The other week I received a question from a reader who was interested in becoming a qualified English Teacher. The problem for this college student was whether "learning English on the internet and on TV" was enough – and if not "what else should / could" be done?
It's true. Real opportunities for mixing with native English language speakers are few and far between. This is the situation for most English students in China yet many make it to an intermediate or above level – enabling them to be good and effective English language teachers – so what is the key?
Is "learning English on the internet and on TV enough?"
Personally I would have to say it isn't. Ideally, when it comes to language practice comprehensive exposure to reading, writing, listening and speaking occurs. Within this 'learning English on the internet and on tv' can cover most bases but one needs to be proactive rather than passive.
With the addition of new technologies such as Skype that allows for voice chatting, and popular programs like QQ, there are opportunities now, which don't have to cost money, that enable Chinese English language learners to practice with native speakers from all over the world.
With the growing popularity of Chinese as a Foreign Language many foreigners are interested in starting up language exchanges online. Once you find a partner and you are able to start practice chatting away, perhaps for 30 minutes first in English and then 30 minutes in Chinese, you are getting good 'one to one' conversation practice.
There are private companies that facilitate this service, such as Idapted, based near Wudaokou, who in addition provide qualified language instructors to chat with over the net, backed up with particular courses be they IELTS or TOEFL based. Of course this comes with a fee though it does provide a more focused exchange.
I knew one Chinese fellow who in his early 20's was a self study student. He had excellent English and he told me the way he progressed came about by watching movies with the English subtitles turned on. With a pen and pad he would write down any of the language he was unfamiliar with, particularly slang, which makes up a large part of modern spoken English. Later he would go on to practice and learn it. Through this he also adopted a fairly strong Hollywood accent in his speaking and of course his listening was very good too.
Now according to the British Council where Chinese English students are falling down is in their writing composition. Can this be addressed by focusing solely on the internet? Personally I don't think so unless you have a very patient and considerate ally who gives you writing assignments and corrects your work and constantly goes over your errors.
One thing I have noticed is that over time too much chatting on qq or msn can lead to excessive spelling mistakes and an over emphasis on lazy grammar. Once asked to produce well crafted academic reports or essays then such errors quickly become obvious. So in this case, it will take more than just chatting online to improve your writing skills.
Finally, to the student who wrote me the letter - I'd like to offer encouragement. I believe language is for life and there is no quick short cut. If you are to go onto a career as a Chinese English language teacher then take comfort that through daily work practice your English will be improving steadily over time. Ideally it won't be too long before you too are then given an opportunity to work, study or travel abroad.
PS China Daily's Language Tips also provide a forum for language learners at http://bbs.chinadaily.com.cn/forumsub.php?gid=4