Lecture #1: How to Improve Foreign Language Students’ Learning Habits and Methods
Carl Gene Fordham
Beijing International Studies University
Monday 18 September 2017
I’ve uploaded the lecture I gave at Beijing International Studies University on How to Improve Foreign Language Students’ Habits and Methods where I talked about common problems that students from China face when learning English and suggested some methods to overcome these. These are all based on my years of experience teaching students from China, as well as my own journey learning Chinese.
You can watch it either on YouTube or Bilibili.
Bilibili (哔哩哔哩): 【傅君恺】如何改善外语学生的学习习惯和方法
Here’s a run-down on what I covered during the talk. Note that I focused specifically on learners of English in China, but a lot of the content could also apply to any foreign language learner in any country, especially the methods part. During the talk I gave the students a list of chengyu (classical Chinese idioms) which they had to then match with the title of each part of the lecture. In this blog entry, I’ll provide them for you here.
Part 1: Common Problems
“Put the cart before the horse”
In English, to “put the cart before the horse” means to “reverse the proper order or procedure of something”. In Chinese we say 本末倒置, i.e. to take the incidental for the fundamental. What I’m actually referring to here is exam-oriented education which is a big problem in China. Its consequence is it makes Chinese students associate language learning with exams. Not only does this demotivate students from learning English, but it also means that when students graduate they struggle even more as there is no exam driving them to learn. Ultimately, what should be an enjoyable experience turns into a mundane or even stressful one.
“put the cart before the horse”可以表达“本末倒置”的意思，即把事物的主次颠倒了。在这里其实我指的是一个在中国很严重的问题，那就是应试教育。它导致中国学生一直把语言的学习和考试挂钩。这不仅使学生在学英语上没有积极性，而且学生往往毕业的时候因为没有考试而难以产生学习的动力。最终，那些本该愉快的经历变得单调，甚至令人紧张。
So much of English learning in China is limited to rote learning. Students are always looking for short-cuts and are eager for quick success. It is like learning Chinese calligraphy from cursive script without any kind of basic training. You may feel a sense of comfort that you are making progress even if you are not.
In the Chinese education system there is also a huge emphasis on reading, with very little support provided for spoken English, so many English majors can barely hold a simple conversation in English – all they can do is speak so-called “mute English”. To make matters worse, many schools are not able to employ native-speaking teachers.
“Swallow a date in one gulp”
I have often seen students being able to absorb vast amounts of information without actually digesting any of it; this is expressed perfectly in the Chinese saying, “to swallow a date in one gulp”. Some students might have large vocabularies, but many of the words they know they wouldn’t be able to make proper sentences with.
Have you ever noticed that in Chinese we say 学习知识, literally, “to learn knowledge”? What a curious collocation! Knowledge is such a complex thing, how exactly does one “learn” it? Surely knowledge is only something that can only be gained over time through human experience. But this is a common misconception among students; they believe that memorisation is the key to mastering any foreign language, but fluent speakers would beg to differ.
As a result of this social phenomenon, Chinese students become very passive learners, which is exacerbated by the prevalence of the cramming method in teaching. In my opinion, this needs to change: students must become independent learners if they want to see any real progress in their learning.
“In two minds”
Students often have very confused notions towards learning foreign languages; they are, as I describe, “in two minds” (三心二意). Because of the internet, many people are constantly distracted by their computers and mobile phones, and Chinese students are no exception to this. In fact, it may even be worse for them, as they often complain to me that they feel their lives are very 浮躁, which translates roughly as “restless and irritable”.
学生往往对学习外语拿不定主意，我会把这件事描述为in two minds（三心二意）。随着因特网的问世，很多人的注意力不断被电脑和手机分散了，而中国学生也不例外，甚至他们的情况也许更糟糕，他们经常向我抱怨说他们觉得自己的生活很浮躁。
We have many resources for learning now, many more than previous generations, but there are consequences to that. Students often spread their concentration over a wide range of resources, so in the end not are not able to master any one thing. For example, if you ask a group Chinese students whether they are learning British or American English, you can guarantee most of them would reply, “both”.
Surely this is a basic question that students should decide on early in their learning, but this rarely happens. In the end, they speak neither British nor American English very well. This may be fine to get your message across, but native speakers are often quick to judge foreigners who have thick accents.
“Can’t see the forest for the trees”
Chinese students often underestimate the difficulty of learning a foreign language – they “can’t see the forest for the trees”, or as we would say in Chinese, they “are like blind people touching an elephant” (盲人摸象). I would put learning a foreign language in the same category as losing about 20 kilograms of weight; it is a big project that requires time, energy and perseverance.
Students need to see the bigger picture. They focus too much on vocabulary instead of working on basic stuff like pronunciation and common words used in spoken English. When talking to native speakers, many Chinese students simply translate what they want to say from Chinese to English, instead imitating idiomatic English from people they know. This problem cannot be solved by a textbook. Try finding a language partner – that is, a good native-speaker friend who you can socialise with to help you work on this.
“Turn pale at the mention of a tiger”
Here I am translating literally the Chinese idiom谈虎色变. What I am referring to is a common problem whereby Chinese students are so scared of losing face that they dare not even open their mouth to talk to foreigners. My advice to Chinese students: don’t worry, English is a paper tiger. But seriously, students have to overcome their fear of speaking to foreigners. Social activities like public speaking and theatre can be excellent ways to do this.
This problem affects everyone who learns a foreign language, but may be particulary bad for Chinese students because of the strong “us and them” (Chinese vs foreigners) mentality in China, not to mention social construct of face in China. Try to talk to as many foreigners as possible. If, for example, you struck up a conversation with one foreigner a day, after 30 days you probably wouldn’t feel nervous when speaking English ever again.
“Try to get blood from a stone”
Often the methods that students use are not logically related to the outcome they wish to realise, which we would describe in English as “like trying to get blood from a stone”, or in Chinese as “like climbing a tree to catch a fish” (缘木求鱼). For example, sometimes students who are preparing for a speaking test think that memorising a list of words will be enough to speak well in the test, instead of actually finding someone with which to practice their speaking skills.
It seems that Chinese students have a small range of methods available to learn languages. They should aim to learn as many different methods as possible – or, even better, come up with some of their own as independent learners, and try to use the right tool for the right job. All of this is related to methods, which I will discuss in Part 2.
Part 2: Suggested Methods
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime”
This is a common saying in English that probably derives from the Chinese授人以鱼不如授人以渔 and is in fact very relevant to language learning. Teaching students a bunch of words is not as useful as teaching them a practical approach to learning that they can use their rest of their lives. Students who have developed their own effective system of learning can make big improvements in their foreign language on their own, even without a teacher.
“Learn from the barbarians”
In Chinese we say师夷长技以制夷, that is, “learn from foreigners to compete with them”. Interaction with native speakers really should be the number-one priority for any learner of a foreign language. This seems like common sense, but in fact very few students from China put this into action. Reading 20 books on learning English would not be as useful as making one good foreign friend. If you spend a month looking for a foreign friend in the city you live in without reading a single textbook or preparing for a single test, it would still be totally worth it, as a good friend is for life, and the benefits go way beyond learning new words or grammar structures.
“The palest ink is better than the best memory”
In Chinese we say 好记性不如烂笔头, which can be translated as, “the palest ink is better than the best memory”. However, this is another common-sense piece of advice that is rarely heeded by students from China. Everytime you meet a foreigner is an opportunity to learn – don’t waste it. Whatever you come across, always take notes.
中国有句俗话：好记性不如烂笔头，用英语也可以翻译成：the palest ink is better than the best memory，“再淡的墨水也比最好的记性强”，可是中国学生很少留意这一点。你每次见到一个外国人，都是你一次学习的机会，千万别浪费了。无论你学到什么，都要记得做笔记。
When I was a high school student I used to chat to random Chinese people on MSN and QQ and everything they said I would copy and paste into a spreadsheet. Then, as I met new people, I would parrot these exact phrases back to them. It was difficult at the beginning as there were many new words, but over time they became second nature to me. I think this is a good example of the power of good note-taking when learning a foreign language.
But writing stuff down is not enough – you should do something with the notes you collect to consolidate what you’ve learnt. You could, for example, divide the content into different categories such as part of speech, situation, example sentences, etc. Anytime someone corrects your pronunciation, write down the correction. If you show a willingness to accept criticism, native speakers will help you as much as they can.
“Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice.”
This is a quote from Anton Chekov that can be applied to language learning, and indeed in Chinese we have a similar saying学以致用, literally, “study for the purpose of application”. Whatever you learn, you must put into use as soon as possible. Otherwise, you’re likely to forget it. Next time you learn a new expression, try dropping it into conversation.
I also would recommend that you focus more on common expressions, rather than highly formal or literary ones, especially if you haven’t got a solid foundation in the language yet. An absurd situation often arises when learners know words that native speakers don’t. Just recently a student of mine used the word “capacious” (i.e. “spacious”), and I remember a few years back another student said to me, “I’ll meet you in the refectory (i.e. “canteen”). If you’re not sure if what you are learning is common and practical, ask a native speaker – relying on a textbook or dictionary can be risky.
我也建议你们多注意普通常见的表达，而不是那些非常正式的或文学的表达，尤其是在你们还没有打好英语基础的时候。学英语的人知道，但母语人士都不知道的词，这种情况是很荒谬的。最近，我的一个学生用了一个词capacious（应该用spacious），我也记得几年前，另外一个学生对我说I’ll meet you in the refectory（“我会在食堂等你”的意思，应该用canteen），如果你不确定你学的表达是否常见且实用，可以问问一些母语人士——依赖于课本或是词典并不可靠。
How else can you put what you learn into practice? Apart from conversation with native speakers (which I put as number-one), reading aloud is also a great way to work on your pronunciation and intonation. You could also try writing compositions or keeping an online blog (personal website) in your foreign language. It may be time-consuming, but it really forces you to work on skills that you may have otherwise ignored.
“Learn by osmosis”
A good learner learns through their surroundings, just like in Chinese we say耳濡目染, literally, “one is influenced by what one sees and hears”. Perhaps you know about the story of Mencius’s mother who moved her son around three times to ensure he had the right environment for learning. All students from China know this pearl of wisdom, but do they actually live by it?
You can gain an immersive environment for learning by going abroad, but of course not everyone has this opportunity. And students who live overseas often get lazy, thinking all they have to do is “be” there and they will make improvements without any real effort.
One can become fluent in a foreign language without living in a country that speaks it. Just as I became fluent in Chinese while in Australia, I have met many Chinese who speak excellent English that have never been abroad. This proves that a good learning environment can be created through your own efforts. For example, there are native speakers of English and Chinese in almost every major city in the world, and of course there are also many resources available on the Internet to learn and make new friends
“Have a little zest”
Like anything else, if you don’t have passion, you’re more likely to give up halfway; or, in Chinese, 好之不如乐之 (“being good at something is not as good as taking pleasure in it”), or simply兴趣是最好的老师 (“interest is the best teacher”). You may be like me – a self-confessed “language nerd” – in which case this may not be a big problem. But don’t worry if you don’t have a natural drive to learn a foreign language – you can cultivate it.
Try examining your daily routine and think about what parts of the day you could convert into your foreign language. If you do a sport, for example, could you do it with people who speak the language you are learning? If you write a blog, could you do it in your foreign language? If you enjoy going out to bars on the weekend, could you go places where foreigners frequent? Basically you just take whatever you enjoy doing and introduce as much of the foreign language to it as you can. Bit by bit, you will see an improvement in language level.