We Need Oral English Classes

Problem: Students in China rarely have opportunities to speak English and they feel difficulties in communicating with foreigners in English.

Audience: English teachers in High School in Shanghai, China


Dear English teachers in High Schools in Shanghai,

I grew up in Shanghai, China and began learning English in elementary school. In classes, my tasks included copying new words, listening to tapes and reciting texts. I, as well as all other students in China, read articles and word lists aloud over and over every morning in school to help memorize phrases and sentence structures. When I first attended English classes in first grade, my teacher repeatedly taught me to write down texts by heart, because exams in school were focused on the completion of full sentences. Today, even the simplest conversations such as, “How are you?” “Fine, thank you. And you?” still resonate with me. An example of how this memorization is meeting the bare minimum of communication in China can be explained through a Chinese joke. The joke talks about a policeman who came to save a Chinese man who fell into the well and asked him “How are you?”, the Chinese man replied “Fine, thank you. And you?” Although this joke is funny, it is also sad. It shows that the main use of language that students learned in school in Shanghai is not for actual communication, but for exams.

In high school, the situation became worse. My English teachers focused more on training students exam skills, since people thought that high school students’ all three-year effort was to achieve high scores in their college entrance examination. The policy was strict that each high school student could only take this exam once a year and no more than three times. Moreover, English listening, reading and writing tests were all mandatory in this exam but there was no oral English exam. Everyone felt nervous. Both teachers and parents wanted students to spend their time on reviewing the examination. This exam is thought as the only gate accessing to success in China. A high score in this exam is like a raffle ticket. Students’ whole lives are thought to depend on their performance in this exam. They thought that every minute was a waste when students were doing other things. Scores was the most important thing that students should work for. If something did not influence scores, parents and teachers expected children to ignore it. This was the reason that no schools in Shanghai paid attention to having oral English classes. The only chance that I would speak English was to answer my teacher’s questions but they were also about reciting texts. I never communicated with classmates in English in high school. I did not realize how important and useful the oral part to English was, until I came to the United States. I hoped that English teachers in high school in Shanghai could encourage students to speak a second language, English. If teachers in China could add at least one oral English class every week because language was for communication, not for exams, students would benefit a lot in the future.

When I first came to the University of California, Davis in the United States, I found that it was a big problem for me to express myself to others in English. Although I had already learned English for more than ten years, I still felt a struggle with saying complete sentences in English because conversations were really fast. I usually had to translate Chinese sentences in my mind to English instead of saying them in English directly. Because I was so used to the phrases and unchangeable sentence structures in Chinese schools, I always worried about my word choice and grammar before I said something. I felt extremely nervous when speaking to a native speaker. I was afraid that any oral mistakes could lower my GPA, since I experienced it in China. This problem made me respond slowly and it was a big language barrier of my communication with my peers. When I was thinking during the conversation, I could not help saying “uh” or “an”, which were like “well” in English. It was really hard for my classmates and roommates to understand me. They had to rehearse my words to ensure that they understood me correctly. I felt hard to communicate an idea that I in fact wanted to communicate. I was embarrassed when my friends asked that, “Can you say that again?” “Do you mean that…?” or “What’s your point?” I thought more than once that if I would have more opportunities to speak English in high school in Shanghai, this situation would be better. It was ridiculous that I spent more than ten years in learning a second language that was useless when I needed it to communicate. I still spent a long time to adapt the English language environment.

Not only I but also my friends, who study and work in Shanghai now, also feel the English they learned in school is useless. My friends meet more and more English speaking students in College in Shanghai and most of my friends dare not to speak in English in public. Since they rarely communicate in English, they all worry about being idiots by making stupid grammar mistakes and choosing wrong word during conversations. My friends feel depressive that as adults they cannot even express themselves clearly. Thus, most of my friends keep silence in front of English speaking students in College and never go out of the circle of Chinese people. Many of my friends also work in companies in Shanghai. They usually complain that it is hard for them to find jobs because of their poor oral English. Although they are very competitive in the academic field, employers also prefer employees who are good at communicating in English. Especially in companies in Shanghai, my friends find that it is inevitable to work with English speaking cooperators. The better a worker’s oral English is, the more efficiently he will work with others. Therefore, they all think that high schools in Shanghai are lack of oral English classes.

I suggest that English teachers in high school in Shanghai give an oral language instruction in English once a week. Students go to high school for education and it is the last station for students to get ready for a wider society. The college entrance examination is just a door through school to the outside world. When students go to colleges and companies in Shanghai, they will meet people from all over the world. Students do not learn second language just for exams. Learning English in school aims at helping Chinese students communicate with foreigners. Chinese students need more chances to practice their oral part to English, which can benefit their future life after high school.

Yiru Sun.


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