It has been nearly 11 months since I started teaching an advanced English writing course at National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU) in Taipei as a part of my duties as a Fulbright senior scholar in Taiwan. After a brief introduction to some of my NTNU English department colleagues at a lovely luncheon shortly after my arrival in August 2014, I began preparing for the advanced writing class that I had been assigned. I ordered textbooks, developed a syllabus, and wrote a lesson plan for my first class. I was really excited about meeting my Taiwanese students for the first time.
My first advanced writing class was quite the opposite of what I had expected. Having taught ESL and English composition for many years in the United States and other countries, I anticipated that my students would be adequately prepared to write academic English and quite motivated to learn. When I stood before my Taiwanese students in that first class, I encountered eighteen tense, anxious faces and dead silence. After I passed out my syllabus and talked to them about the class, the expectations, and the assignments, I asked the students how they felt about having an American professor. I was again met with silence and blank stares, but then, a young man slowly raised his hand and said, “We’re terrified.” I then realized that I had my work cut out for me, namely, to do something to lower the affective filter and language anxiety in my students to make them more comfortable and perform better in my class.
I also soon discovered that while the students in my writing class were all English majors, their writing skills were not as developed as I had expected. In their initial writing assignments, they made many grammar, vocabulary, and spelling errors, but more importantly, they were not familiar with the expected Western style or genres of academic writing. Their writing level was more at an intermediate level than an advanced one, as was expected in this class. Therefore, I had to take a step back and reevaluate the situation and the ways in which I would more effectively teach this group of Taiwanese students.
The first change I made was to revise my syllabus. I made significant modifications in the types and number of written assignments and used a scaffolding approach to teaching English composition. I went back to the basics of academic writing by first explaining the main principles of good writing including clarity, coherence and concision. Next, I asked the students to write more simplified assignments in several writing genres, such as narration, comparison/contrast, classification, argumentation, etc. While this took more time than I had expected, the results were gratifying. By the middle of the semester, I could see a great deal of improvement in most of my students’ writing assignments.
Over the course of the fall semester, I strongly encouraged my students to participate more and to ask questions in class. This proved to be quite difficult, as they were accustomed to remaining silent and not asking questions in their Taiwanese classes. It took nearly an entire semester for them to begin to relax and to be more active participants in class, and even then, several of them were still reluctant to speak up or ask questions in front of their classmates. I noticed that the men were generally less afraid to speak and ask questions, while the women remained quieter and more passive. By the end of the first semester, I was glad to observe that the students’ participation and comfort level had improved from the beginning, but it was still not as active as I hoped.
As a consequence of this experience, I began to rethink my Fulbright research study project. Originally, I had planned to observe some of the English classes at NTNU and conduct interviews with these Taiwanese college students to learn about their attitudes, motivation, and feelings about learning English, in order to evaluate the role of the affective filter in their English learning. However, after my first semester’s experience with my own Taiwanese students, I decided that a deeper, more extensive study of the affective filter, based on Krashen’s Affective Filter Hypothesis (Krashen, 1982), was warranted. Krashen’s theory posits that second language learners who have a high level of language anxiety, fear of losing face, or embarrassment tend to learn another language more poorly than those whose affective filter level is lower and who are not afraid to take risks Therefore, I wanted to learn how the affective filter was operant among NTNU college students taking English classes. I then developed a survey of 16 statements to measure Taiwanese college students’ attitudes, motivation, language anxiety, and other affective aspects of learning English, on a Likert scale of 1-5, ranging from the lowest to highest degree of agreement. Some of these statements included “I like English,” “I get nervous when I speak English in front of others,” “I like to ask questions in my English class,” and “I am afraid of making mistakes when I speak English” .
I administered my survey to 165 NTNU students, both NTNU English majors and non-majors. Female participants made up 67% and males 33%, with 66% English majors and 34% non-English majors. The age of the participants ranged from 18 years to 26 years, an average of 20.5 years of age. Only a small number of the participants had ever travelled or lived abroad in an English-speaking country. A few of the participants had studied English in international schools in Taipei.
The results of my survey reflected that nearly all of the participants were highly motivated to learn English, but largely for extrinsic reasons, such as getting a better job, earning higher pay, or studying abroad. The survey also revealed that the majority of the participants had a high degree of language anxiety, fear of making mistakes, saving face, and feelings of nervousness or embarrassment when speaking English especially, when asked to give presentations in front of a group. It did not seem to make any difference whether the participant was an English major or not. What I found surprising, however, was the students’ preference of a foreign English teacher to a Taiwanese teacher and their willingness to approach a native speaker of English in Taiwan to practice their spoken English.
In addition to the attitude surveys, I conducted 58 personal interviews with NTNU students enrolled in English classes, both majors and non-majors. What I learned from these interviews was a more personal perspective on the role of the affective filter than the surveys revealed. Many of the interviewees reported that they did not really like English; they needed to learn it for their career or to earn more money in the future. Others said that they liked their English classes, but did not like being “put on the spot,” asked questions for which they did not know the answer or to speak in front of others without prior preparation. Answers to my question, “What makes you feel more comfortable about speaking English” ranged from “When the teacher says “good job” or “awesome,” or “When my classmates don’t criticize or laugh at me” to “After a few drinks.” From these personal interviews, I was able to better understand the participants’ real feelings and attitudes towards learning and speaking English than just from the surveys.
What I learned from my research study and my teaching at NTNU is that the affective filter is generally high among most Taiwanese college students, their motivation to learn English is largely instrumental rather than intrinsic, and their oral English proficiency is rather low. However, in spite of these feelings and motivations, they are generally happy with their English teachers and welcome the opportunity to travel or study abroad in an English-speaking environment.
Another positive experience I had this spring semester was the opportunity to team- teach with Dr. Zeb Raft from the University of Alberta, Canada. Dr. Raft came to Taiwan with nine of his Canadian students, some of whom are currently studying Chinese in Taiwan. When I told my Taiwanese students about this, they were excited and eager to meet the Canadians. Consequently, my students have joined Dr. Rafts’ classes several times during the semester and participated in discussions and other activities. I have also observed some friendships developing between the Taiwanese and Canadian students. My Taiwanese students told me that they really enjoyed the team teaching approach as well as a chance to get to know some young Canadians and practice their English with native speakers.
A most rewarding experience I had during my Fulbright grant period was to conduct workshops with the American ETAs and Taiwanese teachers at several school sites around Taiwan. I developed a workshop on cross-cultural communication and awareness: one that helped ETAs understand high context and low context cultures and their influences on teaching and learning among Taiwanese students (Samovar & Porter, 2011; Ting-Toomey, 2004). The second workshop I developed was about using songs and music to teach English to Taiwanese students in order to lower the affective filter, teaching vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, history, geography and other concepts. Both the ETAs and the Taiwanese teachers responded well to these workshops and really seemed to enjoy them, as much as I enjoyed teaching them.
In summary, my experiences in Taiwan have been very positive. I learned a great deal about the country, its geography, its history, and its people, and I made some friends among my NTNU teaching colleagues. I enjoyed teaching academic English writing skills to my NTNU students and learned more about them as individuals. I had the opportunity to travel to various parts of Taiwan, and especially enjoyed visiting Taroko Gorge National Park, Kenting National Park, Kaohsiung, Sun Moon Lake, Kinmen, and Tamsui. I want to express my deepest appreciation to the Fulbright Commission, Dr. William Vocke, the Fulbright executive director, and the most helpful Fulbright staff at the Foundation for Scholarly Exchange in Taipei for providing me with this unforgettable experience.
Krashen, S. (19821). Principles and practices in second language acquisitions. Oxford: Pergamon.
Samovar, L. & Porter, R. (2011), Intercultural Communication: A Reader. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Ting Toomey. S. (2004). Handbook of Intercultural Training. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.