Wang's Observations

I have a Chinese teacher whose last name is Wang. All her students call her “Wang Laoshi” (laoshi means “teacher”), according to Chinese custom. She teaches my HSK prep class. Since the class only meets once a week for two hours, I see less of her than most of my other teachers, but I feel like I know her much better than the others. For one thing, I’ve known her longer. She tutored me for about half a year during my first year in China. For another, she seems much more straightforward about her feelings than a lot of Chinese people I meet.

Last week she shared with the HSK class a problem she’s been having with another class. She says her current intermediate level Chinese class is simply not willing to talk. At all. When she asks the class if someone can make a sentence using the new word, the whole class just stares down at their books, not daring to make eye contact. She waits patiently and encourages them, to no avail. If she asks a single person, she gets the same response. Trying to get just one sentence out of them is like pulling teeth. Even when she simply asks the class if they understand, she can’t get an answer. The only time the students show definite signs of life is when she writes on the chalkboard. They all magically spring into action, jotting everything down neatly in their notebooks. They seem to prefer it when she simply talks and writes, but that’s really boring for her, and not the most effective teaching method, either.
Wang Laoshi said that in the past she lost her temper and berated the students for their overly passive attitudes, which seemed to help the situation for a while. This semester, however, almost all her students are girls, and she doesn’t want to upset them.

So what’s with this class? Well, for one thing, they’re almost all Korean. Wang Laoshi asked the Korean students in the HSK prep class why they thought her intermediate level students were so incorrigibly passive. The Korean students reponded that it was because of their culture — the traditional Confucian style of education.

Wang Laoshi didn’t buy that. She said that Chinese students weren’t like that. That really made me smile, because I don’t think Wang Laoshi knows how passive Chinese students can be in an English class taught by a foreigner. Still, though, the way she described her students made them more inactive than any Chinese students I’ve ever taught.

Wang Laoshi’s observations on international students of Chinese were thus:

  1. Students from Western countries are much more active in the classroom. Wang Laoshi prefers there to be at least a few students from Europe or the Americas to liven up the atmosphere.
  2. Students from Western countries want to spend classtime mastering a few grammar patterns so that they can feel confident about their usage.
  3. Asian students want to cover as many grammar patterns as possible in class, and review them on their own.

Another thing I think Wang Laoshi doesn’t realize is that a lot of Chinese teachers don’t encourage class participation so much. I think some of the other Chinese teachers wouldn’t be so bothered by the lifelessness of her students. It just disappoints me that an excellent teacher like Wang Laoshi is wasted on such undeserving grammar sponges.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Getting ‘prolific’ here! Maybe that cold is your muse?
    Tim | 11.18.03 – 8:32 am | #

    Maybe you could enlighten Wang Laoshi re: Chinese student passivity in an English class. Perhaps she’ll recognize the cultural similarity among Asian students.
    Tim | 11.18.03 – 8:36 am | #

    My Chinese students were the most passive bunch I’ve ever taught. Likewise, they were much LESS creative than the students I’ve taught in Romania and now in the States. There’s a serious problem there, yet I hesitate to condemn the entire Chinese society because of it. Here’s why:

    Without a doubt, it was Chinese conservatism that made it lag far behind the Western powers. While the Spanish and Portugese were colonizing the Americas, the Chinese were sitting on their asses screwing around. When the British, French, and Dutch took over South and Southeast Asia, the Chinese were again sitting on their asses. The Chinese didn’t get off their asses till 1979! And Chinese students still remain sooooooo passive.

    However, I’ve heard that Japanese and Korean kids are the same–yet Korea and Japan are industrial powers now (and China’s experiecing incredible growth). Japan, even with its economic woes, still has an economy twice the size of France’s, surely one of the most creative of Western nations (in the past, at least, not their wretched state today). So it’s hard to say. Passivity in the classroom doesn’t necessarily screw up the economy or the arts.
    Da Xiangchang | Email | 11.18.03 – 12:39 pm | #

    I honestly don’t know how I would do with a roomful of Korean girls in an Asian country. But I have had some success getting Asian women to participate actively in my ESL classes, and peer counseling classes here in the US.

    I do know that probably the least effective method to break any cultural pattern (including those of myself and fellow Americans) is to impatiently head-on demand it. Even less effective is to reprimand the “culprits” for their patterns.

    What seems to work is more of a judo, or better yet, taiji approach, combined with a sense of humor, a light touch, and MOST IMPORTANTLY, LIKING your students. Most students will eventually do just about anything for a teacher who likes them. I don’t care what nationality or gender they are, or you are!

    Nobody actively chooses their particular national flavor of habits, distresses, and rigidities. It is the result of a long childhood of hurts and training. A good question to ask oneself is: what would have had to have been done to YOU (me) to have made you become the way that they are?

    A better question for a teacher than, “what’s wrong with these students?” is: how can I better like these students and better communicate to them that I like them.
    Alaric Radosh | Email | Homepage | 11.18.03 – 1:04 pm | #

    Sheesh Da Xiangchang, you like the far-sweeping logical jumps don’t you?

    From having taught Chinese students in China, Chinese students in Australia, Japanese students in Japan, Japanese students in Australia, and Korean studetns in Australia, I would have to say the Chinese students are great! They are interested, can be active, and WILL argue/discuss with you/ask questions. I think they are a lot better than the “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down” Japanese. However everyone has different experiences and I don’t think I would presume to make statements about a nation’s economy according to their students’ behaviour in class…
    Ben | 11.18.03 – 6:31 pm | #

    One thing I think for a good class is you should try to get everyone to participate, rather than let several students, usually top students, to dominate the class. Well, for my part, many classes are just so easy and natural to dominate, I dont mean to However, its better if you make those passive/introvert/not top students think theyre playing an effective role in your class. Though we do need several active students to liven up the atmosphere, let other students feel the class is here for them as well.

    John is a success in this. BTW, I didnt see its quite hard for you to get us all talk/participate.:p
    Rainbow | Email | Homepage | 11.18.03 – 8:38 pm | #


    See, that’s the thing of it: my point is you CAN’T make far-reaching projections based on little things. Like my Chinese class is passive; therefore, China will always be poor. Read my comment again: I’m saying that’s bullshit. Generally, I’m quite optimistic about China’s future. Increases in economic prosperity should eventually turn China into a democracy. In how many decades, who knows? But it will happen within my lifetime, that’s for sure. And whether or not some kid is passive in a classroom is irrelevant to this fact. Likewise, the VERY fact that Chinese are trying so hard to learn English is a great thing. It shows they got their priorities straight. They are no longer looking inward (as opposed to those damn French who can’t even put English captions in the Louvre!).
    Da Xiangchang | Email | 11.18.03 – 11:24 pm | #

    It is so difficult to generalise. For the most part, the students I teach are fairly passive. They don’t seem used to being asked questions in a classroom situation and will not volunteer. But if I pick a student to answer it, they will generally do so in a relatively pain-free manner. However, the korean and japanese students in my Chinese class are generally happy to both ask and answer questions. But my Chinese classes are much smaller and we know the teachers very well. To be honest, i don’t think i would volunteer to answer questions very often if I was in a class of more than 50 students. Maybe it is as Alaric Radosh says, it is about being happy and comfortable not just with your teacher, but with your claassmates aswell.
    Hannah | Email | Homepage | 11.19.03 – 4:24 am | #

    Hmm ok, still find it difficult to read that from your statement.

    I went to an interview the other day at a Japanese university and the Japanese Head of Department asked me about my stint in China – “Which are better, Chinese or Japanese?”
    I just groaned at such a question coming from an educated, very well-spoken academic and tried to dodge the bullet but when he insisted I gave it to him as I saw it.
    The Chinese students I have known absolutely destroy the Japanese students I have known.

    Still got the job 😀 !

    Regarding the passivity – many students seem willing to participate but refuse to do it on their own initiative, i.e. the teacher has to force them to get up and talk to each other, at which point they are fine. Likewise the blank faces I see in class are sometimes jumping out of their skin to answer once they have been asked specifically.

    As for John’s grammar sponge comment, most of the tests I ahve seen given in Asian countries are to this specific type of learning – what’s the point for an indifferent student to any more than the requirements?
    Ben | 11.19.03 – 5:32 am | #

    “Refuse to do it on their own initiative . . .” Yes, that’s exactly it! Generally, Chinese students generally wait till somebody helps them with something; they’d NEVER go out and find out themselves. I don’t know if this is an Asian trait or a residue of communism (since I saw the same thing in Eastern Europe)–probably a combination of both. My Danish boss in Shanghai told me how Chinese girls who go to Copenhagen for a year abroad mostly just hang out among themselves and don’t interact with any Danes. Now, you and I both know that generally white guys can’t control themselves around Asian girls. I’d bet dozens of Danes would be tripping over themselves to show the Chinese broads around (unless, of course, they’re real homely)–but NO, the girls stay home and dream of China! The biggest difference, I think, between the average Chinese kid and the average American is that the American kid isn’t bound by old, generally worthless, traditions, and has a lot more self-confidence. The lack of self-initiative in among Chinese youth is incredibly troubling.
    Da Xiangchang | Email | 11.19.03 – 2:47 pm | #

    Three posts on the same subject – man, Ray you are tearing it up!
    Wilson (Racingmix) | Email | Homepage | 11.19.03 – 4:29 pm | #

    I guess that a group of Korean girls in Hangzhou taught in Gongda by Wang Laoshi are quite different than any other class other than one taught in Gongda by Wang Laoshi to another group of Korean girls which might have a small resemblance. Have her do that second one and maybe then we could start making some comparisons. But before that we could sit in on one of her classes with that group of students. Maybe then we could begin to think about it.

    And I believe that in the 15th century the Ming Dynasty was suring up a country larger than all the above European specks on the map combined.
    Tim H | Email | 11.19.03 – 11:36 pm | #

    I guess I should clear something up… Wang Laoshi wasn’t condemning all Korean students, she was just saying that this particular class (of mostly Korean students) was very difficult to deal with. She has taught many classes of Korean students, and never were they this bad.

    Alaric, how can you like students that refuse to talk?

    (Rainbow, no, your class was not bad at all! English majors are almost always a joy to teach.)
    John | Homepage | 11.20.03 – 2:58 am | #

    John, what I said was an ideal that no teacher has ever completely met. But I think it is a principle that can be helpful.

    I think that, inside, ALL students would like to learn, be connected, express their creative intelligence, etc. The main reason they are clamming up now is because they had fear hammered into them by their families, friends, and culture while they were growing up. Our mistake as teachers is to take it personally. This is true anytime students act out. It really has nothing to do with us.

    I know it isn’t always easy, but the more we can remember the smart and likable human being behind the “stubborness”, “coldness”, or whatever, the more we will be able to reach them and think of ways to help them “come out of their shells”.

    As I mentioned, no teacher has ever completely reached this ideal with every student. However, the really great teachers get further than the rest of us with it.

    Think about the few great teachers who teach in impovershed inner-city schools in the US. Their challenge looks different, but it is really the same thing. If we don’t like our students, what is going to motivate us to think well about them?

    On another note, a good Korean friend has told me many stories about his school years in Korea. Teacher violence against students is very prevalent and harsh. He talked about frequently seeing students beat by teachers using thick sticks. An environement like that would affect how one behaves in the classroom.
    Alaric Radosh | Email | Homepage | 11.20.03 – 7:02 am | #

  2. one of us Says: March 9, 2006 at 1:10 pm

    To be honest, I think the overheat wave of learning English in China is completely killing the creativity and imagination of the nation.

    Me and many of my friends are all live victims of this so-called “all citizens participation” campaign. Millions of college students spend third (or even a larger share) of their undergraduate years, whicih probably is one’s peak of creativity circle and learning curve, to learn and master English. Why? It’s because the loud public voice ingraining a clear opinion: regardless of your educational background and personality, you want to success socially then you have to speak English fluently.

    Ironically, most international companies which are the target employers of those hard-working students are on the localization process in order to lower wage costs and integrate into the local culture. Comparing to other skills, proficient English is getting less weight. The days in where a fresh graduate with intermediate level of english could easily enter a prestigious companies, getting his career rocket, have gone forever. And the study abroad experience is aslo less appreciated even labeled with lack awareness of real Chinese reality.

    It’s like game theory. With deterioration of employment, everyone fear to take the risks of slowing down the steps of english leaning, even when it’s payback has substantially decreased. Bad job is always better than no job.

  3. Many Chinese students are afraid to take a risk; there is shame in answering incorrectly. The teacher must create a safe environment, where students are rewarded for trying, and respected by their classmates for courageously challenging themselves to attempt something they’re not 100% sure they can do correctly. They must experience the joy of risk taking, reaching beyond the safe line versus only attempting what is short of 100% sure. They need to feel the freedom of not being bound by an undeserved shame associated with asking a “dumb” question, or answering/performing inadequately. This shame is the result of parents, teachers, and a society that values performance above the person.

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