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The China Conundrum: a Student Perspective

Following is a guest post by Yeran Zhou, an undergraduate from China studying in the United States.
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The number of Chinese students at American universities continues to grow, but those students often have trouble adjusting to the American classroom. I should know. As one of almost 200,000 students from China that are now pouring into campuses across the country, I have seen the difficulties firsthand.

In a 2011 article, “The China Conundrum,” The Chronicle showed that many Chinese students speak poor English and participate little in class, in part because of the language deficiency. I agree it’s a problem. I studied for two years at a public university in Illinois that attracts many students from China (I’ve since transferred), and some of my Chinese classmates arrived there with trouble communicating in English. As a result, they were poorly prepared for life in the United States and avoided talking to non-Chinese speakers at almost all cost.

This presents a perplexing question: If a Chinese student can barely talk, read, or write in English, how is she or he able to graduate from an American college at all? The answer of course is complicated. But my experience in Illinois may shed some light on the situation. From what I’ve seen, some of my Chinese classmates are able to get good grades without actually being able to speak English well.

Let me offer some examples.

When a friend of mine, Tang, decided to come to the United States for college, his spoken English was unintelligible and his writing was full of grammatical errors. Tang was expert at cramming for exams. He took an SAT cram course and memorized 300 words a day for three months (most of the vocabulary he has since forgotten). Even though Tang didn’t feel his English had improved much, he scored a staggering 2160 on the SAT.

Like many foreign students, Tang was required to take a composition course to improve his English. Other Chinese students have survived college writing by copying or paraphrasing essays their predecessors wrote. But Tang soon found that, for his class, resorting to plagiarism was not needed. When he turned in his first essay, Tang expected it to be returned covered with red marks, or possibly rejected. To his surprise, the instructor gave him an A-minus and said he could revise the draft for a better grade. Suspecting the instructor hadn’t read his work at all, Tang turned in the exact same essay with the word “Revised” scribbled on top. This time he received an A.

Perhaps it should not be a surprise that Tang’s instructor overlooked his deficiencies. After all, a one- or two-semester writing course can’t possibly raise a student’s English ability from “crap”—Tang’s description—to college level. An instructor can either maintain standards and get students stuck in the class year after year, or relent and give them the convenience of passing grades. When I described this dilemma to my former reading and writing professor, he said instructors tended to choose the latter option because they knew “Chinese students have been spending a lot of money” and “don’t want to waste any time” on learning English.

Outside of English instruction, for many of my Chinese classmates, American colleges’ introductory science classes were child’s play—a lot of the material they learned in high school. The humanities were a different story. My Chinese peers tended to put off taking the reading- and writing-intensive humanities courses until the final terms before graduation, when they suddenly realized they needed credits in philosophy or history to fulfill the college’s general-education requirements.

Xu, a Chinese mathematics major with a 3.8 GPA, told me his solution was simple: Get the credits online. Last summer Xu signed up for an online course on Latin American history. Taking the class online meant he didn’t have to speak or listen to English at all because there weren’t any discussions or lectures.

But Xu still had to deal with the required reading. My Chinese friends like Xu have gone a great distance to avoid reading English. Some find Chinese versions of the texts and read the translation instead. Some make their own translations with Google Translate. Others who don’t mind reading a little in English seek help from SparkNotes or Wikipedia. But Xu had a better idea. He clicked away on a Chinese search engine for 10 minutes, and found the Chinese synopses of the books online.

With that and a little imagination, he posted daily responses to the discussion forum, and finished the two essays the class required. He said he received an A.

Once my Chinese classmates got the general-education requirements out of the way, all that was left were classes in their majors. Many Chinese students at my former university study the sciences, and their grades suggested they were doing well. But as Xiao, a junior majoring in molecular and cellular biology told me, earning a high GPA doesn’t always mean a student is actually learning.

“All I’ve done is rote memorizing,” he said. “As long as you know the equations and follow instructions, you can succeed in exams without knowing what you’re doing at all.”

Having spent years cramming for exams in China, Xiao knew well what any exam really measures is how familiar one is with the exam itself. So before the midterms and finals, instead of reviewing lecture slides and reading textbooks, as his American peers did, Xiao spent a whole night going through every past exam from 1997 to 200l.

Of course, not all Chinese students find studying in America unrewarding. I, for one, think coming to the United States for college was one of the better decisions I’ve ever made. But I also benefited from a different educational path than most of my peers. Growing up in Shenzhen, a young metropolis 30 minutes north of Hong Kong, I have been learning English since kindergarten. My parents, who were open-minded enough to let me argue with teachers, encouraged me to think for myself. And my high school, which bucked the norms of China’s education system by putting more emphasis on extracurricular activities, taught me there was more to learning than exams and grades.

And so when I came to America, in 2010, my English wasn’t bad and I was determined to fit in. I made a point of speaking only English for a semester, even when talking to other Chinese students. I challenged myself by taking mostly humanities courses such as law, history, and literature. I even experimented with dance parties, beer pong, and Ultimate Frisbee.

Many of my Chinese peers, however, come from a more traditional background. Some don’t have the idealistic view of college as a place for personal growth and self-discovery. They often approach American colleges with the utilitarian mind-set that getting the highest grades is the only thing that matters. As a result, it’s not unusual for some of them to graduate with impressive grades without having learned very much at all.

So as the number of Chinese students in the United States continues to grow, a word of caution to American colleges and universities: As my friends Tang, Xu, and Xiao have demonstrated, just because some Chinese students are getting good grades on paper doesn’t mean they are doing well in reality.

[Creative Commons Wikimedia graphic by Aris Katsaris authorized under the GNU General Public License]

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