Linguist Katherine Chen on Effective Learning

Chinese & English Text | Kelvin U
Photo | Eric Tam with some photos provided by the interviewee

Prof Katherine Chen is the director of the English Language Centre (ELC) and associate professor of applied linguistics in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities (FAH), University of Macau (UM). As a specialist in linguistic anthropology and sociolinguistics, she sees language as a window into understanding human social relationships. Prof Chen not only teaches and conducts research, but also works with ELC instructors to facilitate effective English and academic learning at UM.

The Challenges Ahead

In recent years, the number of students enrolled at UM has grown and they arrive with varying proficiencies in English. It is a challenge to bridge the gap between students’ existing English knowledge and the needs of an English-language university environment. ‘English for university use is different from everyday English. Using the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) as a reference, each English level takes 200 hours of formal classroom teaching. In order to meet the basic proficiency and academic skills training needed for studying in an English-language university, students need to reach IELTS 6.5 (equivalent to lower C1 level in the Common European Framework). We are eager to meet this challenge and I am requesting additional resources from the university to enhance ELC’s provision.’

Prior to joining UM, Prof Chen had experience training international PhD students to be English-medium instructors at the University of Michigan, as well as teaching English linguistics and sociolinguistics at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). She received a Teaching Excellence Award from HKU’s Faculty of Arts in 2011. Considering that UM has emerged as one of the best young universities with a burgeoning global reputation over the past few years, Prof Chen decided to embark on a new chapter of her academic career at UM in June 2018.

Prof Katherine Chen

When asked what changes she will make to the ELC, Prof Chen said, ‘I wouldn’t call it changes because it’s like saying that what my colleagues have been done before is not good enough. What I have noticed is that every ELC instructor is dedicated and professional. I’m impressed with the work they are doing. At the same time, any successful curriculum requires constant modification to improve learning outcomes. My colleagues and I are proposing to conduct a student-need analysis to further develop and modify the English language curriculum. The analysis will tell us how to help our students perform more effectively in UM classrooms that use English as the medium of instruction.’

English: Second Language or Foreign Tongue

Teachers and parents tend to compare the English competency of students from Macao with Hong Kong (HK), but Prof Chen, who grew up in HK, points out that the comparison is not fair. ‘Which group of HK students are you comparing with? Those who get to the top universities in HK have attained to top C1 or C2 level in the Common European Framework and many of them are from a group of elite English as Medium of Instruction (EMI) schools. They use English as a second language. Yet three quarters of HK students are from Chinese as Medium of Instruction (CMI) schools, like students in Macao and China, and they regard English as a foreign language. They don’t really use English that much outside of the classroom. Chinese is their medium in the playground and cafeteria. Such students’ exposure to English is, therefore, very different, and these environments are clearly less conducive to English learning,’ says Prof Chen.

At UM, a significant number of students come from CMI schools. They are required to take English classes with students from EMI schools. ‘A considerable challenge for us at the ELC is to address the needs of every learner,’ says Prof Chen. ‘There are pros and cons of putting mixed level students together in the same classroom. It brings particular challenges to teachers. It’s not possible to teach with the same material; we cannot adopt a onesize- fits-all approach. The instructor has to be very creative and dynamic and be able to spot what each learner needs and gives them the right material and tools at the appropriate time.’

Prof Katherine Chen at the University of Michigan

One strategy used to optimise mixed-level learning environments is to get students to work in groups. Prof Chen often encourages academically-strong students to help their classmates in such group work as she believes it brings benefits to both. Learning how to guide others is a great way for stronger students to deepen existing knowledge. Weaker students also benefit as they now receive both teacher and peer support. Prof Chen experienced this herself when completing her PhD at the University of Michigan. ‘I was so bad at Theoretical Syntax, but my classmates were willing to teach me and help me after class. In exchange I taught them Experimental Phonetics, which I was good at; the result was that we all excelled in both subjects. When teaching at the ELC I explain to my students that they are unique, have different learning styles, and skills that could benefit the group.’

Be an ‘Owner’ of English

English is a global language and a ‘lingua franca’ among non-native English speakers. It is inevitable that people use English no matter where they are, especially in HK and Macao, and even in cyber social spaces (such as Line, WhatsApp and WeChat). Although most people do not view English as their own language, it is nonetheless part of their linguistic repertoire, notes Prof Chen. We asked Prof Chen how to reach a proficient level of English, and she answered that ‘it depends on how much you want to take ownership of English. There are people who think English is not our language. They think that as a Chinese, using Chinese is enough, but it is better to be open-minded in this globalised world. I really hope that the new generation will embrace a multilingual identity. I consider myself multilingual and am grateful that I am fluent in Cantonese, Putonghua, and English. It gives you a broader worldview when you have more than one language at your command.’

‘For students from CMI schools, it is always possible to catch up,’ says Prof Chen; ‘motivation is the key.’ She explained that adults have higher cognitive abilities and are able to learn grammar rules and sentence structures more quickly than children, yet what most people lack are motivation and consistent practice. ‘Which level students can achieve very much depends on their goal-setting. When the ELC designs teaching materials, we give top priority to piquing student interest and provoking the desire to “own” English.’

Scaffolding and Positive Learning

Almost all students in Macao have been exposed to English since kindergarten. In other words, they have more than 12 years of experience in English learning before going to university. Prof Chen has observed, with concern, that many suffer from learning stagnation. In her opinion, a positive learning experience is key to helping students develop, and teachers can play a central role in facilitating this. ‘I remember when I was in Form 3, I went for a solo verse speaking competition. At that time I was not the best one in my class; I was in the lower half. My teacher, Ms Tsui Wai Ting, picked me because she thought I had a good voice and I was quite energetic in class,’ Prof Chen said. ‘I was extremely nervous and my English was not that good, but my teacher saw something in me and she gave me faith, so I worked really hard because of her.’

Prof Chen believes any successful curriculum requires constant modification to improve learning outcomes

The poem Prof Chen recited was The Sloth by the American poet Theodore Roethke. “In the beginning, I couldn’t pronounce the words correctly, so my teacher patiently taught me the correct form. Later, I began to understand rhythm, how to emphasise and bring out emotion. My teacher gave me enough scaffolding that I needed to become confident so I knew I could do it. Though I didn’t win I was the first in my school who received a Certificate of Merit and very positive comments from the judges. My teacher was very pleased. Since then I have had the confidence to develop my English language knowledge. I would like to instil this confidence in my students.”

The Key to Learning

In response to the question of whether there are any special tips for students, Prof. Chen remarked: ‘Just remember there are no shortcuts in learning any language. You can’t just take a ‘language pill’ and know the language the next day when you wake up.’ Prof Chen prefers the metaphor of learning to swim. ‘Can you learn the skills by just watching other people swim? You can sit and watch Olympic medalists swim for hours but you would never be able to swim by just watching. You have to get into the water and do it. Learning English is the same, you need to use it, and you can do it by finding something in English that you love. For instance, if you like English TV or movies, go watch them with or without English subtitles (but not with Chinese subtitles!). Force yourself to go through with it. With time, you’ll be able to understand the language, and you won’t think of it as something that requires hard work.’

‘Each ELC instructor works very hard. Every step we take aims to motivate our students to learn and to grow,’ says Prof Chen. ‘I would like to quote a colleague of mine, Dr Alice Lee, one of the ELC’s Senior Instructors. Last year in a retreat we shared our motivations for teaching. Dr Lee said she teaches to “pay it forward”. She had been taught by wonderful and inspiring teachers who made such a positive difference to her life, and she wants to be such an influence to her own students. It summed up the approach of all of us at the ELC; we aim to be an inspiring and positive influence on our students’ university learning, indeed their whole life.’

ISSUE 20 | 2019

Also in this issue