Learning from my students
Contributor
As an (American) English teacher working at a university in China, one frequent question I get asked in multiple classes every semester is “How can we improve our spoken English?” Generally, my students are good at writing and reading English because that's what they've been taught from the get-go. Memorizing vocabulary words is easy to test and these students endure about a million stressful exams before they graduate from college. But they're not taught how to use the language. Enter me. I teach them how to speak. And how can you improve your spoken English? By speaking. When I tell them that's the only way they can improve their spoken English skills, many of their faces fall. This isn't the magical answer they were hoping for. To be fair, in nearly all of their other classes they learn by listening to the teacher. The teacher lectures, tells them what's important and tells them what to memorize for their next battery of exams. I wonder if they're looking for a trick they can memorize when it comes to speaking English. But to get really good at a language, or anything, really, you need to practice. I'm a failed Chinese student because I don't study Chinese. It's pathetic since I live here, but once I learned the basics to get by day-to-day (“Where's the toilet?” “How much?”) I kinda stopped trying. And that's my own fault. (In my defense, I will be returning home to the U.S. this summer). I've started writing a quote on the blackboard on the first day of every semester, “Learning English is like playing ping pong. You only get better with practice.” I hope that helps them understand, or at least remember, that even if they find English difficult, even if they're too shy to speak, all they really need to do is try and, eventually, they'll get better. Of course there are days I forget my own advice. (I didn't even take it when it came to learning Chinese). I sit in front of my laptop, roll up my sleeves to delve into this story or chapter, and I get very tired. Surely there must be an easier way! Read another “How to Write a Best-selling Novel” book another “10 tips for writers” article and then the words will come shooting out of my finger tips. I often wish I was in Harry Potter and all I had to do was put my wand to my temple, say something magical, and whatever I'd been trying to type would come out, fully formed, into that mystical pool. Then I think of my students, especially the really good ones that do try even though they mispronounce words or don't know the proper vocabulary yet to fully express their idea. But I watch them wrap their minds around this incredibly difficult language so they can communicate with me in my native language. If all these students can make time to sit down and study and learn English, I can sit down and friggin' write.

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