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The English corner as an out-of-

class learning activity


Xuesong Gao

This paper analyses the comments of a group of learners on their participation in


an English corner on the Chinese mainland. It highlights that the particular
English corner concerned in this study has become a social community where the
participants could find supportive peers and self-assertion opportunities. The
learners participation in the community enhanced their autonomous learning
and fostered subtle changes in their self-identities. The learning of English in the
community echoes what constitutes a humanistic view of learning. The study
invites language teachers to consider how such out-of-class learning activities can
be integrated into our pedagogic practices.

Introduction Language learning strategy has received considerable attention among


language researchers and teachers over the last three decades, and studies
have advanced the argument that successful language learners are more
likely to actively search for and create learning and use opportunities inside
and beyond the classroom (Cohen 1998). However, there is still a paucity of
research into language learners self-initiated strategic learning efforts
beyond the classroom, although autonomous learning is being promoted as
a desirable pedagogic outcome (Pickard 1996; Murray and Kojima 2006).
This paper explores one particular out-of-class learning strategy used by
English learners on the Chinese mainland to improve their spoken English,
namely their participation in English corners, and discusses its
pedagogical implications. I will begin the paper with a general description of
English corners and then focus on one English club, a mini English corner,
in a Chinese coastal city. After this, I will draw on the participants
reflections on the club and discuss why they continued participating in it.
Finally, I will explore how our pedagogic practices can be informed by an
understanding of Chinese learners English corner activities. The
discussion highlights the importance of such activities if we wish to adopt
a humanistic approach to language teaching and promote autonomous
learning among our students.

English corners on English corners refer to regular meetings that English learners voluntarily
the Chinese organize in public places to practise spoken English on the Chinese
mainland mainland. These meetings have as a defining characteristic non-native
speakers strategic efforts to interact with each other in English. Jin and
Cortazzi (2002: 60) regard the English corner as a characteristically

60 E LT Journal Volume 63/1 January 2009; doi:10.1093/elt/ccn013


The Author 2008. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved.
Advance Access publication March 5, 2008
Chinese approach to informal practice. They describe it as a weekly
gathering in a park, a square or at a street corner where university and
middle school students create their own learning environment with each
other and passers-by, to practise English (ibid.: 60; see also Li 2004). Many
major cities have at least one English corner and most universities and
colleges also have campus English corners (Martyn and Voller 1995; Li op.
cit.). These English corners are attended by hundreds of enthusiastic
learners. For this reason, Martyn and Voller (op. cit.: 3) suggest that English
corner activities are perhaps the best examples of learner independence on
the Chinese mainland. In most English corners, there is little organization
and participants simply know that they can come and speak English to other
learners at particular times. They may talk to complete strangers or make
friends with people through practising English together at will. In recent
years, smaller English corners, which often designate themselves as clubs,
have appeared and boomed in Chinese tea houses and coffee shops. For
instance, the city where I grew up has at least six English clubs, each having
some 30 to 60 regular participants. This often means that participants pay
a certain amount of money through having to buy drinks to attend English
club activities. While some clubs may have been initially sponsored by tea
houses and coffee shops to attract customers, many grow into small
communities like the one reported in this study with their self-appointed
leaders or coordinators. They organize functions and activities among club
participants in addition to regular English club activities. Some English
clubs may have closed membership, but most English clubs are open to
newcomers. Since learners tend to have closer and more intense
relationships with each other in smaller gatherings, English clubs have
more regular visitors than public English corners.
In many ways, English corners or English club activities can be considered
as learners creative efforts to seek language learning and use opportunities
beyond the classroom. Since the introduction of Deng Xiao Pings liberal
policy in the late 1970s, English competence has become a crucial asset for
China to pursue its modernization blueprint. However, there are few native
or foreign English speakers and limited real-life opportunities to learn/use
English beyond the classroom in the learning context. To overcome these
contextual constraints, Chinese learners choose to collaborate with each
other in English corners. Traditional Chinese cultural values, putting
emphasis on learner collaboration (Littlewood 1999), may have contributed
to the emergence of English corners on the Chinese mainland. The relative
anonymity in English corners may also encourage learners to speak
English with each other (Jin and Cortazzi op. cit.). Therefore, it could be
argued that Chinese learners English corner activities have grown out of a
process directly connected to the practices of cultural groups and are
mediated by the sociocultural context (Donato and McCormick 1994: 453).
However, English corner/club activities may not be a phenomenon unique
to the Chinese mainland. Leni Dam (personal communication) recalled her
experience with a group of learners and their non-native-speaker teacher
having English conversations in a pub in the Basque country. It appears that
this English teacher regularly organized such English conversation
activities in the pub with her students apart from teaching them in the
classroom. As this study may arouse teachers and researchers interest in

The English corner as an out-of-class learning activity 61


English learners out-of-class learning activities, it is expected that many
more learners in other contexts will be found to have similar activities.
Consequently, an understanding of English learners participation in
English corners/clubs is in order.

The English club The particular English club in this study has been going on in my
hometown, a Chinese coastal city, for three years. In the first year, it was
located at a cafe called Blue Rain. Later, it was moved to another cafe and the
move started a heated discussion among the participants on their
experiences at Blue Rain in 2005, on which this study drew. The club has
two volunteers serving as coordinators, Steve and Chen (pseudonyms), who
also run a website with a discussion forum for English learners. On 14
August 2004, they announced the clubs birth in the webforum, where
many participants came to know of its existence. In the website, they posted
another public announcement calling upon learners in the region to
organize and run English clubs in every city so that they could have a great
alliance of English clubs. Both Steve and Chen are locals in the city. Steve
owns a sports bike shop while Chen works in a trading company. The club
meets twice a week on Wednesday evenings and Sunday afternoons. In
addition, Steve and Chen often organize outings and dinner gatherings
among the club participants. For this reason, they negotiate on behalf of the
club with facility owners about price discounts. The English club does not
charge its participants, but for individual participants to stay in the cafe, they
need to buy at least one drink at a discounted price. Occasionally, the club
has special functions such as English speech or singing contests. They
usually have a discussion topic posted in the webforum as well as written on
a whiteboard in the cafe each time. However, for most of the time, the
participants sit around tables drinking and having English conversations
among themselves.

The study To find out about the participants experiences in the English club, I took
advantage of the webforum to collect reflective experiential accounts
voluntarily posted by the club participants over six months. Some 250
messages in the webforum, including participants experiential accounts
and their responses, were collected with permission from the online
discussants. These messages were not written specifically for this study but
were generated from a spontaneous online interaction process started by the
club participants. In addition, I went to the English club four times during
the same period as a participant observer. During each visit, I counted at
least fifty participants of different ages, most in their twenties and early
thirties. In the process, I enjoyed conversations in English as a participant
while I was able to verify basic facts in the above-mentioned messages.

What do participants Analysing the data, I identified the following themes from what they said
say about the English about the English club. These findings explain why they continued
club participating in the club.

Core members Many online discussants stress that the English club is a social community
(leaders) where people can make friends with each other through learning and using
English together. For this reason, they wrote at length about enthusiastic
participants they encountered in the club. During my visits to the club,

62 Xuesong Gao
I found that these messages appeared to be shared knowledge among the
participants I talked to. These individuals, in particular, Steve and Chen, the
two coordinators of the club, played an important role in maintaining the
learning momentum and community cohesion in the club. Like many other
club participants, they firmly believed that the learning of English is
inseparable from the process of socialization and mutual belonging among
fellow learners. They were highly respected by the participants as they
embodied a variety of competences, qualities, and skills together with
remarkable proficiency in English. They were frequently noted for their
ability to have English conversations on any topics. Their personality was
also commented on by other participants. In the following excerpt, Jess
describes her first encounter with Steve:
Excerpt 1
It was quite a dramatic experience to talk to Steve. The first time I came to
Blue Rain Cafe, I was ill at ease in a corner, listening to others. There were
[. . .] repeated references to Steve, which made me look forward to
meeting him. [. . .] Then he appeared in the cafe. [. . .] I rushed to talk to
him wondering whether this skinny man was the legendary Steve. [. . .]
I asked him a question quite directly: So you are Steve? What makes you
so famous? He [. . .] laughed, Because Im ugly! I could not think of an
immediate response. (Jess Lee, 28 July 2005. Translated from Chinese
original.)

Supportive peers and The data project the club as a friendly and supportive learning community.
friends In the online discussion, the participants emphasized that the boundaries
in the club were low and anyone could automatically became a member by
coming to the cafe. They pointed out that the community was not exclusively
for elite English learners and it was always ready to accommodate learners of
any levels. Their accounts indicate that nervous first-timers were often
supported with emphatic smiles and supportive attention from other
participants, who had similar learning experiences. In these narratives, the
club participants appear to have advised each other on other important
matters in daily life apart from practising English. Hence, learning in the
club tends to be holistic as was described in a high school students account
in the webforum:
Excerpt 2
When I came here for the first time, I was quite nervous and also excited.
I thought that with my clumsy English I would make a spectacle of
myself. I did! [. . .] What I did not expect were your responses. You did not
sneer at me or look down upon me. You responded to my poor
performance with empathetic smiles and encouraging eyes. [. . .] By and
by, I started feeling that I came to [. . .] cafe not only for practising spoken
English, but also listen to your reflections on life. [. . .] As for me, I cannot
learn all of those things from my textbooks. (Alex 1985, 30 July 2005.
Translated from Chinese original.)
The warm peer support enabled some participants to recognize the value of
learning English as a pleasure. This is particularly important for many
learners on the Chinese mainland who were often pressed hard to learn

The English corner as an out-of-class learning activity 63


English as an academic subject for high stakes exams. For instance, a recent
university graduate described how he was fascinated by the opportunity in
the club to present himself to others in the language he had toiled to learn:
Excerpt 3
It had been a physical labour for me to learn English. It was torture. [. . .]
Now I am no longer anxious for (exam) results and have removed the self-
imposed shackles of achievement. [. . .] May I introduce myself? Here I
am again. (Shaqiang, 22 August 2005. Translated from Chinese original.)

A place for self- Like Shaqiang, many online discussants in their messages consider the
assertion English club an ideal place for self-assertion. Because most participants
were initially strangers to each other at the club, it was inevitable for them to
start conversations with some personal history. This might have bored some
participants, but the discussants reflections create an overall impression
that they encouraged each other to communicate in English. As a result,
they saw an increasing role of English in their self-expression. A participant
shares her ideal experiences, giving a touch of romance to the use of English
in the club:
Excerpt 4
The purpose of going there for me is to find someone who I could have
a deep talk with for sharing the same interests. [. . .] It think that its better
not to ask too much about private matters such as what do you do or
whats your name [. . .]. Just find something in common and exchange
personal ideas. After leaving, you will recall this chat the whole week and
you would expect to meet such a friend next time. (Mayflower, 31 July
2005. English original.)
A few participants I talked to during my visits confirmed that they were
attracted to the club because it was a place for self-assertion. In particular,
when I asked a participant what she thought of speaking English with other
Chinese learners in the club, she emphatically told me the following:
Excerpt 5
When I talk to foreigners in English, I feel that I am talking on behalf of
my nation and my people. When I talk to other Chinese in English, I feel
that I am talking for myself. (An unnamed participant, 21 December
2005. English original.)

Social grouping, One online discussant (Emily) suggested that her participation in the club
identity changes, and had led to subtle changes in her self-perception; this in turn might have
autonomous helped sustain her efforts to collaborate with other participants in learning
learning activities beyond the club. Emily met four other participants and decided to
start J-group as a subgroup in the community. The J-group members not
only practised English in the club but also had English conversations
through an online instant messenger to improve their English. The
development of J-Group is a telling example illustrating how a mutual sense
of belonging leads to shifts in their self-identities and helps sustain their
autonomous learning efforts:

64 Xuesong Gao
Excerpt 6
The first time I went there, I had a great time with Jett, Joy, Jason, and
Jane. It happened that four of us five had names that started with the
letter J, so we came up with an idea to form a group, jokingly named
J-Group. And I changed my original name Emily to Jemily and then
became a member of the group. [. . .] We formed such a group to help us
all practise English well. We had fun chatting in English [. . .] We not only
chatted in the English corner but also on the internet. (Emily, 13
September 2005. English original.)
In short, a facilitating environment for learners autonomous learning can
be seen as emerging from the participants comments on the English club.
In the club, they experienced personal concern and involvement from
significant others (see Excerpt 1), provided support through the provision
of help and resources to each other (see Excerpt 2), and had opportunities
for making choices (see Excerpt 4) (Ryan 1991, in Littlewood op. cit.: 75). As
a result, they had a sense of freedom from a sense of being controlled by
external agents (see Excerpt 3) (ibid.: 75), which seems to have sustained
their participation and learning efforts in the club.

Discussion The participants experiences in the club may be regarded as a distinct form
of learning from many students learning in regular language classrooms.
On the Chinese mainland as well as in many other contexts, we, English
teachers, are often constrained by a host of factors such as an official
curriculum, textbooks, required teaching objectives, class hours, and school
cultures. We are often tempted to focus on learning results alone, especially
high stakes exam results in our classroom teaching. Our students capacity
for autonomous learning is not recognized, utilized, and enhanced in the
pedagogical process. Such classroom experiences may suffocate the
development of their autonomous learning capacity and leave a negative
impact on their language learning experiences.
In contrast, the inquiry produced images of enthusiastic Chinese learners
actively engaged in supporting each other in using English, challenging the
cultural stereotypes of teacher-dependent Chinese learners in research (Ho
and Crookall 1995). It also revealed that committed learner leaders played
a crucial role in maintaining and strengthening a sense of community
among the participants and supporting their learning efforts. Both club
coordinators were ordinary English learners, but they saw the learning of
English as inseparable from sharing their experiences, reflections, and
emotions with other learners in the learning process. They spent time
caring for and encouraging other participants, especially newcomerssee
Excerpt 1. As the participants gave each other emotional support when using
English together in the clubsee Excerpts 2 and 3they began to see
English as a medium for self-assertion and part of their self-identitiessee
Excerpts 4 and 5. The club also acknowledged the participants capacity for
organizing and sustaining their own language learning efforts through
developing their own communities or social groups. Consequently, some
participants in the excerpts began to see themselves in charge of their
learning and even assumed leadership of their own subgroupsfor
example, Emily in Excerpt 6. In some sense, learning English in the club

The English corner as an out-of-class learning activity 65


resembles a humanistic approach to language learning as it values the
importance of understanding, personal assumption of responsibility, and
self-realization in the learning process (Tudor 1993: 22).
Obviously, it is not easy for English teachers to reproduce a learners
community like the English club within our language classrooms. However,
it is still possible for us to consider social learning activities like those in the
English club as a complementary and integral part of a holistic, humanistic
learning programme. Such learning activities help our students to develop
community cohesion among themselves and motivate their autonomous
learning efforts. In these activities, they are likely to acquire some of the
leadership qualities and competence that the study has identified in learners
like Steve and Emily. In other words, participation in such activities
facilitates the development and utilization of their capacity for autonomous
learning inside and outside the classroom. Therefore, English club or
English corner activities, though considered out-of-class learning activities,
should be brought into a holistic, humanistic learning programme aiming
to support our students autonomous and strategic learning.
To reach this end would require some fundamental changes in the English
language curriculum and its underlying philosophy. In the Chinese context,
such changes are recently happening at the curriculum level as Chinas new
secondary school English curriculum recognizes the humanistic value of
English as a foreign language in students growth as people (Wang 2006:
198). With the introduction of the new curriculum, teachers may need to
give priority to the improvement of students quality of life in the
classroom, the promotion of supportive peer relationships, and the
cultivation of strong communities among them. While the Chinese cultural
tradition is sometimes considered a barrier against the promotion of
autonomy among Chinese learners (Ho and Crookall op. cit.), the findings
suggest that the Chinese cultural tradition, in particular, its collectivist
culture of learning, can be used as a resource to facilitate the development of
mutually supportive communities for learners autonomous and strategic
learning. Moreover, if a humanistic curriculum is to be successfully
implemented, it is important for teachers to become visionary learner
leaders, who are committed to developing social relationships among
students and enhancing their learning experiences.

Conclusion This study of Chinese learners English corner activities as an out-of-class


learning strategy encourages us to reflect on how we can integrate learners
similar out-of-class activities into our pedagogical practices. Successful
integration of such activities may depend on the introduction of language
curricula that fully recognize the humanistic value of language learning. It
also relies on our professional commitment to leading our students in the
learning process and transforming their language learning experiences. In
practice, we may start with an effort to build bonded communities in our
classes (Senior 1997), apart from supporting our students pursuits of
linguistic competence and examination performance inside the classroom.
We also need to develop their capacity for autonomous and strategic
learning beyond the classroom. For this reason, we may need more research
on learners out-of-class learning so that our pedagogical endeavours can be
informed about how to empower them with the capacity for organizing and

66 Xuesong Gao
sustaining their autonomous language learning efforts outside the
classroom (Pickard op. cit.; Murray and Kojima op. cit.).
Final revised version received September 2007

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Psychology of English Learning by Chinese College Xuesong (Andy) Gao did his masters studies at
Students: Motivation and Learners Self-identities. C E LT E, University of Warwick (UK) and the
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12: 23. Email: andygohteacher@hotmail.com/
xsgao@ied.edu.hk

The English corner as an out-of-class learning activity 67