A Guide to Common Phrases in the ESL Classroom
The first rule of English class is that students are forbidden from speaking Chinese. This is fair enough, but until they have the ability to confidently switch between both languages, they’ll rely on their mother tongue to get their point across in class.
Teachers need to keep enforcing the ‘English only’ rule and remind them of the correct English phrase to use when they speak to the teacher in Chinese. However, knowing some of what the students are saying can be very useful when deciding which activities to retain, modify or discard for future lessons.
It’s worth noting that for many phrases, students might put ‘hen’ at the beginning of a phrase to give it extra emphasis (e.g. ‘hen chou’ – very ugly). For other phrases, they might add the negative ‘bu’ (no) in the middle, as in ‘wo bu meng’ (I’m not busy).
In this article, I'll share the most common words and phrases I hear in class. I also want to apologise in advance for any mistakes and welcome corrections.
Laoshi – teacher
Kan laoshi – look at teacher
Ting laoshi – listen to teacher
Wo (bu) zhidao – I (don't) know
Wo (bu) xihuan - I (don’t) like.
Hao ting – good listen/sounds good.
Students might say this if they like the song you’ve just played.
(Hen) hao kan - (very) good watch.
They like the movie that you're showing/have just played
Bu hao wan – bad play/game
They don’t like the game you’ve just played or suggested.
Ting bu dong – I don’t understand.
Shenma yi si – what’s the meaning/what do you mean?
Both have the same basic meaning, in that they have no idea what you’re going on about. If they say these phrases together after being introduced to a new activity, then you have some serious re-explaining to do.
Wo hui/wo bu hui - I can/can't.
The student is confident that he can do the work on his own. However, those who stare at their blank papers while saying this require extra assistance.
Wode tian! - my god!
A student has just seen or heard something very surprising or shocking.
Hen chou – very ugly
My students usually say this when I draw something on the board.
Wuliao – boring .
When students say this and seem disengaged during an activity, that’s a strong sign that you should either do it very differently next time or retire it completely. That, or they really don't like bookwork or grammar.
Bu kan dao le! – I can’t see!
The writing is too small to read or perhaps you’re blocking the movie.
Kan guo le! – I’ve seen this.
They’ll probably say this whenever you show Mr Bean in class.
Nani? – What?
This is actually a Japanese word that seems to be the flavour of the month among young Chinese students.
Ganma? (best said quickly and harshly while dragging out the last syllable)
This is a common phrase in Guangzhou, a colloquisim meaning ‘hey, what’s up/what’s going on?’ Locals tend to be very surprised and impressed if foreigners use this word.
Of course, this only covers a fraction of everything students say during class but will hopefully come in useful when trying out new activities and gauging what students think of your class.
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