Issue 7: Language Learning Experience in Canada

By Ada Mok (EDE Year 4, 2009-2010)

Last summer, I went to Toronto and studied in the University of Waterloo for four weeks. This is a study abroad programme organized by the Chung Chi College to enrich students’ English proficiency as well as to provide us with a great opportunity to experience the culture of an English speaking country. With the college subsidy, I could enjoy the trip with a relatively low price, but of course, not as cheap as our immersion programme offered by the faculty. Canada is an interesting place to me as many of my relatives have been living there for work and studies. Therefore, I was very excited and eager to find out the teaching and learning atmosphere of its universities.

In this four-week programme, fourteen CUHK students went to Canada in total. Like what we did in Edinburgh for the immersion programme, we had to do a placement test and an interview before attending a suitable course and then we were allocated to different levels of English courses according to our English proficiency. I was put into class A1, which was the highest level among all the courses. Again, like the Open Courses in Edinburgh, the summer language courses in the University of Waterloo also welcomed students from all over the world and thus I could meet a lot of Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese as well as a few Germans and Italians.

Concerning the accommodation, we lived in the hostel provided by the college and we were forced to have a roommate of a different nationality in order to provide us with more opportunities to communicate in English and to meet new friends. For me, I got a ‘traditional’ Japanese as my roommate. She loves doing make-up but speaks very quietly. Compared with the experience in Edinburgh, I found that this kind of hostel life was better than living with a Hong Kong friend in the same host family in terms of practicing oral English. With a Chinese roommate, students like us usually do not have much self-control and thus rarely speak in English with the friend roommate. However, with a Japanese roommate, I had no choice but tried to use the simplest form of sentences to talk to her. According to my observation, she had no problems in reading and writing English but with a big difficulty in listening and speaking. Sometimes she could not express herself verbally and so she would bring along a memo pad with her to write down what she wanted to say. It seemed to me that Japanese students seldom practice English in their daily lives and this phenomenon is common even for the students studying master degrees.

Talking about the lessons we had every weekday, I could summarize it in a word: boring. You may think the lectures we have in Hong Kong are boring as well, however, I can say that the lessons in those four weeks were even more boring and teacher-centered than those in Hong Kong. Every morning, we had a class called ‘integrated skills’, which mainly focused on reading and grammar. In each lesson we had similar steps to go through. First, the teacher would ask us to read a two-page text. Second, he would ask us to read aloud the paragraphs one by one. Third, there were some highlighted vocabulary items in the text and we had to match the words with the correct meanings in the follow-up exercise. If we were unsure about some words other than the highlighted ones, we could ask the teacher and he would serve as a ‘walking dictionary’ to explain all the words for to us. Finally, there were some comprehension exercises printed at the back of the reading text and we were given some time to complete it them. We had to report the answers later. These steps would use up two-third of the lesson time and then we would do some grammar exercises and check the answers. I do not think that this type of lessons is suitable for university students, especially for more advanced learners. Although the level of difficulty of the texts is high, the teaching style and method could not arouse our interest and we could not make much improvement in English. I understand that we were a mixed group of students with big differences in English learning experience, but we were all able to get into the A1 class, which means we were of similar English proficiency. Besides, the class size was small with only 15 students in the A1 class. It is suggested that the teachers there should make use of this and prepare more varieties of language learning activities other than solely reading aloud and having drills.

For the afternoon class, we had the lesson on ‘presentation skills’ with another teacher. This class was a little bit more interactive; at least we could have a few chances to speak. Nevertheless, the teacher’s way of teachingwas quite awkward. For example, at the very beginning, she gave us a note to remind us important points of making a speech. In that lesson she read out all the points and explained every point in detail. Of course, we all understood the points but what we needed to learn was how to actually carry them out in presentations. She seldom gave us authentic examples and she never demonstrated to us. The best thing about this lesson was peer evaluation. Every time when we did some short speeches or presentations, we also had a chance to ask or comment on each other’s work. We were also given a peer evaluation form to give detailed comments to the others.

To be frank, I have never expected language courses in Canada to be like this – Perhaps English is the first language of the Canadian so that teachers there do not need to carry out any interesting language lessons to motivate students’ learning, students were not interacting or having fun in reading or speaking classes. I really wonder if this is just an extreme case or a very typical example of overseas language studies. However, I have to admit that the classroom atmosphere in Canada is much more relaxing than that in Hong Kong. Students would not compete for good grades and they would not be pressurized when answering questions. The teachers were very encouraging and supportive. They never rejected our answers even if we had made some silly mistakes. As English teachers-to-be, we could observe others’ styles of teaching and learn from their merits. Although it is true that not all teaching styles can be applied in Hong Kong classroom, we can still improve by evaluating others’ teaching and reflecting on our own performance. This programme has broadened my horizon and I could learn a lot as an observer of other language lessons though I was bored for four weeks.

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