Thursday, March 5, 2009

口语课 -speaking class with minimal speaking

For practicing speaking Chinese it's better to head to a park and hang with some seniors than to go to class...

I thought I’d let you behind the scenes of my university classes, so that anyone back home wondering what it’s like to learn Chinese (on level 5) at a Chinese university would get an idea of what it can be like.

Setting: The university.

Cast: 口语老师 (Kou yu Laoshi -spoken Chinese teacher) –a Chinese man in his late…. 40ies, early 50ies I would say. Or gosh, maybe mid 50ies!? It’s impossible to tell the age of Chinese people.

Students –a bunch of fairly quiet Koreans and Japanese students, one talkative, western guy who has a degree in Chinese studies (and speak Mandarin perfectly –he’s even worked as a translator, so I call him ‘the translator’) and one western girl who sits in the front, answers all the questions before anyone else get a chance and who I have given the nickname ‘A-Student Girl.’ (Not an offense in any way, she is good, she deserves it, and I am totally jealous). Also, a talkative, but lovely, taitai from the Philippines.
8.30am: Class begin. I enter the classroom around the same time as the bell rings. (good timing if you ask me) and the teacher says:

"Oh and here comes You Na, for a moment I thought you were A-Student Girl. You two look so alike." And then he laughs at his own comment. 

Me and A-Student Girl look at the teacher in disbelief. I think I can speak for both of us when I say that we are not thrilled by hearing that we look like each other: she’s quite short, got short, dark curly hair and I am tall, blonde and ….do not even talk half as much as she does. Nope, that was not a good way to start things off.

8.40am: Teacher start talking about that each and every student must hold a presentation for the class throughout the semester. We can talk about anything, although there is one demand: we have to be FUNNY!

“Because you don’t want to send you classmates to sleep, do you?!” he says.

Also, in order to show that we really CAN speak at this level, some short, 2-minute presentations are not acceptable. Everybody nods in agreements. Two minutes is ridiculously short. HOWEVER, the teacher adds, we are not to exceed 5 minutes, because then the class might be bored!

As for topics, he says it is totally up to us, although he suggests that a good idea is to introduce our country of origin (What funny things can I say about Sweden? That not all Swedish women are blonde? That the Swedish winters are depressingly long? That the Swedish man who founded Ikea is a bit of a tight-ass? Gosh, I don’t see how people are going to laugh at any of that?)

So there we go: we have 5 minutes to get the class RFLOL. I can see my own fear mirrored in many of my Korean classmates’ eyes.

8.50am: Moving on, the teacher starts explaining the new chapter to us. He talks and talks and talks. I have been a BAD student and haven’t prepared the class (I was supposed to but fell asleep while highlighting at 10pm last night) so I am not quite following. My fellow classmates, on the other hand, are all alert and hungry to speak. You can see them sitting there with their backs straight. Clearing their throats. Stretching their necks. Just waiting for a question to be asked so that they can answer it.

Unfortunately for them, the teacher is that kind, that if he ever asks a question, he immediately answers it himself. After 20 minutes uninterrupted monologue he tells us that we should listen to a recording of the text we are studying and he puts on a CD player.

We listen and listen and follow the text and once it has finished playing the teacher starts going through all the paragraphs again, reading them out loud to us.

9.15am: The text is finished, let’s now go through the words. Only 15 new words for this chapter. The teacher explains them briefly although he skips at least 4 of them, claiming that ‘you guys already know those ones’ without even confirming with us that we do. The whole class is silent. It is too fast for anyone to jump in and protest. The A-Student Girl does some attempts but it doesn’t really work.

9.30am: Back to the text. The teacher reads through it again (it is about the three gorges damn) and start talking about the project. He talks and talks and talks. I catch myself listening but thinking about other things. You know how you get when you are really sleepy. Uh-uh. Not good. Better get alert.

9.50am: Ten minutes prior to the class ending I go to the toilet. When I come back the teacher says we should have a discussion. He divides the class into two ‘camps’ and says that one should be for, and the other one against some idea.

9:53am: 5-4-3-2-1-GO! The discussion is ON! A-Student Girl, the Translator and the Taitai are on fire (they belong to different camps), and start throwing accusations on each other. The rest of us are just staring, trying to follow although to be honest with you it all feels a bit… over the top. Also, there’s a bit of screaming going on. I am not really the screaming kind. Actually, let me correct that: I am NOT the screaming kind. I don’t do screaming. Especially not in class.

9.56am: The teacher seem to understand that it is only 3 people talking and suddenly says: “Let’s hear from someone else shall we, YOU NA, what do you think?!”

I freeze. This is my moment. This is my chance. The whole class is looking at me. I have been silent for 1 hour and 26 minutes and now I have the chance to redeem myself. To express my opinion. To get it all out. To hear my own voice. TO PRACTICE MY SPOKEN CHINESE.

I fail utterly. Whatever that is coming out of my mouth makes little or no sense. I feel my face getting hotter and hotter. Everybody is staring at me. Waiting for me to finish so that they can get a chance to speak.

You know what, let someone else speak!” I say, and immediately, the screaming starts again. Holy sh*** what is going on with me? What didn’t I say something good? Why didn’t I make any sense? I had my moment, -and I totally blew it!? What’s wrong with me? I have no-one to blame but myself for not improving if I don't the take the opportunities given to me. 

10.00am: The bell rings. Class is over. The discussion is still going on. Between the teacher, the Taitai, the Translator and the A-Student Girl. While they go on and on and on, most other people leave the classroom. I do too, and outside the door I meet another western girl who is new to our class.

“This is supposed to be spoken Chinese class?” she says. “1 hour and 20 minutes of the teacher speaking and then 10 minutes of war?! I almost wanted to scream ‘jia you!’ there for a moment. I don’t know if I am aggressive enough for this kind of lesson?!”

Well I am definitely not. I might have to go and have a little one-and-one with my teacher, to make him understand that him talking for 1 hour and 20 minutes and us fighting for 10 minutes isn’t really the best way to teach us spoken Chinese. Can’t he at least give us a chance to read the text (not just LISTEN to it?!) or practice using the new words for the chapter by making sentences with them? Or, divide us into small groups and have us discussing things? Why do we need to listen to him speaking so much –his spoken Chinese is already perfect?!

I always thought that learning Chinese at the university was the way to go but now I am starting to seriously doubt it. If things continue this way I might not go on and study level 6 next semester. I don’t think I am aggressive enough.


Anonymous said...

That sounds like a crazy class o.O

Hope you can't talk to the teacher...

Anonymous said...

That teacher, and whoever employs him, ought to be hit over the head with a large, heavy object. It's just stealing from you, that's what it is, stealing your time and money. There are books about how you teach language classes, you know, and they do not feature a lot of speaking on the teacher's part. That's, like, Rule Number One.

For what it's worth, I still think perhaps you should consider staying at the university, as it does give focus and structure to your studies. I mean, they give you vocabularly lists to learn and sentence patterns to master. It might be hard to move on without those things.

On the other hand, perhaps you could just use HSK prep books as your materials and figure out your own way to study them. That's what I do. (Though, to be honest, it's not working that well because I have no one to crack the whip!)

Anyway, good luck. I hope things improve later on.

Jonna Wibelius said...

Kanmuri -thanks, so do I. Although I cannot say I have high expectations for that he's going to understand me.

Flyingfish -yeah, that's the dilemma. I agree with you -staying at the uni gives the structure I need, because I am terrible when it comes to being all disciplined and studying on my own time... Although I don't see the point of paying money just to listen to the teachers talking day after day... Well let's see. Still hoping things are going to change.

Nancy said...

I seem to remember those same "types" when I went to college. There is always the one who knows everything, the quiet one, the one who want to answer all the questions... some things are universal, I guess.

Little Tiger said...

Love your Chinese class posts so much!.

I take an Italian class every Wednesday evening and everyone does take on their own little roles in the classroom (I admit, I'm the A-level boy). Some things are great and some things frustrate me about the class. For example, when studying a new passage, the teacher never goes over the vocabulary as she believes we won't remember it anyway if we are told straight out what it means in English. She always tell us to guess and frowns when we take out a dictionary in case we become too 'dependent'. But all in all I shouldn't complain....I like the class.

I think classes are a compromise between everyone (teachers and students) which is why I would study with a private teacher instead of attending a class when I go back to China.( It probably works out the same, if cheaper, and you can have wonderful in depth conversations if you have a good rapport with the teacher instead of shouting matches in class).
I think progress is 10x quicker and you can tell the teacher how you would like to conduct the class because you don't have any other classmates to compromise with. You could even grab a friend and take a 2 on 1 class?

Like flyingfish said I think the HSK materials are a good base to work from. I bought the series 'Essentials of HSK - 8 ji jingjie' and love studying from it. I also like to read chinese BBS. (I get the links from chinaSMACK) for the language the young 'uns are using : )

Diane said...

How frustrating!And unfair. You pay for a class then have to fight for the right to teach yourself.

How to be funny: People love their own jokes. Introduce yourself as You na, you know, I'm the one who looks like A-student girl and then add at least one other student who definitely doesn't look like you. (And suggest that A-student girl should change her name to You na #2) It will be funny on different levels. And the teacher will think that you appreciate his humor.

mantse said...

i hope this is the worst one you met. as my experience, lauguage teachers like students to talk in class.

Try to discuss with teacher in gentle way and may adjust in next lesson. You want to give one more chance to him before you give up the uni, right?

Jonna Wibelius said...

Lover of life -for sure :)

Little tiger -u love these posts?! I feel like a whining teenager... :/ Yeah I'd love to get myself a private tutor instead of continuing at the uni next semester. Although then the next problem comes: finding a good teacher. That's quite a tough one I'd say, but worth trying.

Diane -thanks for your tips! :) YouNa 2... hehe..

Mantse -no I am not going to give up. I have already paid for this semester so I'll just stick it out and see how it goes, and then i'll have to think about what to do next semester.

Rick Kappra said...

Welcome to the world of language learning. You are lucky if this is the first time you've experienced this kind of class. Unfortunately, for me, every language class I've ever had has been like this. I teach ESL and am horrified that teachers of other languages don't get that students need controlled opportunities to practice in class. As always, I loved this post! Hang in there!!!

Anonymous said...

self-study works better than you think. Since I've started learning Chinese on my own, I'm fully convinced that university language classes are pretty much the worst thing you can do, if you actually want to learn the language.

What I would *not* do, however, is learning with some sort of HSK materials. If you were to use that boring stuff, I can very well imagine that you'd need someone to 'crack the whip'. But why not read an interesting book (in Chinese) and look up the words you don't know? Watch a movie (in Chinese) and look up the words you don't know? Talking to your Chinese friends and scribbling down & looking up the words you don't know?

This is how I eventually learned English, and this is how I am learning Chinese now, and I am telling you that the progress is incredibly much faster than in any of all the language classes I took before... and it is also just so much more fun.

Jenny King said...

I did a TEFL course a year or so ago and the teacher couldn't emphasise enough that it was all about 'student talk time' and NOT 'teacher talk time' you're never going to learn with him teaching you like he is!

SunJune said...

Hi, YouNa, I believe that spoken Chinese should be practised in the normal life. The speaking class just is a assistant of your speaking skill. If you think this class is useless you should give up it.What do you hope the teacher to do? Or if you are the chinese teacher what will you do? Let everybody say sth about themself every day? Yeah,you can say anything in the everywhere. It means that you should learn sth from the teacher in the class. On the other hand, there are so many persons in the classroom. The chance for everybody is not fair. So you should grasp your chance in the war while the war is short.
Whatever, I think the speaking class is useless. I know you wanna reach the 6 level. But if you contine to improve your spoken chinese in this way you will to say...difficult to reach your aim. Right? It is a serious promble. Good luck. It is just my own opinion. I'm glad to help you.

afritzse said...

Being in a class like this must feel bad, I agree.

As you have already written earlier, there is a conflict between Western and Chinese teaching styles. But your classmates aren't Chinese, either; so they should be on your side. You could coordinate with them, formally asking the teacher to allow more time for student participation. If he says, there isn't enough time for that, you could tell him you already prepared the lesson at home and are now ready to use it. If he always talks in a monologue, that sounds like he doesn't trust students to prepare a lesson, listen to the texts etc. at home. Or how about working together with A-Student-Girl?

I hope you can still get the most out of university time, at least there's a group of people with the same goal.

Anonymous said...

Some years ago I lived in Yunnan for a couple of years. When I arrived there, I was all excited about learning chinese and starting my classes.
It took me only one month to realize how bad was the teaching methodology.

So I quit, and after several tries I found I really good private teacher. We only had classes for 1.5 hours twice a week but I think I learned as much as the people attending the uni (not counting the guys with chinese girlfriends).

For me, in learning languages, quality is much more important than quantity, and in China teaching is all about more and more new words that you never have time to assimilate.

I really admire you for keeping at it, but I just got so frustrated every time a went to class and didn't enjoy it at all.

Emma said...

I just want to say that I love your blog and you are a beautiful writer. I love going on your adventures with you. You describe them so clearly and with such personality.

Anonymous said...

The best way to learn any new lanuage is to be brave, nothing more. If you always keep yourself quiet and demure, you won't make any progress.

Love your blog, it just made my day! : )

btw, don't worry, I am not a stalker...

Wagner said...

The twitter-style post is so interesting :D

The spoken-Chinese teacher may not be aware that he was still in old-fashioned teaching style, which is familiar to every Chinese student but non-Eastern-Asian ones. It's better to write an email to him and make some advice, I think. :)

Kate said...

We are all rooting for you, Jonna! I have complete confidence in your ability to succeed.

Anonymous said...

Common flyingfish,
"vocabularly lists", "sentence patterns". The way I learned English was watching TV and reading books/magazines. I especially like DVDs when you can stop it if you didn't understand something, turn on subtitles, rewind it, check the dictionary, look up explanations in Internet etc.

Jonna, just move in with some interesting Chinese roommates and keep chatting with them. Or establish Chinese social network some other way.

Oh-oh, I nearly forgot, reading blogs is a very exciting way to learn a language. Jonna, stop writing in English. Try to do it in Chinese. First several months it might be uncomfortable but then it will become easier. You might get even bigger readership.

Admin said...

God, that sounds incredibly extreme lol. I mean, i am currently taking a spanish class and i am on level 3, and I have yet to see anyone completely scream and be over the top just to simply express their skills.

However, i do understand the kind of people that are in your class. I think almost every class in the world has people that are similar to the studnets in your class.

Thank you for such a good post.

Jonna Wibelius said...

Max -yeah self learning is GREAT if you have the discipline for it... I just don't know if I do?! I do learn a lot by talking to locals (I actually see 'traveling in China' as a learning tool!) so I'll continue with that and see the uni classes as a push for me to learn the characters too.

SunJune-Yup I know.. I need to get more aggressive. Have to have to have to... In the meantime, I'll be using my free time to practice my spoken Chinese.

afritzse -I am not getting the best vibes from A-student girl so not quite sure if I'd like to spend any more time with her than I already do... but yeah, me and another classmate have talked about talking to the teacher. Let's see how it goes if we do. I just hope he doesn't take it the wrong way.

Belen -yup, your experience sounds very familiar. Maybe I'll go for the private tutor option next semester...

Emma -thank you thank you!! such a nice comment! :)

incognito -no, I am not worried.. Besides, I like blog stalkers. Without them, this blog would be boring! :)

Kate -cheers darl! :)

Anonymous -I have been thinking about blogging in Chinese but u know what... every time I make a little spelling mistake in this English blog, people are really fast with pointing it out to me.. if I start blogging in Chinese, I will make mistakes all the time so it prob won't be any fun for you guys to read it (And not fun for me to just read comments about me making mistake after mistake...) so I'm not too keen to start a Chinese blog just yet...