Like gunpowder, printing and fireworks – English Corners were invented in China!!
They are often hosted by a university (student organised) but others are privately arranged in coffee bars and other venues.
They can be inside but are also held outdoors. In some places, an area is set aside for the English Corner and this will have permanent signage and even a list of rules! Some have become institutions like the one at Renmin University in Beijing which attracts hundreds of people every week.
Our Cultural Exchange Team in November will attend an English Corner in a public park in a large southern city which is officially supported by the City Government. They fund it!
Generally, English Corners in China, wherever they are held, continue to attract large numbers of people with a wide range of ages.
They are not dependent on having native English speakers though they tend to attract bigger crowds if there are regular foreign helpers.
The purpose of an English Corner is to give the participants as much opportunity as possible to practise English.
Usually people form into small groups and engage in what is called “free talk.” Some English Corners may try to place restrictions on the topics – some prohibit talk about religion, politics and sex. This, however, is not always adhered to and free talk can be very free talk!
Some groups may stay together or participants may move from group to group.
The best English Corners provide topics which groups may choose to use. This is especially good if the English level makes free talk hesitant.
The topics can be written on a piece of paper or if indoors written on a white board.
It is also a good idea for the “teachers” to move around different groups.
Again, the best English Corners will control this. Participants will sit in small groups (4-5 is a good manageable number.) The “teachers will rotate every 20 minutes or half an hour to the next table.
It is good to have someone leading the English Corner, organising the teachers and ensuring that the groups are well balanced.
Some English programmes in New Zealand use the “tv news” format. The students work in groups but first watch an extract from the tv news. They can then discuss with their “teacher” what they saw, talk through any difficult vocabulary and then re-watch the news item (with by then greatly enhanced understanding)
This can also work well with well chosen video clips. These should be around 5-10 minutes long. A vocabulary list can be prepared in advance and the video discussed in the groups.
This is not strictly an “English Corner” which has “conversational free talk” as a basic principle.
In all these activities, the point is for the participants to do the talking – not for the “teacher” to give a lecture!
Note: A form of atheistic evolution is still taught throughout the Chinese education system and will be reflected in many questions you are asked.
However, if these topics are brought up then be neutral and be careful they don’t get hostile. This is very possible, for example, when talking about Japan...