Why are we not good at English?

Liting Liu

When Alison brought up the language loyalty concept in class, I finally found the appropriate word to explain the reason why I cannot help blurting out Chinese to foreigners. I joined a workshop this Tuesday, sitting next to a foreign girl. While I was replying a message on the phone, she accidentally knocked my bottle down and then said sorry. Without a second thought, I responded “Mei Shi” (No problem in Chinese.) The confusion on her face reminded me that I was speaking Chinese to a foreigner. The same situation also happened in my workplace once. There was a somewhat urgent thing I need to report to my manager who is Irish. I went downstairs hurriedly and started describing the thing in Chinese. Not until he called me Veronica that I realized whom I was talking to. Luckily, such phenomenon doesn’t happen a lot. However, the subconscious inclination to speak Chinese rather than English used to be something I asked my students to resist within our immersion classroom. Interestingly, outside of the classroom it happens to me as well especially when my mind is occupied with something else so that no extra attention could be allocated to language processing. Maybe we are all too “loyal” to our mother tongue deep down. We feel like using L1 could express our emotion more accurately with ease. Therefore, L1 is always a prioritized option in our language production.

Language expertise is inextricably linked with language loyalty as well. Looking back to the pedagogy applied in China, traditional lecturing and audio-lingual method still dominate most of the schools due to the orientation of test. Being a product of such education, I feel safe to say that we are bounded by the grammar too much. Constant checking the grammar before saying something out builds the anxiety towards speaking English. In turn, our preference in Chinese grows. As a result, the language expertise in English can hardly be developed with reluctance to practice. The less proficient we are, the less affiliation can we establish for that language. To break such vicious circle, revolutionized pedagogy has to be implemented. However, as long as the educational policy still stands in the old way, there is no chance that schools will shift their focus from exams to anything else. Given the fact that the population of China is so large, there seems almost no better method than tests that can differentiate elite from the average people.


Nevertheless, current situation is heading towards better now with the modification in college entrance exam gradually. Lowering the position of English from a rather substantial subject, taking up to almost 1/5 of the total score, to a subject which is not going to be count in the total score by 2017. Hopefully teachers will try new teaching methods by the alleviation of exam stress.

3 thoughts on “Why are we not good at English?”

  1. Hi Liting,
    Thank you for your reflections on Rampton’s (1990) notions of language expertise and language loyalty. It is interesting how thinking differently about ‘nativeness’ can inspire re-thinking current pedagogical practices.


  2. Sihong Chen: Hi, Liting, I have the same feeling with you. I sometimes speak Chinese without out noticing when talking to my foreign friends, which makes them feel confused. Also, I think your opinion about pedagogical practices is really insightful.


  3. Hi Liting,
    Thank you for sharing your personal experience as well as your insights about the modification of national college entrance examination in China. I like the way you explain language loyalty and the link you make between language loyalty and language expertise. As for language loyalty, same problem here. I can’t help blurting out Chinese words, subconsciously, when talking to foreign friends. This is also something I need to get over with!


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