Building on the strengths of the Chinese ESL learner with IT


Tom Cobb

Dépt de linguistique et de didactique des langues

Université du Québec à Montréal

Montreal Canada



It was once assumed that learning a second language (L2) was a universal process that depended little on the particular L1 of the learner (Dulay & Burt; Krashen; Goodman, 1970s), and while few researchers any longer believe this to be entirely true (Koda, N Ellis, Meara, 1990s), it nonetheless remains the unstated assumption of publishers of language learning materials. There are no course books with titles like “English reading for the Arabic learner” (despite the well known challenges of Roman orthography for Arabic speakers), or “vocabulary strategies for the Chinese learner” (despite the capacity for massive item learning that is potentially transferable to acquisition of an L2), and so on. Such books do not exist for good reasons, of course, one being the need or wish of the publishing companies to sell to a single worldwide market, the other being the decreasing number of classrooms sharing a common L1 in ESL as against EFL settings.


Admittedly, there is probably more commonality than difference across L1s in learning English as a Second Language, so the continued use of one-fits-all materials makes sense. But surely there is also a case for developing principled, research based, L1 specific materials, perhaps as supplements, in cases where the L1 or its ambient culture provides an identifiable set of learner characteristics or strategies. Is there a market for such materials?


Throughout the media world, the Internet has arisen as a viable niche-publisher for the many smaller markets that apparently do not support full commercial ventures. This paper argues that the need for L1-specific language learning materials presents just such a market. It presents examples of Web-based materials that attempt to cope with some of the weaknesses and build on some of the strengths of a particular group of ESL learners, those whose L1 is Chinese and whose learning culture can be broadly characterized as Confucian. Three notable strengths of these learners tend to be (as mentioned) a huge capacity for item learning; a keen sense of pattern perception that works well in the sciences but less well in language learning; and an instinctively collaborative approach to learning. Notable weaknesses include the excessive reliance on dictionaries while reading, and a “lexical processing” approach generally to second language comprehension (Ngar & Johnson, 1990s).  If these challenges and opportunities are unlikely to be the focus of mass market course materials, they can nonetheless be the focus of properly designed Web-based supplementary materials.


In this paper, concrete take-home Web-based learning tools and activities for Chinese learners will be proposed, with empirical indications of their value where possible. The conclusion will broaden out to seek principles of L1-specific supplementation of which the Chinese case is but one example. The paper is based on a plenary speech of the same title given at the TCELT (Tertiary/College English Language Teaching) Conference, “IT in ELT,” given at Northwestern University in Shenyang, China, and Chinese University of Hong Kong in June 2006.