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Are you guilty of stereotyping your Chinese students?
Author: EnglishTeacher    2022-09-13

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In teaching English to second-language learners, there are many stereotypes I have come across.


Some teachers I’ve met are quick to label their students. Below are just some of the stereotypes I have heard in conjunction with Chinese learners.


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Stereotype one: Chinese students do not participate in classroom activities


Whoever was the first to suggest this has clearly never visited my year 10 English class: 24 Australian students, and not one of them was eager to talk. I imagine Tutankhamen’s tomb is louder!


A number of teachers I’ve met are quick to point out Chinese students don’t want to lose face. Fear of giving the wrong answer stops them from speaking. However, this idea could be applied to students of all backgrounds.


When a student says something wrong, their peers are often quick to criticize. Students have concluded that the best way to avoid embarrassment is to not say anything at all. Some teachers misconstrue this as evidence that students lack competence.


This is contradicted by the many Chinese students who I’ve met that love talking during class, albeit in their mother tongue. This is despite the great big sign on the wall which reads ‘English Only Zone’.


Students bring with them a lot of knowledge. However, they are far more confident communicating in their native language.


Furthermore, some Chinese students prefer silence. They use the time as an opportunity to think, generating their own individual meaning.


Some teachers believe that the students who don’t talk, don’t understand.


There are, however, other ways students demonstrate comprehension. By observing those students who rarely speak, I sometimes notice they use reams of paper, jotting down notes, demonstrating their thoughts.


Communication isn’t just speaking. Although I am one of the first to admit that dialogue is important, sometimes it’s not the students’ fault.


Some teachers ask students to regurgitate information back at them. Other teachers ask closed-ended questions. These require little thought, and honestly, some students find these annoying.


In case you haven’t noticed already, many Chinese students enjoy a challenge, and have a thirst for self-improvement.


With this in mind, perhaps teachers could think of ways to motivate verbal communication. Try pair work, or small group tasks. Or give students a whole class activity that requires them to get out of their chairs.


Example


I recently gave permission for a learner to ask students about their favorite food over lunchtime. He kept a journal of all the interactions he took part in.


In short, maybe the students are just not experiencing the appropriate atmosphere for dialogue.


As a further example, I recently discovered a student I’ve been observing has a fondness for music.


Though he’s usually silent, he writes lyrics and poetry, and is learning the guitar. While writing this article, I was observing him, and other students, undertaking a test.


Upon completion, during which he was allowed to leave, he said: “I can disappear silently from the world, until another day.” I found this very poetic.


In short, perhaps the inclusion of music or poetry into the lesson could motivate him to contribute further. Might something similar work for your students?


I’ve met many learners who don’t fit the stereotype that Chinese students refuse to participate interactively.


Two Chinese girls I met recently were the total opposite. In fact, it was trying to stop them from talking that was the problem.


Additionally, after having a class summarize some readings, there was one Chinese girl who surprised me. The task was very short but after ten minutes she was still talking!


Moreover, there was a boy, who, whenever I called upon him to speak, said one word: “Nah!” However, when it came to giving an oral presentation, his voice was as clear as it was confident.


I also met another young girl, who, despite her height, spoke louder than King Kong. Though many have said Chinese girls are shy, she went around the school punching people in the arm to get their attention.


In short, this stereotype is very wrong.


Stereotype two: Chinese students are obedient


A friend of mine told me once that Chinese students have immense respect for their teachers. So much so, they will believe anything their teachers say.


In having taught a class of Chinese students, I can confirm that many of them are incredibly respectful, in contrast with their western counterparts.


The Chinese students I taught at high school were very compliant. In telling them to listen, stop talking, or do the work, they would always follow instructions.


When I provided similar instructions to my Australian students, I would have to yell until I was blue in the face before they took me seriously.


Chinese students originate from a culture where great respect is bestowed upon elders. Where Australian teachers I’ve met have said “teaching is a thankless profession”, Chinese teachers are seen as important figures.


China even has a Teachers' Day, where educators are praised for their abilities. No offence to my home, but I can hardly imagine Australia ever doing this.


Moving on, I’ve rarely had to raise my voice when teaching Chinese students. However, I know this isn’t always the case.


Example


When I attended school as a student, there was a Chinese boy in my class. I remember him particularly, because he had some of the worst behavioral issues I’ve ever seen.


In one class, he set fire to the curtains when the teacher left the room to talk to another misbehaving student. On another occasion he punched a hole in the plaster because he was told off.


There was even an occasion when he brought a knife to school, and threatened the lives of many others. I can think of a dozen other instances, too.


The truth is, there are bad apples in every society. How teachers respond to these instances though, is what’s most important.


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