on short wave radio. Best reception is early morning. Local news, talks and Chinese language tuition are broadcast by the English-language service of China Radio International. A radio cost me Y220 at Ito Yokado, a well-run Japanese supermarket on Chaoyang Lu whose basement food hail caters at reasonable prices for those little Western luxuries that are 'naughty but nice'.

All too soon, a fascinating year in China, unrepeatable but unforgettable, has come to a close, a year when I have been intrigued, instructed and entertained, thanks to the unnumbered kindnesses of Chinese and expatriate colleagues, to all of whom my thanks are due.

Michael Collins MPhil (Oxon) CELTA is now living in London. Enquiries about teaching at Beijing Second Foreign Language University
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Author:Collins, Mac
Publication:Contemporary Review
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Sep 1, 2001
Words:3143
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