Monday, 23 February 2009

More words on the street…

…or should that be more words used badly on the Chinese streets?

The amount of English words that should be “mastered” as preparation for China’s college entrance English exam will “continue to increase steadily,” reads an
article in yesterday's Beijing News.

The story quotes the recently released “2009 Examination Handbook” - essential reading for almost every 17-18 year-old Chinese high-school student, who sits the annual exam as a prerequisite for all undergraduate study in China. When the measure comes into effect, the students should prepare an extra 101 English words, raising the number of officially recommended words to 3500.

The Peking Order was unable to obtain a copy of the 2009 document. However, unofficial lists are likely to become available online as students upload transcribed copies of the vocab. To get an idea of the type of words on the 2009 list, I looked at the
2008 words, which can be viewed on various web forums. “Arbitrary,” “vacuum,” “undergo,” and “expenditure,” are a few of the harder words that I found.

Many who have used English to speak to certain Chinese people will doubt the ability of this measure to improve English literacy. I believe China’s education system, criticized for its emphasis on bleary-eyed rote learning, is partly to blame for the relatively poor English in China. Although following the examiner’s recent advice may aid comprehension of written English, I believe it will encourage memorising a greater number of more difficult words. This will come at the expense of time spent studying basic words, and, therefore, will do nothing to improve standards of written and spoken English communication in China.

In my opinion, it would be best to reduce the words on this list, and encourage studying the flexible usage of verbs like “to go” and “to be.” Due to differences between English and Chinese, namely a lack of verb conjugation in the latter, native Chinese speakers are not used to changing verb forms according the tense, subject, etc. Only after these basic words - and their conjugations - are correctly understood, should a student move on to more difficult words.

Considering that I have trouble using some of the words on the recommended list, for many Chinese high-school students under the current education system, there is not a hope in hell of being able to reproduce such difficult words accurately. An increase in recommended vocabulary is not, therefore, good news for China’s English. On the contrary, I suspect it will result in more words being used incorrectly, increased frustrations of foreign English teachers, and more misunderstandings between Chinese students of English and anyone who has genuinely mastered the English language.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It really can be frustrating at times. Last term, the Dean at my college seriously suggested I have my students deliver a prepared speech as part (40%) of their Business WRITING final examination. I countered that this rote learning does not help the students communicate in the real world. We went back and forth until I was able to prove my point the following week.

I memorized a famous Chinese poem, including getting all the tones down, in one week. I recited the poem in the following week's staff meeting and was met with enthusiastic praise and applause. I had prepped a colleague to ask me what I thought about the piece I had just quoted. When I explained I had no idea what I had just said, the lights went off.

I didn't have to include the recitation on any of my finals but of course every one of the Chinese teachers did things the same as always.