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The Chinese Student Learning English in Greece:
The Meeting of Three Cultures
by Sara Hannam
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The Interaction of Three Cultures

Three separate cultures are present in the classroom when the student is attending a BANA institution in Greece, namely British or American, Greek and Chinese. Each of these teaching and learning cultures have their own specific historical and pedagogical legacy, which needs to be carefully considered. Greece acts as a symbolic bridge between the two other distinct cultures of learning and teaching, a situation that is not without its potential problems. There seem to be two ways of approaching this issue. The first is to search for the superiority/inferiority of each of the three cultures of learning listed above (which will vary depending on who is analyzing them), an approach I consider unhelpful as it tends to be reductive and views the unfamiliar or ‘other’ culture through distorted lenses. The second more helpful approach is to search for ways in which the best elements of all can three can be aligned in the spirit of critical fusion. Within the current literature, there is a distinct lack of research overtly addressing what part cultural factors might play in the success (or not) of classroom interaction with Chinese learners.

Research Environment: Identification of Problem Areas

I carried out the research at City College within a framework of Critical Action Research (CAR) which can be defined as ‘…involving a self-reflective, systematic and critical approach to enquiry…to identify problematic situations or issues considered by the participants in this social situation to be worthy of investigation and to bring about critically informed changes in practice’ (Burns 2003: 5). I gathered data from the EAP teachers (50% BANA, 50% Greek) to establish what the main points of tension were in the classroom, most of which correlated with those already identified in the literature. I then interviewed a group of students in depth to obtain their perspective on the issues raised. Both teachers and students were involved in a pre-sessional EAP course. There were many points raised, but the one I will focus on in this article relates to vocabulary learning strategies.

Vocabulary Learning Strategies

Problem Identified by Teachers

Students’ Perspective

Students are over-concerned with learning new words .

 

Yongqui (2003) found that the focus on learning new words seen in some Chinese learners is not the same as ‘rote’ learning (i.e. learnt but soon forgotten). It was found that by employing intensive reading strategies (used both in the learning of Chinese and English), lexical items were explored by students on a number of levels, including notational and contextual. The students I interviewed felt that this strategy is extremely useful in developing their English skills, but is often mistakenly characterized as ‘decontextualized’ by the teachers.

Students cannot read texts for gist

Students informed me that both Chinese and English are taught through a strategy termed ‘intensive reading’ which is primarily a bottom-up approach: first word, then sentence, then paragraph etc. As Chinese characters are divided into different segments (for meaning and pronunciation), children learn them segment by segment, which in relation to Chinese is based on sound pedagogical practice; only by fully understanding the object can the overall meaning be grasped. This structure does not easily lend itself to a top-down approach. The students I interviewed explained that they do not understand at a conceptual level what the top-down approach is and believed that this supposition is based on BANA understandings of scholarship.

Learning words out of context will not help someone improve their language level in terms of communicative ability. This idea springs directly from the CA paradigm, which was initially developed in BANA countries. This approach prioritizes communication and the importance of providing a context to all language learning. The Chinese learners explained that their vocabulary learning strategies include paying close attention to the active use of the word/expression in everyday language and felt that teachers were sometimes dismissive of their hard work as they looked for evidence of learning primarily through oral production. Many of the Chinese learners felt unconfident about speaking in the early stages of their studies, primarily as they had not had any previous opportunity or experience of speaking in English before (due to class sizes).

Students use electronic dictionaries all the time. I feel they are not listening to me. Students did not associate using the dictionary with non-engagement. On the contrary, they felt it helped them to follow the teacher better. They did point out that there is a cultural difference regarding ‘politeness’ and that teachers expect their full attention and often misinterpret the fact they are not listening. They felt very upset by the idea of their dictionaries being taken away by teachers without negotiation

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