An American Teacher’s Advice to Chinese Students on Learning English

By Jennifer Rose Nelson

My time in Hangzhou is drawing to a close, and I want to extend my gratitude generally to the kind people of this city, and specifically to the more than 400 HFLS students I had the pleasure of teaching this past semester. I bow to your studious, curious natures and credit you with revitalizing my passion for education. Many of you are working towards studying or working in English-speaking communities, and now that gaokao is over and final exams are nearly upon us, I am certain that I know what you are thinking as summer vacation approaches: how can I use all of this glorious free time to improve my English? Fortunately, I’m here to offer you some parting advice on how to improve your already-impressive command of my native language.

Practice speaking out loud as often as possible. If you know a native speaker who will converse with you, wonderful, but you can also practice with your Chinese friends who are learning English. Commit as few as one or two hours per week to speaking only in English with them, and don’t feel self-conscious about making mistakes, especially those concerning grammar. Learn from each other, and help each other to perfect pronunciation and to incorporate new vocabulary into your conversations. Spending a Sunday morning at English Corner (held at the Starbucks on the northeast corner of West Lake) is a perfect way to practice.

Try reading a novel, some short stories, poetry, or the daily news in English. I’ve seen many canonical Western texts in the foreign book sections of bookstores in Hangzhou, and I recommend Rita Dove, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, Robert Bly, and Joyce Sutphen if you’re interested in reading the works of contemporary American poets. As you read, infer the meanings of new words using context clues and thoroughly check your understanding by looking up definitions in Chinese-English dictionaries. I also recommend reading out loud to improve your pronunciation and to increase your exposure to varied grammatical constructions. The more you can do to train your eyes and ears to recognize correct grammar, the more easily you will be able to use it yourself in writing and speaking.

In that vein, take advantage of the plethora of free auditory media on the internet and listen to English as often as you can. Download an audio book or start to regularly download podcasts. One resource that I recommend- especially if you’re ready to move beyond Voice of America (VOA)- is, the website for National Public Radio. This news organization features daily broadcasts that are almost always accompanied by written transcripts, so you can read along with the newscaster while you listen. The website features information on a wide variety of topics, and China is regularly included in its world news section. You can also find high-quality stories about pop culture, entertainment, and the arts. Of the shows that I podcast, my favorites are Radiolab, a science-meets-the-arts program, and This American Life, a weekly compilation of stories centered on a theme.

Of course, don’t work too hard this summer. Do take some time to recuperate from the past school year, and if you find yourself with a lazy afternoon, catch an English-speaking movie with Chinese subtitles at Season Square’s UME Cineplex. My only recommendation here is that you treat yourself to the chocolate popcorn, and enjoy the show.