Are Chinese Students Shy? This English Teacher Thinks Not!

If you’ve ever considered teaching in China (or maybe elsewhere in Asia) then you’ll no doubt have heard that Chinese students can be quite shy.

You may have heard stories of the teacher teaching English to the sounds of crickets or tumbleweed.

So is this really the case?

I’ve found that Chinese students can sometimes be reserved. But I wouldn’t call them particularly shy. In everyday situations they’re incredibly confident. But it largely depends on how you approach your classroom teaching. It’s also important to separate out shyness of personality from shyness at talking in English in front of the class.

A situation I have found that pretty much guarantees just tumbleweed is if you’re lecturing to the class and then you ask the whole class a question.

Only tumbleweed in class? It might be time to rethink your teaching techniques…

Occasionally you’ll get somebody shouting out the answer, but this is very much the exception. You’ll also find that this style of teaching only really engages the first couple of rows of students. You’ll rarely hear answers from the back of the class, and there is a temptation to end up teaching to the first couple of rows.

No, to teach Chinese students you have got to ask them individual questions in this type of scenario.

A trick I now do most lessons is to ask each student an individual question during the course of the lesson. I also take this opportunity to take the class register. This way you get to take the register AND get some individual speaking practice out of each and every student in the class. As a bonus I also score the students’ responses so that over the course of a semester I can build up a really decent record of their ability.

Chinese students also love both pairwork and groupwork. Get them working on such tasks and they’ll be fairly willing to make a group presentation of their findings. The only drawback with this technique is that some group members will talk a lot more than others, so you’ve got to be careful. Particularly if you don’t yet know all of your students by name.

I’ve found that the CELTA teacher training course was an excellent preparation for teaching Chinese students. The emphasis on pairwork and groupwork was exactly the style of teaching that gets ESL students talking. I was also given specific guidance on making sure I did some error checking first, to avoid a student being ridiculed too much in front of the whole class.

The only times I seen Chinese students particularly nervous was when I was on the judging panel of an English speaking competition. A couple of the freshmen girls taking part were actually physically shaking while standing on the stage and doing their individual speaking part. I’ve never seen my students this nervous in class.

Having said that I’ve found that students are more reluctant to speak if they think their English isn’t that good. Actually Chinese peoples’ English is nearly always better than they claim it to be. But as a general rule, Lower Intermediate students will want to talk in English a lot less than Upper Intermediate students.

Students fresh from High School will also tend to talk a lot less. So you have to be more gentle with them. A big no-no is to publically ridicule them in class, or single them out. This loss of face can be catastrophic for their confidence. As an example, I found on my first teaching day that saying something about an individual student’s English name was a faux-pas. Since then I learnt never to single out students if at all possible.

Students on different majors will talk more or less to you. Students majoring in English, Business English and Languages in general will want to speak to you as much as possible. In fact my class asked me to do more speaking tasks in class and less listening.

I’ve had most problems with “shyness” with my class of IT freshmen. Man, these students do not like to talk! It doesn’t help that they’re mostly boys. Also I think a fair number of them didn’t actually want to study IT. Who wants to study that subject in any country? Not that many. So the Chinese government “encourages” many students to study technical subjects even if they didn’t necessarily want to study the subjects themselves.

I’ll also add that not all Asian countries are the same. Thai students are known to be pretty roudy at times. In fact I once studied at a university in China that had a number of Thai students studying there. Eventually most of them got disciplined for breaking the 22:30 curfew for being back at their dormatories. They had to move out of their campus accommodation and live outside the campus itself.

So the good news is that if you approach your teaching the right way then you’ll not have too many problems getting your Chinese students to speak.

If you’ve had problems with getting your ESL students to speak, then leave comments below. Or maybe you’ve found the opposite, and you can’t get them to stop talking.

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