East Asia is one of the biggest markets in the world for English language learning and one of the most daunting for language teachers. Aside from the far-flung geographical location, another thing that puts people off teaching in East Asia is the popular stereotype of the Asian language learner.
Teaching English to East Asian language learners is a core skill for any teacher abroad. Having taught English in Asia for the past five years, I am well acquainted with this stereotype and what it means for TEFL teachers. In this article, we will be exploring what East Asian language learners are really like and how to successfully tailor your lessons to suit them.
The Asian Stereotype
Quiet, shy, lacking in original opinions, respectful, perfectionist… naturally these are generalisations and you will always find exceptions to the rule, but broadly speaking I think that most English teachers in East Asia would agree that many of these stereotypes apply to their students. However, more important than the attributes themselves is understanding why Asian language learners act this way, and how to teach engaging lessons regardless.
Many of my previous students have been reluctant to speak in class – even the more outgoing students have held back in offering their personal opinions. This all comes down to face. ‘Losing face’ is one of the most dreaded experiences to students in East Asia and one way they diminish their chances of this happening is by not speaking in class – ‘better to give no answer at all than to have a go and get it wrong’. This is why many students are unwilling to answer questions, particularly where their own point of view is concerned.
This goes hand in hand with the East Asian language learners penchant for perfection. They strive for absolute correctness in everything they do and they won’t put forth their ideas until they are certain that everyone else is in agreement.
In other English learning countries where students have very different personalities (for example, bolshy Italians or talkative Mexicans) displaying test results and highlighting weak performers in a light-hearted way could be taken on the chin and encourage low ability students to do better next time. However, in an East Asian country where students find it distressing to have their failures highlighted, such a display would be devastating for their self-esteem and put them off English altogether.
Teaching English to East Asian Language Learners
First, do some research on the specific country that you are going to be teaching in – these stereotypes are present in all East Asian countries but a particular challenge may apply more than others. For example, Japanese students are usually much quieter than the Chinese, whereas the Chinese are much more concerned with losing face.
When working out the best way to approach these learners, a TEFL teacher should above all be respectful of cultural differences and also be ready to change their own ideas about how a language lesson should be. You may have all kinds of interactive games up your sleeve and classroom management methods that would go down a storm in a class full of extroverts, but if East Asia is where you’ve ended up then a certain amount of conforming is necessary.
At the same time, that isn’t to say that you can’t push boundaries and encourage students to break free of their preconceived ideas. Just because your students are used to language lessons that are teacher-centerd, book-centerd and of the grammar-translation method doesn’t mean that your classes can’t be focussed on the CLT learning approach (Communicative Language Teaching) and engage your students in brand new ways. Try some of the learning games here or here to get your students expressing themselves more freely.
Bigger is Better
In a class where students are shy about raising their hand, solo activities can be a real lesson killer. However, if you incorporate plenty of team activities, which naturally create a sense of camaraderie and enable students to win or lose together rather than being singled out, the solo projects can be saved for when students have more confidence. This is particularly useful for Chinese students who are hugely competitive.
Wear a Mask
If your students are shy about expressing their opinions and beliefs to the point that they’d rather say nothing at all, create activities where they can be somebody else. Writing a full-blown dialogue where students act out a part is a closed activity to get them talking in context.
For more freedom, create ‘Character Cards’ for the students with the opinions printed on them. For example, you want your students to openly discuss which nation has the greatest cuisine but your shy Japanese student Mizuki doesn’t want to offend anyone by picking a favourite. No problem – hand Mizuki a ‘Character Card’ and she is now ‘Maria, 24 years old from Canada, who loves Italian food – particularly pizza!’ For younger students, you could even get them to literally make a mask to really get into the activity.
Don’t be put off by Asian language learners – even if you’re used to teaching students who are outgoing, talkative and enthusiastic, you can still find ways to motivate and encourage this extremely hard-working group of learners. Asking your colleagues for tips is one way to really hone your skills, and if the students are high level, you could even ask them directly – many higher level learners are keen to give feedback about how they do and don’t enjoy learning. The most important thing is to reflect on your teaching methodology – give something a go, and if it doesn’t work out after a couple of tries, re-evaluate and try again until you hit the nail on the head.
Celia Jenkins has taught English in China, Japan, and the UK to students from all over the world. Coming from Guernsey in the Channel Islands, she likes small, quiet places where she can squirrel away and get lost in a book. As well as teaching, she is also a professional writer and part-time knitting enthusiast. Visit her website at www.celiajenkins.com
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