Language education in China

The current study examines the conceptions of Chinese-born foreign language teachers with respect to foreign language teaching. While language learning and teaching have sometimes been looked upon with distrust in China (Ross, 1993), the government, educators and the public have embraced English language learning as part of China's modernisation program (Adamson, 2002; Hu, 2009; Ross, 1993), and English language instruction in China is mandated from grade 3 of primary school onward (Hu, 2005b). In addition, there is a growing move toward English language medium of instruction at all levels (Hu, 2009). While questions have been raised as to the usefulness of this all-out commitment to CLT (see especially the exchange between Bax, 2003; Hu, 2005a; Liao, 2004), and to English language teaching at an early age (Hu, 2009), the English juggernaut continues to plow forward.

Chinese foreign language teaching methodology is still a work in progress (see Jin & Cortazzi, 2006; Lamie, 2006; Law et al., 2009). Foreign language education has been called traditional (S. Wang & Tamis- Lemonda, 2003), generally following the grammar/translation method or the audio-lingual method. Many, even some Chinese educators, presume their practice is deficient in some way, (e.g., Liao, 2004). In the West, the dominant approach to language teaching and learning over the last 40-plus years has been communicative language teaching, or CLT (Brown et al., 2005), with its focus on learning language for communication (Brown et al., 2005; C. Wang, 2009; YU, 2009). In China, the communicative aims of CLT have been perceived to be at odds with the traditional approaches used in Chinese language teaching.

It is against this backdrop that the examination of Chinese-born foreign language teachers' conceptions of foreign language teaching takes place. From Geertz' (1973) assertion that the meaning of behaviour must be understood in context, to Kagan's assertion that 'beliefs cannot be inferred directly from teacher behavior, because teachers can follow similar practices for very different reasons' (1992, p. 66), the Western observer, in questioning the supposed deficiencies of Chinese learners and teachers, must be sensitive to the possibility - even likelihood - of misinterpretation. 'Maybe those observations [of Western educational researchers in Asia] are simply wrong. A first hypothesis, then, is that what some Western observers are seeing is not what they think it is' (Biggs, 1996, p. 50).

The purpose of this study emerged as an attempt to understand foreign language teaching from the Chinese teachers' own viewpoint. Three questions guided the inquiry. First, from a phenomenological standpoint, what exactly do Chinese foreign language teachers hold as the object to which they direct their consciousness as they consider foreign language teaching? Second, what are the perceptions of language teachers about their instructional practices and what philosophical perspectives, professional backgrounds, and personal experiences seem to have shaped their views? And finally, how are the differences in perceptions about being a language teacher attributable to the contexts (i.e., working in China versus America) in which the participants are practicing their craft?

 
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