How not to teach ESL: The Chinese room

The fact that I teach in China is purely serendipitous to the title. The title refers to John Searle’s famous thought experiment, the Chinese room. The thought experiment is meant to illuminate the impossibility of AI. It does so by asking ourselves whether a program that simply responds to commands could ever be said to think. You are probably wondering what the hell this has to do with ESL. Well, in the thought experiment there is a person in a room, with a big book in front of them. The book is an English to Chinese dictionary. Every morning the a bit of paper is slipped under the door of the room, the man sees the Chinese symbol that is on it, goes to his dictionary, and finds what it says. The dictionary also provides him with an appropriate answer, which he copies onto a blank sheet of paper and slips back under the door.

Does the man speak Chinese? Clearly not.

Some months ago my the progress managers at my school started giving out helpful little study sheets to the students. As best as I could figure out, the progress managers didnt bother to teach anyone how to use these study guides, because every day I walk into the class and out are the study sheets while the students play on their cell phones. Of course, the sheets have been untouched up to this point. Ill begin class with a simple question such as what do you like to do when you go out with your friends? In lieu of a proper answer, the students will look at the model sentence and say, in their dead-pan reading voice I like to go to the bar.

At this point, I like to take the sheets away from them. Suddenly, not only do they not know how to answer the question, but they no longer like to go to the bar either. Turns out they never realized that learning a language requires some element of thinking for yourself. Who would have thought.

But yea, as it turns out many of the students think that you can learn a language by Chinese room. You just look at the answer you are meant to give and repeat it.

I shouldn’t be too harsh. This school is low-hanging fruit. But I didn’t in my life ever think that I would A) find a real life analogy to the Chinese room thought experiment, or B) find people who actually thought that that kind of mechanistic automatic response (what computers do n lieu of thinking) could be any person be considered work.

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