Speechless Chinese Students

There’s an interesting article in China Daily on the difficulties Chinese students have speaking up in class. I encountered a variety of this in the business world, and it’s something I suspect expats in Asia all have to deal with at one time or another. ESL teachers probably deal with it every day.

Lu is teaching courses on automatic controls in the institute. Whenever raising a question, whether difficult or not, Lu finds there are almost no students volunteering answers.

“Waiting is meaningless and in vain. Instead,many times I have to call some students by name to answer my questions. I used the name list for the classes I am not familiar with,” he said.

However, Lu is always upset about the answers given. Students apparently lack key points and reply irrelevant words due to little practice in answering questions, let alone actively raising questions or ideas. Usually, he has to answer his own questions or speak by adding details to what he has already said.

Not only Lu, but teachers in other universities, colleges and institutes are experiencing similar problems.

“I have talked with many of my colleagues and teachers in other universities,” Lu said, “Most of them are worried about the same problem.”

Some teachers say that most Chinese students apparently pay much more attention to reading and learning knowledge by heart than participating in the practice of oral expression.

I’m surprised to see China Daily writing about this as though it’s a recent phenomenon. I’ve been hearing about it and experiencing it for years. When you have an educational system that for decades has taught students to learn by rote, and to listen to the teacher and memorize, what would they expect?

If the professors interviewed in the article are looking for fast answers, I’d recommend they forget about it. This trait isn’t going away anytime soon, especially since memorization and cramming for tests is still the mainstay of Chinese education, as opposed to inquiry and problem solving and seeing things from many perspectives. That’s why so many of the managers there are imported from Taiwan and Hong Kong. Memorization won’t help you solve problems that require critical thinking.

I hear this is starting to change, very slowly. Problem solving is creeping into the curriculum. But remember, when you start teaching students to think for themselves, you’re opening the door to all kinds of dangers. Authoritarian governments don’t want their people asking too many questions. So expect any changes to be gradual in the extreme.

The Discussion: 14 Comments

I would suggest that the teachers in these Chinese schools need practice on their questioning skills rather than depending on students to make the leap, because I don’t think this problem is unique to China.

In a former career I was a high-school teacher. During my very first teaching session (a Kafka short story), I was stunned when my boisterous, lively and intelligent American students didn’t engage me even when I asked open questions and waited for them to volunteer their opinions. Even today I cringe, remembering how awkward and silent the class was.

My mentor told me later that it was my fault, and he taught me how to ask the right kinds of questions that would elicit answers from a crowd of self-conscious teenagers, and of course, unless I had an exceptional class, I would never ask for volunteers until the class became comfortable with me.

I suspect Chinese students may be even more reticent, but any professional American high-school teacher would have ways to make them talk.

June 2, 2004 @ 7:22 pm | Comment

I cannot agree more and I was one of those students back then. “LIFO” was my name “Last in first out” of the classroom. My explaination is that some are getting cynical about the whole educational system (which is preceived to be all about grade points and not about learning). Schooling has become a game where the winners gather most points and get good jobs. Students don’t waste their energy on something that has no points to get (such as speaking out).

June 2, 2004 @ 7:49 pm | Comment

It is a doable effort. From first hand experience, as a teacher in several universities in China, I would say Boo has it about right. It takes some special effort to get people in classes to talk. I was not then a professional teacher, but I had some success in getting the students to talk in ESL and law classes. Of course, like any other country there are talkers and there are the reticent students. I probably took some liberties with standard teaching techniques, but I was dealing sophomores and returning graduates. and felt they were old enough to handle pretty direct suggestions.
I have seen some references in Chinese (English) papers about changing teaching techniques to have class participation and developing thinking techniques. It really needs to start at the elementary level.

June 2, 2004 @ 11:14 pm | Comment

I’ve been an ESL teacher in Shanghai for almost three years now. The China Daily article is absolutely spot-on, and I could not agree more with Richard’s comments.

The reluctance of students to speak is indeed challenging, even in a private training center in which a great deal of money has been spent to give them an opportunity to study “SPOKEN English”.

I frequently teach classes coaching students on preparing for the IELTS test – a standard evaluation of English language skills used by many western university admissions depts. I am always struck by the inability of many of my students to reason or logically frame an answer, even for a relatively simple question. They just want me to tell them what the “right” answer is so they can memorize it. This applies even to personal opinion questions, e.g. “Describe your favorite city in China.”

I now spend a major part of the class coaching them on analyzing questions, thinking, and formatting basic answers.

I also try to give them a heads-up as to what they can expect when (if) they reach a western university, i.e. that failure to answer in class hinders their education and may even lower their grade.

“The only dumb question is the one not asked” should be printed on the ID cards of all Chinese students!

June 2, 2004 @ 11:14 pm | Comment

I don’t disagree with anything that is said above, and I’ve certainly encountered my fair share of it in the classroom .

I have two contradictory things I’d like to comment on. Firstly, from my high school teaching days in Hong Kong, I found that when I taught the youngest class (age 11/12) it was pretty easy to get them to respond. Sometimes I could even get away with asking for volunteers (which, as one reader notes above, is risky even in a western school). Once they hit the teenage years though, it was always a huge struggle. In the west students seem to emerge from that teenage phase … but in China they don’t. The kids all told me that they loved primary school, but hated secondary school. I wonder therefore, if it’s not something cultural, nor even something effecting the entire education system, but rather something that is at fault at secondary level. I find it very hard to reconcile my experiences with those kids with pretty much all my encounters with asian students at all levels of age beyond that. Part of the problem may simply be that the amount of work they are required to cover is absolutely enormous. Even as a teacher who wanted to take time for more interesting activities, I found myself constantly forced to press on and on just to cover everything in the course. Those kids in turn would have to slave for hours and hours cramming information into their heads to have any hope in the exams. Pretty soon, they come to hate reading, and hate learning. I used to say that there wasn’t a course at HK schools that couldn’t be considerably improved by taking a pair of scissors to the syllabis.

Now the other side … maybe there really is something “cultural” about the rote learning mentality. Consider what it takes to become literate in Chinese. A teacher stands up the front of the class and says “this characters means ‘horse'” and writes it on the blackboard. “Now, everyone write that out 50 times and remember it.” There is no way, by simply looking at the word, that you can work out that it is a horse. You just have to wait to be told what it means and then memorise it. Occasionally you can make some kind of guess … but you’re as likely to guess that the character for “mother” actually means “female horse” as you are to get the right meaning. With an alphabetic script, the teacher can try to get the students to work out for themselves what a new word means … “now, it starts with an ‘h’ sound, followed by an ‘or’ sound, and then there is an ‘s’ … can anyone guess what this word might be? How about you Jimmy?” So … one key factor in the asian rote learning mentality may simply be their writing system. I don’t have any experience with Korea where they have an alphabetic script … but I’d be very interested to know how they teach basic literacy there.

June 3, 2004 @ 12:59 am | Comment

Li En, rote learning and the memorization of chacters may well be at the heart of the “speechless student” phenomenon in Asia. But there’s a lot more to learning than characters, and this unwillingness to speak out seems to pervade all classes, at least in secondary school. Could it also be tied to the Confucian mentality of the father being absolutely right, and you listen to what he says without question? The teacher is, after all, a parental figure.

This would make an interesting PhD thesis, if it hasn’t been done before (and I’m going to guess that it has).

June 3, 2004 @ 4:57 pm | Comment

Confucian influence may have something to do with it. But if that were the case, Chinese elementary students would be silent as well. As it is, student contributions are plentiful in Chinese elementary classrooms, especially when compared with U.S. classrooms.
I think the expectations and structure of secondary and elementary schools can explain differences in the students’ roles.

June 3, 2004 @ 8:32 pm | Comment

Some very of interesting comments from everyone, hope to hear more.

I try to defuse the confucian teacher-as-unaddressable-expert problem by insisting my students refer to me by my first name, and to think of me not as their teacher, but their “coach”. Warmth and humor can be very effective at melting the inhibitions. Curiously, I’ve had consistantly great results from role playing. Perhaps letting them step out of their normal personas allows them to abandon their reluctance to speak as well.

The character-based writing system and its connection with a rote-memorization-based education system is an intriguing question. Which was the product of the other? Perhaps such a system of writing could only have ever developed and survived in a culture with educational traditions emphasizing rote-memorization?

I keep trying to look for some advantage of the rote-memorization system. The only one I’ve found is the development of sheer memory capacity.

I’ve played vocabulary memory games requiring my students to memorize steadily lengthening lists of words. Usually the class ends before I find their limit! Some of my students have shown surprisingly capable memories, easily able to recall, in sequence, lists of more than forty words.

June 4, 2004 @ 12:26 pm | Comment

I found that while teaching my students in Lanzhou, the best way to get them to speak was to constantly stress that even wrong answers were welcome. I did not care what they said, as long as they said something. Over time…(a long time)…they began to say many things that were truly worthy of students anywhere. They just had to get over the fear that they would be punished or embarrassed by giving a “wrong” answer.

June 6, 2004 @ 11:36 am | Comment

I don’t see how it could be said that the education system created the Chinese writing system … as far as chicken and egg cases go, I think this one is pretty straight-forward, since there’s a reasonably traceable pattern of Chinese script for up to 4,000 years.

Richard, if you can find it, you might like to try reading a book called Why Asians are Less Creative than Westerners, by Ng Aik Kwang. I think it was based on his Singapore PhD thesis. It’s not the greatest book in the world, but interesting to read what a Chinese Sinaporean has to say on the subject.

June 7, 2004 @ 10:31 am | Comment

Li En, I have a stack of newly ordered books to read over the coming months, but your recommendation sounds like a good one. (It’s my birthday in three weeks, so if you’re determined to get me a birthday gift….)

June 7, 2004 @ 9:52 pm | Comment


I have taught kindergartens in Taiwan and I am now in my third Elementary/Middle School job teaching English in South Korea, and I’d like to try to answer Zheng Li En’s question, if possible.

Koreans do indeed have an “alphabetic” system (based upon King Sejoung’s original) but we should remember (according to Bruce K grant in his book “A Guide to Korean Characters”, Hollym, ISBN 0-930878-13-2) that some 60% of Korean words still spoken today are in fact Chinese, and anyone who has studied Chinese can recognise them from Putonghua instantly.

The individual characters of modern written Korean are easy to memorise and limited in number, unlike Chinese, where there are (allegedly) upwards of 60,000 historical characters, and now these would be represented in either Traditional (my preference) or Modern Chinese script. So acquiring competency in _written_ Korean is not too difficult. However, there are some salient points in this regard:

1: According to many people I have spoken with here, native Korean speakers still have a lot of difficulty with Korean grammar.

2: Native Korean teachers of English in the private ‘academies” (hogwans) here are apparently more highly regarded by the students because those in state schools are (I am told) less competent in their foreign language abilities.

3: Korean teachers depend very much upon the books they use as a result of this (exactly the same situation as in Japan). Korean language-learning materials are, however, riddled with mistakes, irrespective of whether you are a native Korean or a foreigner trying to learn Korean. Add to this the fact that there are few good books about learning Korean (a complete contrast with Chinese or Japanese, for example) and it then takes ages to learn any Korean, especially if, like myself, you are in a sub-coastal town far away from a Korean language school.

I have not seen any evidence that even the youngest Koreans have problems with writing in Korean (although at the moment I know nothing about the occurrence of dyslexia among Koreans, for example).

But to finish, there is one other curious eature of written Korean which is worthy of note. The way in which characters are put together is clearly modelled upon that of Chinese. Up to six individual components (characters) can be brought together to form a single syllable or morpheme. Thus, although Sejoung’s intention was to create something simpler and more like an “alphabet” as we would know it in the West, in practice it has many features like written Chinese – something which I have actually never seen mentioned in any source, anywhere.


Andrew. ^_^ /”

October 3, 2004 @ 1:08 am | Comment

Thanks Andy … that was really interesting. Thanks Richard too, for highlighting the new post.

With regards to point 2 about private tutorial teachers being more highly regarded … it reminds me of an annoyance when I was teaching at high school in HK. I would give the kids what I considered a reasonably balanced workload to prepare for their pretty demanding exams … but I would find they wouldn’t be doing the stuff I told them to, because they’d be going off to private tutorial schools and doing their work, and not having the time to do my stuff. It was infuriating. Especially when you’d hear some of the advice they were getting from the teachers at the tutorial places … which the kids would privilege above the things I told them. Most of the time, it was complete crap. Almost without exception I’d say the kids would do better if they didn’t go there at all … instead, they did the regular school homework properly, and got a decent night’s sleep. Half the kids would be turning up to school with just 4 hours sleep … how they expected to get anything out of class is beyond me.

October 3, 2004 @ 10:09 pm | Comment

Could it also be tied to the Confucian mentality of the father being absolutely right, and you listen to what he says without question?

Father being absolutely right? No, not always anyway
Listen to what he says without question? Yes
Confucian mentality? Yes

October 5, 2004 @ 1:09 am | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.