English Teachers Confront the Billion-Person Question

“How can rural Chinese students develop their listening and speaking skills with very limited opportunities to speak with actual native speakers in person?”

This question remains the billion person question! English language learners across Asia – in China, Thailand, and Vietnam – and the entire globe – confront this profound problem. As somebody who has only taught English for a limited time in a developing Asian country and has never had the pleasure of teaching English in China, I have to admit that I am not completely sure. I will, however, try to answer to the best of my ability.

Clearly, this challenging question illuminates both the deep desire of many Chinese to speak with native speakers – and often hope to sound like native speakers. At the same time, many experienced EFL teachers and linguists often emphasize that students need  “realistic expectations”  for themselves, and English language learners don’t need to sound like native speakers to speak with native speakers. The rarity of native speakers may also indicate some official ambivalence about closing societies opening up. The good news, of course, remains that advanced technology, provides dozens of options that simply didn’t exist 50 years ago for English language students.

As English teachers working in China are keenly aware, China remains a relatively closed society where officials maintain a strict censorship policy. Surveys often place China among the ten least internet friendly nations. In this context, it’s almost impossible to disassociate English from some broader cultural associations and ambitions.  A few older Chinese officials may even still view the presence of native English speakers with some suspicion in more remote, backward rural areas.

Yet during both the successful Beijing Olympics and Shanghai World Expo, the  national Chinese government strongly promoted the study of conversational English so more Chinese could help international tourists feel comfortable in China. The exponential growth of English, as the lingua franca of the business world, across the major cities of China has been amazing in the last decade. The Chinese government has clearly endorsed the widespread learning of English among children and adults in both urban and rural areas. The opportunity, however, to actually hold conversations in English often remains limited.

So what is to be done? We can’t let the ideal become the enemy of the good. English language learners have many choices today to hear excellent examples of English spoken. Students can listen to podcasts and available quality English language radio programs, speak English on Skype with English tutors, and watch hundreds of fine American, British, and Australian films. Many of my Chinese students tell me that they joined conversation programs like English Corner to practice simple conversation, and some language schools have afterschool English clubs. Bolder students might try forming friendships with native-English speakers on social media sites. Today a billion people who have never personally seen a native English speaker can still listen to the authentic voices of native-speakers in more ways than ever before… even if there’s not a single native speaker in town.

I also suggest EFL teachers create speaking opportunities both in class – in small groups or pairs – and consider adding speaking elements to homework assignments.  Fluency, after all, requires practice and speaking English – even to a fellow Chinese, non-native speaker – will develop their evolving English speaking skills. Practice may not make perfect, but it will push students to make real progress.

Let’s help English students get into the habit of asking and answering questions – to the best of their ability – about topics they care about in English class everyday. How? Focus on student interests. I’ve had considerable success, for instance, using Being Yourself from Compelling Conversations with intermediate and advanced students because so many students find themselves fascinating.

Bottomline: adding short, meaningful conversation exercises to every English class should help EFL students gain the confidence and experience they need to hold real conversations. English students may not have a chance to speak with a native speaker today, but we can help make sure they can create a real conversation when they talk with native speakers tomorrow… or the year after tomorrow.

Yet I’m confronting this billion-person question from the perspective of an American college professor who has taught dozens of Chinese students at an elite university. What advice do other English teachers, especially teachers who have taught in rural, relatively isolated areas with few native speakers, have? Are there some low-tech solutions that I’ve overlooked?  How would you answer this billion-person question?

Ask more. Know more. Share more. Speak more.

Create Compelling Conversations.

Visit www.CompellingConversations.com


  1. We can resolve this problem through technology. Eyespeak software was developed to solve exactly this problem. 10 years ago we recognised this problem and sort about solving it. Our software has been evolving for 10 years now, and is now at a stage where students on English can practise speaking and listening, dialogue, role-play, intonation, and fleuncy in a daily basis. It’s a web based, and desktop based product so it can be delivered to any computer on the planet. With people like John Hawker of IPSA – satellite boradband can be delivered to faraway villages and towns with low investment – and technology such as ours can be accessed by everyone. With the advent of social networking, and globalization these new technological advances can deliver education to the world. It’s our job as educators to spread the message so all children, families, and people get the same opportunities delivered to them that the so rightly deserve. But it takes passion and perseverance. A willingness to help. Like John Hawker at IPSA Eyespeak is committed to helping deliver our product to people who need it the most.

    Kind Regards,
    Robert McCall
    Eyespeak Brasil

  2. Robert – Thank you for sharing your experiences and highlighting the critical role of computer software, such as eyespeak, in improving English speaking skills. While I have not had a chance to actually use the software, the range and depth of materials seems quite fair for a relatively low price. Of course, the individuals most comfortable paying for eyespeak software – middle class professionals and international travelers – are unlikely to live in areas with few native speakers of English. Yet innovative language software programs have helped millions – mostly more affluent and economically successful – individuals gain critical language skills.
    Thank you, again, for sharing your insights and sharing the information on your English language software.

  3. Thank you for linking back, and bringing new readers to my niche blog for English teachers and English language learners.


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