China / Society

More than just a test of foreign-language skills

By Tang Yue (China Daily) Updated: 2012-07-17 08:16

Every year, an increasing number of students take an English-language test so they will be eligible to study abroad. It comes as little surprise that they find these tests more difficult than those in Chinese.

But exhibiting mastery of a foreign language is not the only problem. In fact, it's not even the most important one.

"Students always worry about their limited vocabulary, grammar, the sentence structure and whatever. But the bigger issue is that they don't know how to have their own opinions, let alone defend them," said Zhang Di, a teacher for the Test of English as a Foreign Language, the most widely respected English-language test in the world, recognized by more than 8,500 colleges, universities and agencies in 130 countries.

The problem is that students simply maintain the habits they were taught when writing in Chinese. "In China, the 'correct' answer always seems obvious. You don't really have to argue or challenge. You just need to show off how many set phrases and rhetorical skills you have mastered," said Zhang.

"Chinese students are extremely good at repeating one idea in three apparently different sentences," he said. "Their Chinese-language teachers may not have a problem with it, but that's not the case when writing in English. What counts is the message you convey. If you don't provide any information, the sentence is just nonsense."

As in the Chinese writing tests, students frequently refer to the same few famous people when writing in English. "Bill Gates was the most popular figure a couple of years ago. Now the main one is Steve Jobs. The problem is not that they (the students) use the same examples, but they always fail to make them relevant to the point they want to make," said Zhang.

The problem really becomes serious when it comes to the Graduate Records Examination, successful students of which are allowed to conduct post-graduate studies in the US, which emphasizes more critical thinking.

"But I'd never heard of the phrase (critical thinking) until I prepared for the test a few years ago," said Liu Shihan, a teacher of GRE writing in Beijing.

"The teachers only focus on techniques to deal with the test, they don't really care about your ideas," she said.

Liu admitted she could only "think critically" about certain GRE writing topics when teaching them to the students. "In daily life, I still can't. We're never trained for that at school."

A lot of teachers help their students to prepare a template that "frees them from independent thinking as much as possible", said Zhang.

"What's the point if they just write like machines? They still can't write a good paper in English or debate with local people in the United States," he said.

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