07 March 2007

Why it is difficult for Chinese English teachers to use the communicative approach

[Photo: Professor Li Xiao Ju and Dave]

There was tremendous resistance to the Communicative Approach (CA) when it was first introduced in China in 1980 by Professor Li Xiao Ju at a conference at the Guangzhou University of Foreign Studies. In fact I was told, only one young teacher at the conference welcomed the idea. Even though the Ministry of Education later accepted it as the approved way to teach it seems they had to back down a bit later due to some pressure.

For those who embrace CA it is an uphill battle to spread its acceptance in China. Why? Perhaps there are two reasons. Before I discuss them I'd like to set some definitions. I believe ALL teachers want their students to learn grammar. The question is how? Grammar-Translation (GT) advocates believe rule learning and a direct understanding of the mechanics of the language are essential. CA advocates believe language mechanics study is an extra step leading to complicate and even frustrate the learning of the language. They believe the best way to learn the language is to use it and the grammar will be learned internally. But in the scope of CA advocates is a range of extremities. Many hold Krashen as the most extreme.

Back to the reasons, first, there is not complete acceptance of CA amongst western teachers. Many teachers in the west believe GT to be a required part of language teaching. This has been witnessed on this list with the subject of GT vs. CA flaming up about once a year. But what I think is more interesting is what I consider the second reason of why CA has not spread around China more easily. Can Chinese teachers do it?

The question was "Can Chinese English teachers make use of the Communicative Approach?"

The skill level of Chinese teachers varies widely. With some teachers you forget they are not native English teachers because their English is flawless. But some teachers have very poor English. It is difficult for them to communicate in a conversation. They are hard to understand and it is hard for them to understand you. I'm not sure how to quantify the number of teachers at these various levels of skill. Another thing is that we must factor in some cultural factors and the politics of academia. After all of that I would guess that less than 25% of Chinese teachers could operate in a CA classroom without losing face and my guess is probably very very generous.

On the other hand, GT is a much more comfortable way of teaching. Rules are laid out, memorized and recited. Drills are given with structured sentences that require only one correct answer. The teacher does not have to score a sometimes convoluted mass of words that the student has used to describe something. The teacher has to check if the correct word is filled into the blanks. Certainly I'm over-simplifying this but I use it as an illustration.

This leads us to a bigger question. What do you do in a country with 100 million English students to teach and only a small percentage of your teachers have near native English skills themselves? Is Grammar-Translation the answer?

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