English tutors in China -- well-paid, not always qualified

By Tahmina Inoyatova  |  Updated Feb. 13, 2014 at 5:44 PM
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BEIJING, Feb. 13 (UPI Next) --

Beatrice Boulet, a 20-year-old French exchange student at Peking University, was sitting outside the foreign students' dormitory when a Chinese woman approached her. The woman asked whether Boulet could teach her 10-year-old daughter English for $33 per hour.

"I told her that I am from France and have never taught English, but she didn't think it was important. I think she talked to me only because I am a foreigner," Boulet said.

Some families in China spend small fortunes on foreign English teachers for their children, but sometimes parents mistakenly think any foreigner -- no matter what their level of English-language skills -- can provide quality education in English. Education experts say this has led to cases of unqualified, unmotivated and sometimes even non-English-speaking foreigners tutoring Chinese kids.

The number of English-language learners in China is enormous: About 390 million people in China have studied English, according to a Chinese government survey described in the Cambridge University journal "English Today" in 2012. With so much of the population studying English, children are now required to work harder than ever to be more proficient and gain a competitive advantage.

The Chengs, a couple from Beijing, employed a female student from Georgia to teach their 8-year-old for $41 per hour.

"We want our son to have a bright future, and believe that English will play a big role in that," said Cheng Yi Hong, a doctor at Haidian hospital. The Chengs are similar to other Chinese parents who think English is essential for success in the modern world. They are convinced hiring a foreign tutor will give their child a significant advantage over children studying English in ordinary public schools.

In China under the one-child policy, many parents want to see their only children become top students and readily spend big money on education. Parents fill children's lives with extra classes in pursuit of top grades. While trying to provide their children with what they think are the best resources, parents often turn to English teachers from abroad.

However, the foreigners they seek out are sometimes inexperienced and accept the job only because of the high pay.

Agnieszka Slawinska, 23, a Polish student at Beijing Sport University, said, "I didn't have any prior teaching experience before, but one day a friend of mine told me that I can earn good money just by teaching English." She also said she was not very passionate about teaching, but giving lessons a couple of times a week helps her save money for a trip around China.

"My English is not very good, so it is a little difficult for me to teach, but I need money," she said. "The kid's parents really like me and don't have very high requirements from me."

It is difficult to say how many foreigners earn money this way because of a lack of statistical data on the issue.

He Shu, an associate professor at Peking University who teaches English as a foreign language, suggests Chinese parents often think foreigners can introduce their children to Western cultures and improve their English.

"However, some parents are not educated or experienced enough to tell the difference between a professional teacher and just a foreigner without a lot of teaching skills," she said.

"Also, some non-English-speaking parents believe in the stereotype that every ‘laowai' [a commonly used term for a foreigner in Mandarin] is supposed to speak English. This phenomenon is not just common in big cities, where overseas tutors have become a fashion due to an overwhelming number of foreigners, but English tutors are in demand also in smaller provincial towns."

Wang Hai, a math teacher in Beijing High School No. 12, said most of his neighborhood friends employed foreign tutors for their children.



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