Where are they coming from? by Susan Samata

Have you ever felt frustrated with your Chinese students? Do they seem to lack initiative, be poorly motivated and unreceptive? Do they bring their breakfast to class, then slump senseless onto their desks as soon as you call a break? A year abroad should be exciting and challenging; it’s certainly expensive, so why do they sometimes seem to have a negative attitude when we know they want to meet their entrance requirements and gain their degrees?

Motivation is recognised as key to successful L2 acquisition. As EAP teachers, we think a lot about ways to ‘motivate’ our students, but what does that actually mean? Motivation, the reason why you do a thing, certainly has to do with the way you feel about it, and here we are in the areas of affect, self-image, and emotion.

One of the reasons I wanted to be included on the recent China trip was to gain insight into the mind-set of students I have encountered on presessional programs and to understand their attitude toward study abroad. I felt this was particularly important in reference to two things we aim to teach on EAP courses; academic culture and learner independence. Although I knew, in a theoretical way, that China is a totalitarian state,  that education is generally very prescriptive and relies heavily on rote memorization, I had not really understood the extent of the control exerted and its operation on practical, everyday levels.

The Nanjing first-year undergraduate day starts with an obligatory 1 kilometre run, followed by dorm cleaning duties and laundry. Each student must do their own laundry, including sheets and towels: by hand: in cold water. Classes start at 8.10 and often don’t end until 20.00. Breakfast is often bought from a concession stand and eaten while walking to class. Lunch and dinner are taken in large cafeterias: concrete floors, poor lighting, steel tables and fixed seats, the cacophony of steel trays being thrown into wash tubs. The food is cheap and plentiful.

I saw no lounge/study areas at all, other than the library; I couldn’t get access to this. There seems to be no time for private study in the schedule. Indeed, it is a regime calculated to leave the student too exhausted. Classes are divided into 45 minute sections and 10 minute breaks, signalled by bells; these are rigidly adhered to. Students are encouraged to put their heads down and sleep ‘between bells’ (in fact, from grade school they are ordered to do so and specially designed ‘desk pillows’ are available). As a result, many lurch, bleary-eyed, through their day.

The schedule can be arbitrarily interrupted, or conflicting demands issued. For example, one day on which my class was scheduled to run to 17.20, students begged me to end it before 17.00 as they had to be on a bus at 17.00 which would take them to an evening lecture.

The students on the two-week ‘intensive English’ program we were scheduled to ‘co-teach’ on with Chinese English teachers (scare quotes because we never had any sort of contact with these teachers) had begun their undergraduate experience with 2 weeks of military drill and political instruction, before being put on the 2-week English program, about which they had been told nothing at all. Their regular degree program had not yet started. In my introductory session, I asked why they had chosen their particular major. I found that only a handful was doing something they actually wanted to do. They were on courses dictated by their ‘high school scores’ with no choice at all about it; neither would there be any chance to change courses.

Some aspects of the regime outlined above may be particular to Nanjing Technical University, but colleagues report similar conditions at other institutions, and much is centrally mandated by the government. We must not forget that this is a government that has control of all information and will not tolerate anything remotely construable as dissent.

I now have a better insight into the personal and educational backgrounds, and thus the expectations, our students bring to their EAP courses. I must take time to think over ways, in which I can adjust my teaching approach, not to cater for lack of motivation, but to make it more possible for students coming from this type of background to fulfil the demands placed on them during their time in the UK. The stakes remain high for them, even when they are doing something they would not ideally, have chosen to do.

One way to think about these issues is to try to understand how our Chinese students view themselves as L2 learners. As EAP teachers, we know that our students need to be equipped with a set of academic skills over and above a basic competence in the language. These skills include an ability to analyse an argument or a problem, state a position, and support it. How often do we read essays that duly report both sides of a question but then conclude that the solutions is that, deus ex machina, the government should make a law against it. I used to think this was evidence of lazy thinking, now I think it is evidence of just how difficult it can be to step outside an all enveloping enculturation.

I also feel that ‘big issue’ topics, chosen for their interest or importance, can detract from the business of learning, perhaps rather mechanically, the steps in defining and supporting a defensible academic position. Becoming a ‘critical thinker’, in English, is a sufficiently challenging role to take on. If we teach academic skills and culture, students will be able to pursue wider themes through their departments.

Some strands in teaching/learning theory address issues of learner identity more broadly. The impact of affect and emotion is explored by Claire Kramsch in The Multilingual Subject (2009); a very accessible text. Jean-Marc Dewaele, ‘Affect and Language Teaching’ in The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics. (2013) provides a good review of recent work in this area, although rather Eurocentric. Jiang & Dewaele. (2015) ‘What lies bubbling beneath the surface? A longitudinal perspective on fluctuations of ideal and Ought-to L2 self among learners of English in Chinese universities’ in International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching. 53(3): 331-354, provides a specifically Chinese perspective. These two papers came up quite randomly in my reading. I have copies if you are interested.