I was recently talking to a friend who ran an English school in China. After seeing our approach at OpenLanguage, he said, ‘you know Chinese like to memorize vocabulary when they learn English. You don’t need to spend all this money and effort developing elaborate courses with dialogues and supporting materials. Students just want a list of words grouped by functions. They think it’s an easier and faster way to learn English.’ What he said made me feel sad for his students. Being a Chinese and a learner of English myself, I couldn’t disagree more with him. Chinese might have been taught to memorize words and grammar rules in schools, but the failure of most Chinese to to hold a basic conversation in English after 10+ years of education speaks volume to the absurdity of the approach. But our discussion also got me thinking: does where one comes from affect how they learn languages, i.e. do Chinese or Russians or other nationalities really respond to a certain type of teaching and learning better than another? I’m not convinced that it’s the case. And if not, what factors are at play in determining how we learn?
Why I am skeptical of the ‘nationality’ approach: while people from a certain region might have been conditioned by a certain way of teaching, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the best way. The test-oriented Chinese education system that suppresses creativity, practical application and common sense is a great example of failure. So why perpetuate a broken paradigm? Taking the vocab memorize approach for instance, I have yet to see anyone from China or elsewhere being able to effectively communicate in a language by primarily focusing on word memorization or learning grammar rules for the same matter. This kind of approaches usually are shortcuts to game a test, whether it’s a school test or an English proficiency exam. People whose language skills are not at a proficient level have to cram words into their brains because they need to take tests within a short period of time. Many test prep schools and books make it clear to students that their purpose is to improve test scores, not improving students’ communicative ability.
That’s why instead of saying Chinese prefer learning English through word memorization, the assumption should rather be students who are cramming for exams are forced to memorize words to pass tests. If the learner is not studying to pass exams, how should they learn? I suspect that we could try to determine the approach based on two essential factors: 1) what the students are trying to do with the language, i.e. their learning goals; 2) their lifestyle. Most students at OpenLanguage for instance are busy professional adults learning languages for practical reasons, whether it’s for chances of a promotion, to prepare for an overseas assignment or an upcoming holiday, to talk to their co-workers and friends or even as a hobby. This type of learners overwhelmingly see language as a tool to communicate, connect and broaden their perspective. They want to learn to speak, to make human connections and to explore a new culture. The teaching approach needs to help them achieve these goals. That’s why we’ve taken the communicative and comprehensible approaches to language acquisition. We want to expose learners to natural dialogues set in realistic situations filled with real emotions. Our learners want to learn from something alive and real, because that’s what they will be using the language for. Whether it’s a Chinese learning English or an American learning Spanish, I see students respond to approaches that showcase languages in their living and breathing form. That’s the type of language learning we should be celebrating.