Get Fluent or Get By (Thoughts on Teaching ESL in China)

The very first memory of me teaching another person was my sister who was in Grade 2 then. Her homework was addition and I wasn’t effective because I was impatient. She asked me how to add 1234+5678 and I answered her to just combine both numbers together. And so she answered 12345678. She got zero the following day and the memory retained to the both of us.

I grew up wanting to help more people as much as I could, including helping my friends in their reports even when I wasn’t even good at it.

At church, helping other teenagers to come to know the Lord was my passion. It was so easy for me to share my life experiences with others because I really wanted to.

It has always been so easy for me to talk about real life issues.

Then when I started teaching in a small college as a career, I was torn. Due to time restrictions and a lot of expectations from a set of rules and guidelines, what would a teacher do if a student does not know how to express himself in English? That’s easy! Encourage him and let him practice. What if the student cannot construct or write well in English? That is hard, but with additional lessons and more detailed instructions, he can do it eventually. But what would a teacher do if a student cannot read at all? The choices are between failing that kid in class or giving him a passing grade and let the next teacher take the responsibility and the blame.

Sadly, that’s what has been happening in the past decade until now to our educational institutions especially in the public elementary schools. And only until recently that I discovered that it has something to do with the education’s government agency that they created procedures and rules and has mandated every teacher not to give a failing grade to a student. Add to that existing policy is that teachers are now not allowed to discipline children. Okay, I am not starting a blame game here because I on the other hand once tried doing the same thing, and that’s so unfortunate.  I had my own reasons way back then which I don’t really remember now, but it has something to do with avoiding discomforts.

From teaching teenagers whom I thought have had enough exposure to English since they were little, I am now teachings toddlers and preschoolers who don’t have any idea what English is all about, and cannot even say “His and hellos”. Now I have a different dilemma: Should I get fluent in their language or should I just get by?

In my Tesol Certification  Training prior to my move in China, I learned to just teach  4-6 vocabularies per 20-40 minutes of lessons. And to give them enough exposure of English, speak only English the entire time. And I decided to follow those principles with matching TPR the first month I got here. (If you are in need of QUICK, fast and legit 120 hours Tesol Certificate to jumpstart your ESL teaching career anywhere in the world, send me an email and I would be glad to be of help.)

In my experience, that’s a 20-feet-tall NOOOOOOOO!

Imagine you meet a new friend in Russia and he tries to teach you 4 vocabularies in his language with matching photos. But without translations, nothing, with just photos and possibly charades, do you think you’ll grasp those vocabularies and remember them all? Probably. But how sure are you that you understood the real meaning of those words.

Take these for examples.

Eating or Spag?
Head or Hair?

Hand or fingers?

Hand or fingers?

With our age, we could just laugh at our silliness when making mistakes in trying to learn another language. But to the young learners, you probably sound like an alien all the time and it is not really cool. And I guess they won’t care at all after your lesson, though they would definitely love you.

Going back to my dilemma, I now have two options: Get fluent in my students’ native language or I would just get by again thinking that the children would grow anyway.

Well I have chosen the first one. I decided to learn Mandarin in my own pace so that I could somehow understand my students, no matter how young they are.

Thankfully enough, I found out about this website that is TOTALLY FREE and FREE LIFETIME MEMBERSHIP. They offer hundreds of Language Lessons which I must say, MORE THAN EXCELLENT. I learned my Mandarin at and I believe, whatever language you want to learn, they already have ready lessons with native teachers to guide you.

In my first week here, a 4-year-old student asked me a question which I totally didn’t understand while he was busy doing his book activity. But I remembered the last phrase so I used my build in translator to figure out what his question was. “Ni neng bu beng?” means “can you do it or not?” I figured eventually that he asked me if I knew how to speak their language.

And so I started learning Mandarin by searching online for quick lessons and cheat sheets. Check this website for their FREE MANDARIN COURSES which will enable you to speak in as fast as first lesson.

in the classrooms, It was painful and exhausting so I asked the Chinese teachers to translate for me. I specifically asked them to be by my side when I teach so I get instant translations. I have always prepared lessons in powerpoints with translations already, but it was still exhausting because most of the time, those Chinese teachers are busy doing something else. I always want to know if the children are able to understand the meaning of what I am trying to teach them so I’d constantly call out teachers from the back of the room and let her translate. But there are times that I’m the only teacher in the room. It had to change. I told myself, I must learn quickly.

You cannot also help it when the children would just want to talk to you, get your attention, tell you stories and ask you questions, in their dialect. You have these options: Smile, respond correctly or just get by and just pretend that you are about what they are trying to say. Either way, they’d still love you.

But wouldn’t it be nice if you can somehow grasp the idea of what they want you to know and then you are able to give a brief and nice reply apart from “Wo ting bu tong.” (I don’t understand.)?

I admit, at first I was too arrogant and innocent that I even told the teachers to start speaking in English to give the right amount of English exposure to the children. But I was dead wrong because the teachers didn’t really do it, and the children were amazing at parroting.

I discovered it when after  a few months, the children were automatically responding to “How are you?” and “Good morning/afternoon!” that I felt so proud. But then one time, I decided to speak in their language, and asked the meaning of those phrases. To my horror, no one knew the real meaning of those greetings, how much more the meaning of their “I’m fine, thank you.”. Yes they do know apple, banana, cats and dogs, but that is because they can easily memorize vocabularies because kids are so fantastic! Now I have a bigger problem and I have to level up my teaching skills and communications skill.

It is a challenge to get the children’s attention to teach them how to read and memorize tons of vocabularies especially if it is part of the school’s curriculum, but you have to give your all for them to learn. What’s great about children is that they learn better and faster. And the advantage of teaching in the kindergarten is that you don’t have to give them a grade (but you give them presents). Your main job is to teach them and love them, not to grade them based on their performance. Yes, there are fast learners and there are really those late bloomers. There are those who are quick to finish the tasks at hand and there are those who cannot even open the book and find their way to the page.  There are those who attentively listen when you teach them and there are way too many of them who cannot keep still. Again, you have to choose whether to get the chaos fixed or just get by. This is one thing that I badly needed help on a daily basis. I always ask for a Chinese teacher to keep them still, only then I can do my tricks. I let them watch entertaining videos with vocabularies in it and distribute it to their parents so they will be able to practice at home, hopefully.

One of the translated phrases that I used in my videos.

It is a long journey before one can be able to find success in teaching young learners, but when you know in your heart that you have done the right thing on a daily basis, your works are not in vain. And at the end of the day, you’ll feel more accomplished because you know, you just did not get by.  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: