Burning questions about teaching English in China #1: He said, she said

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The idea for these articles came to me during this past winter holiday, as I was reflecting on beginning my tenth year teaching English in China. In that time, I’ve noticed many common mistakes made by English learners and wondered why they were so common, yet so easily corrected. In other words, I wondered how it was possible for so many university students to have acquired the same bad habits, regardless of where they went to school or what their major was.

So, I decided to write a series of (mostly) short articles highlighted each of these puzzling errors, in the hope that students – and their teachers – can somehow explain why they occur and how best to stop students from making these mistakes in the future. I will post them in my Qzone, on Steemit.com, and on my blog.

Readers who are not familiar with English education in China need to understand that all university students have had English as a Foreign Language (EFL) instruction since middle school, and many from grade 3 in primary school. Additionally, all university majors need to take two years of English instruction and pass two national English-proficiency exams. Despite all these years of EFL instruction, many university students – even English majors – still make the same basic mistakes in grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, orthography, and syntax. And I am at a loss to explain why.

Puzzle #1: He said, she said

Students: What would your childhood Chinese (普通话) teacher have said or done if you had written the following on a homework paper?


Or this.


[For readers who can’t read Chinese, the first sentence says, “My mother is very busy. He is a doctor.” The second says, “My father is taller than her own father.”]

My guess would be the teacher would forgive a very young student for confusing 他 and 她, but very angry with an older child who made the same mistakes. Knowing personal pronouns is one of the very first lessons in learning any language.

[NOTE: I am not going to tread the dangerous waters of multiple genders and appropriate pronouns here. I’m talking about the binary gender references in basic language instruction. Please don’t flame me!]

Now imagine how your native English teacher may feel when you, as a college student, confuse “he” and “she,” or “him” and “her” in English class. You’ve been studying English for several years, after all. Surely by now you have mastered which pronoun matches which gender, right?

OK, I get that in putonghua the pronouns sound the same – “ta” – even if they are written differently. So, maybe your brain is picturing 她, and saying “ta” to itself, but somehow you end up saying “she” when you speak the word. Your brain is thinking in Chinese, translating into English, and telling your mouth to say the wrong word.

I joke about this very common error in class, because I don’t want to humiliate students, but in fact it really bothers me – especially if I am teaching English majors! Mixing up he and she is really inexcusable. It is such a basic and very simple bit of knowledge.

There are several reasons for the problem, but I suspect the biggest is that students do not get enough practice speaking English in the younger grades. And if they do speak English, they often just read from their textbooks, which does not exercise the part of the brain that turns original thoughts into English words.

So, if you tend to make this mistake while speaking, and someone corrects you, accept the criticism and remember never to do it again. It is not funny. It is embarrassing and disrespectful. Your mom is not male, and your dad is not female. You boyfriend is not a girl, and your girlfriend is not a boy.

In most cases, anyway.

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