How to kow tow

If you haven’t had a childhood spent reading old books because there was nothing else to do then you might not know what kow tow means. There’s always Wikipedia, which tells you that one meaning is

the act of deep respect shown by prostration, that is, kneeling and bowing so low as to have one’s head touching the ground. … the highest sign of reverence. It was widely used to show reverence for one’s elders, superiors and the Emperor.

In English academic circles today, it’s widely used to show reverence for the money Chinese students bring. I’ve spent the summer teaching them. I’m now taking a break from teaching because my forehead is worn thin from being expected to bow down to students who flatly refuse to do any work, simply because their parents did pretty well out of the pretend capitalism China adopted over the past twenty years.

I thought for a while it was just me. Understandably, as the Brexit government has shown clearly that Europeans are at best problematic, a lot of them have stayed away this summer. Their places were filled by Chinese instead.

The last class was pretty much the worst I’ve ever had. I’ve been almost pushed out of the way by angry students before, but until this summer I hadn’t been pushed out of the way by students simply because I was where they wanted to stand or walk. In class their behaviour was more problematic. They didn’t do anything.

We’d been told that this batch were B1. In case you ever wondered what the EU does, one of the things that passes their time is developing common standards across lots of different countries, specifically here the Common European Framework of Reference for languages, or CEFR.

It’s a sensible arrangement, laying down common guidelines so that whatever the student’s nationality or foreign language competence you can assess what level they are and judge what level of lessons they should be getting.

According to the framework, B1 students:

Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.
Can deal with most situations likely to arise while travelling in an area where the language is spoken.
Can produce simple connected text on topics that are familiar or of personal interest.
Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.

When someone can’t tell you their name, where they’re from and how many people there are in their family it doesn’t take an expert linguist to realise they aren’t B1 students. There is no shame in not speaking another language fluently at a language school. Learning how is what you’re there for; there’s not much other point in it. Where it goes wrong is when en bloc or singly, you lie about your capabilities then consciously do nothing at all to learn anything.

Almost all my class couldn’t tell me more than their names. About half had adopted what they thought were English names, some of them almost as bizarre as the Nissan Cedric, presumably named to impart some idea of superior class distinction regardless of the fact that not even Conservative Cabinet Ministers are called Cedric today. In a nutshell, most of these students were A1 at best.

Nobody knows everything

You go to school to learn things. I thought it was so fundamental it didn’t need saying, but time and again I’ve been proved wrong. Some learners are sent there for free daycare. Some to actually learn stuff that might be handy when they’re older. And some are sent there to impress the neighbours. Mine seemed to be the last category.

Saving faces

The concept of face is another Eastern thing familiar to any student of W.E. Johns, Conan Doyle or Sapper. It’s about making sure people continue to respect you. If you lose your job you still get on the 07:50 every morning so that next door don’t know you got canned. If your teacher did the language assessment for you then gave you all the answers, leaving you completely flummoxed then you can save face by not trying.

Can’t speak, won’t speak. Can’t write, won’t write.

Try it. You can never be wrong. It’s simple. But it’s not a good way of learning a language.

Naturally enough, I mentioned this issue to the Chinese teachers who accompanied the class. Three of the four of them had next to no English themselves. The one who did told me several students were uncomfortable in my class. Personally, I’m glad that a student who sits in class doing absolutely nothing for a week, wearing a surgical mask because of the disgusting level of air pollution in a rural Suffolk market town and doing her eye make-up at her desk instead of writing a single word of English feels uncomfortable. She ought to.

The reaction of the school when the teachers raised the issue was immediate. It was tough luck. Sure, the students might not actually do anything in class. They may refuse to speak. They might refuse to write. They may be totally unable to follow any instructions or to be anywhere on time, although miraculously, their English might improve at lightning speed when they want something, disappearing just as fast when asked why they thought it was ok to barge people out of their way. They’re paying the fees. Deal with it.

China in your hands

Hideously, I find myself agreeing with Chris Patten, whose Guardian article lays into Chinese government control of universities there and the way the current UK government seems to feel all this talk about standards and independence is all very well but doesn’t really fit with the demands of the real world. On Radio 4 this morning he went further, accusing Liverpool University of allowing a curriculum to be developed on its Chinese campus that would only teach things the Chinese government liked and nothing that it wouldn’t, in much the same way that the fearlessly independent creators of truth, justice, open source information and Google saw no difference in saying ‘first cause no harm’ and saying to the Chinese government sure, ok, of course we’ll block sites you don’t like on our search engine if you let us into China. He thought it was laughable that any academic institution would be so craven as to kow tow to the students. He ought to try teaching.

Billy Liar‘s tarty girlfriend Rita used to sneer at him ‘get off your knees.’ I didn’t realise that I’d be living in a world where grovelling only that low wasn’t low enough.

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Carl Bennett

Not born in a cross-fire hurricane because there is no such thing. Actually Stratford on Avon general hospital, since when Dorset, Wiltshire, compulsory London and currently Suffolk.

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