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

Please note that this article was first published in TESOL Greece Newsletter 85 (February 2005)


BANA = Britain, Australia and North America as used by Holliday (1994a)
CA = The Communicative Approach
EAP = English for Academic Purposes

A New Trend

The last five years has seen a rapid increase in the number of Chinese learners coming to Greece to study English. Since China opened its doors to Western investment, English has become the official international language of communication. Due to the population size, Chinese people now constitute the largest population of language learners in the world today – a conservative 1995 estimate put the figure at 200 million (Cortazzi & Jin 1996: 178). This development has led to a significant increase in the number of Chinese people traveling abroad to study, most choosing to go to BANA countries, which are generally considered more prestigious. It has also led to an increase in students searching for BANA educational opportunities in non-BANA countries; one such country is Greece. Students usually come here to study at an institution that is affiliated to a BANA University and offers accredited under-graduate or post-graduate degree opportunities – English often forms part of those studies. This throws up an exciting new research environment which needs immediate exploration as ‘we lack the data for the range of social settings in which English is carried out around the world’ (Holliday 1994b: 11).

Why Choose Greece?

My research found that students chose to come and study in Greece for one of the following reasons:

  • Preferring Greece and the Greek way of life – finding the life style more familiar than that found in BANA countries
  • Wanting to be in a country that has a deeper understanding and practical connection to the field of leisure and tourism – particularly with a view to the 2008 Olympics and the Greek experience in 2004
  • There are a scarcity of places in BANA countries
  • It is financially easier to live in Greece than a BANA country
  • Students perceived that it is easier to obtain a visa to be a student in Greece than in a BANA country

Language Learning in China

Being able to use English in China is now seen as ‘an essential tool in changing the core of the country’s economic system’ (Burnaby and Sun 1998: 221). This means that English has gradually become part of the secondary school curriculum – classes usually comprise 60+ students. Knowledge of English also acts as a screening devise for scarce university places and high levels of anxiety have been identified with ‘passing’ English examinations (Yan and Chow: 2002). This mirrors similar concerns expressed by Prodromou (1995) regarding the continual testing of English present in the Greek system. Almost all English teaching practitioners in China are Chinese, partly due to China’s insistence on ‘preserving its own cultural integrity in spite of interest in communicating with the West’ (Burnaby & Sun 1998: 233). This is a divergence from the Greek reality which, until relatively recently with the development of the KPG state school examination, was saturated with externally developed teaching and testing products. Historically in Greece, great value has been placed on the presence of a ‘native speaker’ teacher of English to promote the standard of the service offered in Greek language schools. The last and most important point that needs to be made in relation to the environment in China is the reason why most people learn English. It is for the purpose of performing work-related tasks such as reading and translating technical articles (ibid). It is not, in many cases, for the purposes of oral communication, a reality that should be borne in mind when considering potential problems in the classroom.

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

Some Suggestions for Integrated Practice

In relation to the data presented above, here are some of the ways that teaching practice was adjusted to promote cultural synergy:

  • Teachers started to embrace student enthusiasm for learning new vocabulary and integrated it more firmly into classroom practice. As students wanted to spend time on vocabulary memorization every day, this was done alongside several other tasks that are closer to the methods the teacher might ordinarily use. Teachers also started to look more closely for evidence of how this vocabulary is recycled and informed themselves of the recent research findings on methods of vocabulary acquisition encountered in Yongqui’s research. Rather than criticizing students who say “I need more vocabulary”, the emphasis is now on negotiating a realistic amount of time to be spent on this specific approach.
  • Clearly gist/top-down reading skills needed to be taught from scratch. This is a long process that cannot be achieved overnight, and was done with plenty of scaffolding and alongside existing strategies already used by the students (i.e. reading for detail). It was pitched within a framework of skills needed to succeed in Western style academia where volume of reading dictates the need for quick appraisal of texts to ascertain their appropriacy for use in written production – this conceptual difference in approach to scholarship needed clear and detailed explanation.
  • Teachers started to develop other methods of assessing learner progress. An important cultural difference was taken on board i.e. that a student who chooses not to speak is not necessarily a student who cannot speak. It is rare for students to contribute orally in the Chinese classroom – on arrival the new students are therefore introduced slowly to classroom participation, again through activities with a high level of scaffolding. Great progress has been made since the ‘pressure’ has been lifted and a more accepting attitude demonstrated by teachers.
  • A negotiated position has now been adopted regarding the use of electronic dictionaries i.e. certain parts of the lesson are for dictionary use (reading for specific information, preparing oral presentations) and certain parts are not (reading for speed, listening for overall understanding). This ensures that both teacher and student needs are recognized, and that a vital psychological crutch remains intact, particularly for students who have studied in this way for many years.

Issues for Consideration

The issues raised above may resonate with Greek English teachers, some of whom have long been asking for a more culturally sensitive approach to the CA which takes the learning background of the Greek learner into account (and recognizes the large number of students who have succeeded using other approaches). A culturally aware stance starts by exploring the specific environment and developing a methodology incorporating local factors rather than imposing an externally developed concept which assumes the inherent superiority of the BANA approach and its applicability to all countries. This denies non-BANA teachers and learners ‘any stake in its development’ (Holliday 1994a: 8). Indeed the CA is positioned at one end of a constantly evolving continuum which once included methods more widely used in China and still used in Greece such as grammar translation. Greek English teachers who were interviewed were generally more flexible in incorporating an integrated approach and demonstrated a high level of insight into this dynamic already gained from their own setting. Clearly, there is a need for awareness-raising among teaching staff and learner training for students to ensure that all voices are represented. Critical Action Research carried out by practitioners is one way to promote change and encapsulates the best of the academic literature available as well as exploring all the details of the specific classroom that can be easily overlooked. It is therefore potentially empowering for both teachers and learners and enables informed change which does not run the risk of cultural stereotyping and/or breakdown in communication.


Burnaby, B. and Sun, Y. (1998) ‘Chinese Teachers Views of Western Language Teaching: Context Informs Paradigm’ in TESOL Quarterly 23/2 pp. 219-238.

Burns, A (2003) ‘Beliefs as Research, Research as Action: Beliefs and Action Research for Teacher Education’ in Beaven, B. and Borg, S. The Role of Research in Teacher Education The Teacher Trainers and Educators SIG, Nottingham Conference Proceedings (IATEFL) Whitstable: Oyster Press.

Cortazzi, M. and Jin, L. (1996) ‘Cultures of Learning: Language Classrooms in China’ in Coleman, H. (Ed) Society and the Language Classroom Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Holliday, A. (1994a) ‘The House of TESEP and the Communicative Approach: The Special Needs of State English Education’ in English Language Teaching Journal 48/1 pp. 3-11.

Holliday, B. (1994b) Appropriate Methodology and Social Context Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Prodromou, L. (1995) ‘The Backwash Effect: From Testing to Teaching’ in English Language Teaching Journal pp. 13-25.

Yan, P. W. and Chow, J. C. S. (2002) ‘On the Pedagogy of Exams in Hong Kong’ in Teaching and Teacher Education 18/2 pp. 139-149.

Yongqui Gu, P. (2003) ‘Fine Brush and Freehand: The Vocabulary Learning Art of Two Successful Chinese EFL Learners’ in TESOL Quarterly 37/1 pp. 73-103.


Sara Hannam is the Director of the English Language Unit at City Liberal Studies (Affiliated Institution of the University of Sheffield, UK), as well as a sessional teacher trainer in the Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.  She holds the RSA Cambridge Diploma (DELTA) and an M(Ed) in English Language Teaching from the Department of Education, Sheffield University, UK.  Sara is currently carrying out her PhD in the same Department at Sheffield. From October 2003 until present, Sara has been the Vice-Chair of TESOL Macedonia Thrace, Northern Greece and the Coordinator of the ESP/EAP Special Interest Group.

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