May 01, 2015 By Alex Schofield ,

In my previous article on perception of foreign teachers I discussed how they were viewed by other expats and employers. I felt there was a giant hole missing: the perception of foreign teachers by the very people who actually pay for the service, whose money pumps through this ever-expanding industry. There are now five times as many people learning English in China as there are people in the UK. The ESL education is huge in China and the number of parents who will shell out cash for English lessons is ever increasing.

Flicker: Matt Lavery

In my six years of teaching in China and Singapore, I have dealt with hundreds of parents of students which are usually of primary school age. Two things have always stood out for me when it comes to the expectations they have for their child’s English lessons- an expectation of “authenticity” and the wildly differing standards they have of Chinese teachers and foreign teachers.

The Myth of Osmosis

I was absolutely useless at biology when I was at school, but for some reason the word osmosis always stuck with me. I think it basically describes the process whereby molecules transfer between membranes, but it perfectly sums up how most Chinese parents expect their child to learn English. Many think that simply by putting their child in a room with someone from an English speaking country, their child will simply assimilate English language skills almost without trying.

However, it is almost impossible to create a fully immersive English-language environment in China. Once a child is placed in a class with a native English speaker it is expected that the pieces will fall into place, despite the fact that 1-3 hours per week of English instruction, even if in a totally immersive environment, is not adequate to constitute a real English environment. Once the child steps foot out of the class, their English-language environment disappears.

What is an “Authentic,” English Speaker?

Chinese adult students or parents of children taking English classes almost always automatically assume that native speakers are the most equipped to teach the language, and that the experience and environment is more “authentic” with a native teacher. A white person from the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia or New Zealand most accurately conforms to the perception that many Chinese people have of what an English speaker is. This partly explains the issues around race and ethnicity that I discussed in my previous article, and why white faces are best for business.

I once taught an eight year old boy who spoke outstanding English. To be honest, his English was so good I had no idea why his mother hired me to tutor him. The reason was simply that he spoken English with his Filipino nanny day in day out since he was a toddler. When I asked about this, her reply was “She was good but her accent wasn’t very authentic”. His accent was absolutely fine, but this is the pervasive attitude amongst many. The fact that people from countries such as India, Philippines and many English-speaking African countries such as Kenya have been speaking English since they were knee-high just seems lost. However, ask yourself this question- if you wake up tomorrow and decide to take Spanish lessons, would you hire someone from the south of the USA who studied Spanish at school or a native speaker from Mexico, Spain, Chile or Argentina?

Fun Classes Vs Grammar Lessons

What is an English teacher in China actually hired to do? Well in the world of the language school owner it is to make money for the school but in the eyes of the parents it is to facilitate an English-language environment. It is felt by all that the best way to do this is to have an upbeat, enjoyable and entertaining class primarily filled with games, interactive activities and humour. This one of the main difficulties in being a foreign teacher in China- the need to be highly entertaining as well as educational. Your popularity with your students is the main parameter by which your performance is measured. This is in sharp contrast to how Chinese teachers are evaluated, which is mostly on their ability to get their students to get high scores in the astonishing amount of tests the students must sit.

The prevalent attitude is that foreign teacher classes are for fun and games whilst the Chinese teacher classes are for serious study, this is usually why the foreign teachers are assigned the “Oral English” lessons and the lessons on grammar, syntax and word usage are almost exclusively delegated to the Chinese teachers. I see this as unlikely to change, as the “good” foreign teachers in China are ones who are popular with their students and keep them coming back, and conform to the expectations of the students and their parents.

It is entirely understandable that most foreign teachers are cautious and simply try to keep their students and their parents happy by giving them what they want. But, as long as this is the case, this perception will not change.

Remember that in the eyes of the student’s parents and school owners or principals foreign teachers are there to facilitate an English-language environment rather than to teach. In my opinion this perception is the main reason that many foreign teachers feel under-appreciated, and why there are so many instances of questionable business practices in the ESL industry. Foreign teachers are then resented for being paid a large salary for doing what is (in the eyes of many) a very simple job.

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Keywords: Chinese schools foreign teachers Foreigner teachers China

59 Comments Add your comment



"If my kid doesn't learn it's your fault." "My kid didn't learn because you're classes are no fun." "My kid can't learn because your classes are too hard." "My kid can't learn because you're too lenient." "My kid can't learn because he can't understand you." "My kid can't learn because the earth orbits the sun, and you didn't stop it" ...

May 01, 2015 01:50 Report Abuse



lol yeah, there is an excuse for everything... just don't tell them that their kid is just stupid as hell :p

May 01, 2015 10:22 Report Abuse



Your racist remark makes you a big dirty one too.

May 01, 2015 22:40 Report Abuse



Most of them are just terrible. Watch them for ten minutes and you will see why their kids are the spawn of hell. Because their parents are from the depths of hell too. And the cycle of psychological and emotional abuse ingrained in a culture that stopped progressing 2000 years ago continues unchecked and unchallenged.

May 01, 2015 23:30 Report Abuse



Why don't you try to make a difference? Make your effort to let Chinese parents know where it is wrong,and the true essence fo education,I really hope some of you could make a difference.

May 02, 2015 00:05 Report Abuse



Because fighting 5000 years of ingrained cultural nonsense is not only impossible, but fruitless. I have done that, and they just don't care. "It's not my job, it's yours." "But it's your child." "But I have too much to do." I had that idealism as a first year teacher all those years ago. Now, I realize reality. Unless you've been in actual classrooms, it is easy to make these statements.

May 02, 2015 10:06 Report Abuse



(GeoHistTeacher) Spot on. 5000 years of dictatorial conditionings and power struggle. Then half a century+ of spiritual vacuum fried with material poverty. Seasoned with excuses to justify lying, cheating (fakes), stealing, robbing, shunning all responsibility to maintain face. That's the real, uncamouflaged 5000 year 'civilised' dish china 'presents' to the world.

May 02, 2015 12:46 Report Abuse



the anti-ccp 50 cent brigade is in full swing on this forum.

May 02, 2015 13:54 Report Abuse



Lol so true, and the school falls right behind it too. I had a school complaint one time because one parent said my class was too boring, then the next week another parent complaint because the class was too hyper and the kid was jumping off the walls after class so they complaint about the class being to hyper... You can't please them all!

May 02, 2015 14:39 Report Abuse



No,I have already know the weakness of our education,and the reason why I know that is that one of my friend try to make a difference,he dare to tell his students what the real education is ,and what we can do to make a better life and society,and he is still now doing that for everyone he met,I really appreciate that what he told me made me a much better me.But people like him is really rare.Most people here don't know the advanced imformation you knew,but people like me would always prefer to accept them and try to improve the current affairs.PS:I am the person who have no idea of all that you knew.Now,I always tell people with all that that made me a better me.

May 03, 2015 20:29 Report Abuse



Whether they are adults or children, the honeymoon ends pretty quickly with students. The schools you work for do not have your back and in the end, the only thing that matters is that you get enough of a salary that your time in China is pleasant and you get to see the rest of Asia which is all nicer by far. Do not care too much.

May 04, 2015 02:22 Report Abuse



Hahah... "My kid can't learn because there is a huge blackhole in the middle of the galaxy that is sucking away my child brainwaves and you didn't block it! God damn foreigners, what am I paying you for?!"

May 04, 2015 23:14 Report Abuse



at the kindergarten where I work English is a very small part.classes are 20 mins.most parents cant speak English so English does not get used at home. the only English they get is class time.when the class is over its all Chinese.our kindergarten is not set up for English.

May 01, 2015 07:26 Report Abuse



It's always the same story...No idea about the fact that language acquisition is also a creative and not just a scientific process and, for higher grades, involves a considerable amount of independent reading and first of all interest.

May 01, 2015 07:39 Report Abuse



no equivalent of, or anything close to, interest exists in Chinese (or China)

May 05, 2015 07:57 Report Abuse



A decent article. I experienced the same in the language school industry. It's also noteworthy that FTs are put in classes with young kids to teach simple words, while adults get atrocious teaching from Chinese teachers. Because they're willing to 'sacrifice' more for their young kids' education than for their own. Children are a pension investment here. As for the myth of "osmosis", the article proves it to be partially true. The only problem is that kids don't get enough exposure time to English. Language is moreeasily assimilated by kids than it is learned as an adult. But exposure time matters. Sounds like those nannies can improve English better than a teacher! For the sake of the schoolowners' profits, don't tell amybody.

May 01, 2015 08:08 Report Abuse



There's something about little kids brains that lets them pick up language lightning fast

Jun 22, 2015 00:15 Report Abuse



We could talk all day about the culture, and situations we find ourselves in, but the truth is,,kids shouldn't be taught reading, writing and speaking at the same time. We learn our first language at home,by copying our family members(or in your student mentioned in your articles case,,the nanny) Why did that work? Because she only spoke to the child. A thirty year research program proved long ago that this is the way to learn any language,not just your native language. Listening, repeating, responding to questions uses one part of the brain, and the absorption rate is 80 to 90 percent, as opposed to the pitiful 10-15 percent success rate most schools in the world have.No books, no dictionaries. Follow the Pimsleur program pattern and the kids will succeed, it teaches the same way we learn at home when we are kids, and they speak sentences in the first week. Believe me, I'm not saying Pimsleur is perfect, but it follows these guidelines,with specific times between repetition,male and female speakers using the same dialogue, and other techniques based on this research,,,,and it works. Why don't we follow research instead of doing the same old thing over and over and hoping for better results? Because change is hard, especially for school systems, and they just won't give up that testing thing. Someone needs to tell them that language is different than other subjects,,,someone they will listen to...How many of us took Spanish in high school, and even if we aced it,,still couldn't speak after two years of classes? That was me,,I wasn't one of the 10 percent. The only reason I can see any improvement in China in 4 years is that they keep starting younger and younger, so,,they should be able to speak some after 12 years of English classes. Then again, the (wanna be an IB school) I left in February was full of seniors who were stumped after Hi,,how are you? fine thank you! That should tell us it's time to take a different approach, but real change is hard....... Here's one more example, and this was a 27 year old woman. She was the rare Chinese student, In bEijing who could speak beautifully, but hadn't learned to read or write in school. She learned from singing English songs.She wanted to go overseas and go back to school but was terrified of having to learn to read and write. She eventually found a program in Canada.They let her come to CAnada, to a university, but she had to learn to read and write in one semester. If she succeeded, she could stay and study there.She was so scared,,until she started there,,,but she learned and surpassed her goals in 6 months because she had learned to speak first,,,so she was bored by the end of the first semester...

May 01, 2015 09:36 Report Abuse



Actually, a holistic approach to language teaching is the best. You can not and should not compartmentalize language learning. Reading out loud is a good exercise in speaking, listening, the correct use of grammar and vocabulary. Practicing a language or grammar point with oral exercises or games reinforces the correct use of language.

May 01, 2015 16:55 Report Abuse



The story of the 27-year-old girl is very motivating.

May 02, 2015 00:16 Report Abuse



you should really look at language research, unlike other subjects,,,learning to speak a language IS a compartmentalized process, using one part of the brain. Learning to read and write it are another subject,and use different parts of the brain. That's exactly why we learn language so easy at home as kids...Geez,it's bad enough we teach kids total lies in every other subject in school, do we have to deny the truth in language too?

Oct 18, 2016 09:51 Report Abuse



One thing I'm puzzled by is the fact that so many Chinese will pay so much for their child to learn English, but yet (as far as I know), they dont have enough 100% English speaking channels on the TV. Are there even any cartoons in English? ...for starters?!

May 01, 2015 10:18 Report Abuse



No,there is limitation.

May 02, 2015 00:19 Report Abuse



I suspect the folks that run the big $$$$ ESL businesses in China bribe the govt to keep it off. more $$$ for them. kind of a "cornering the market approach" of sorts. Oh well, C'est la Vie ! :(

May 02, 2015 14:16 Report Abuse



Never thought of this angle but you might be right

Jun 22, 2015 00:16 Report Abuse