Challenges Chinese students encounter when studying Shakespeare

Posted on April 19, 2022

I came to Canada as an international student from mainland China at the age of 17. In high school, I studied three of Shakespeare’s works: Hamlet, Macbeth and Julius Caesar. Many native English-speaking students told me that they had great difficulty with Shakespeare’s works. But I realized that the difficulties that non-native English speakers, especially those from China, face when studying Shakespeare’s plays are much more significant and sometimes harder to overcome. The challenges Chinese students face while learning English in a foreign country are due to three main factors. First, there is a huge difference between modern English and the 16th-century English used by Shakespeare in his plays. Second, when most Chinese primary and secondary schools teach Chinese and English, they don’t use a whole novel or play but only a small excerpt from it. And third, most students from China aren’t familiar with the structure and plot development of such stories due to their limited exposure to tragedy. It can therefore take a long time for some students to adapt to Canadian teaching methods, making it harder for them to learn English as a second language (ESL).

The trouble 16th-century English poses to ESL learners

Most native English speakers can confidently guess the meaning of a word they don’t know based on the context. However, non-native English speakers are sometimes unsure whether a word they don’t know is a common modern word. And because their vocabulary is limited, it’s also difficult for them to guess the meaning of words in context. Here, I’d like to give some examples of such words in Hamlet: “splenitive,” “prate” and “esil.” Native English speakers may not be familiar with these words, but they can guess their meaning from the context. For example, “splenitive” comes from Hamlet’s words in the first scene of Act V of Hamlet: “For though I am not splenitive and rash,/Yet have I something in me dangerous” (Shakespeare Act V, Scene I, Lines 275—276).Note 1 To a large extent, those who are familiar with the English language and understand the meaning of “rash” will consider the word “splenitive” to be similar to “rash,” thus guessing the meaning of the word with relative accuracy. However, non-native speakers’ uncertainty about unfamiliar English words causes many of them to rely heavily on dictionaries when reading Shakespeare’s works, significantly reducing the speed at which they can absorb the material.

Differences in the way literature is taught in Chinese and Canadian schools

In China, very few students have the opportunity to study novellas or long-form literature (including novels, plays, etc.) in school. One of the major reasons for this is that schools rely heavily on textbooks in their teaching. Most Chinese school boards are committed to exposing students to as many different styles of literature as possible, so they ensure that the textbooks include various excerpts of literature, which are needed to teach this unit in the curriculum. Since many Chinese students have rarely, if ever, read a complete work of literature, it’s not unusual for them to find it difficult to study a complete Shakespearean play.

Also, in Chinese schools, especially elementary schools, tragic stories are rarely found in textbooks, so many students find it difficult to accept the tragic plots and unpleasant endings of the stories. As a result, students’ interest in studying Shakespeare’s works is sharply diminished. I conducted a survey at the University of Ottawa to find out how popular Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies were among the Chinese student population. The results showed that most of the students preferred comedic plays, which they considered to be pleasant and relaxing, while tragedies were usually seen as depressing and unpleasant.

Ways to help Chinese students learn Shakespeare

I think it would be helpful if teachers gave ESL students extra care in the teaching process. For example, they could allow them to bring cell phones or electronic dictionaries into the classroom, encourage them to cross-reference translated Shakespearean works when they encounter difficulties, and give them more time to complete exams. Shakespeare is one of the world’s most famous literary figures, and it’s essential that most Canadian education departments include Shakespeare as part of their students’ studies. Providing accommodations for non-native English-speaking students would, in my opinion, help them access the beauty of Shakespearean literature and the voices that came from Europe more than four hundred years ago.


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Get to know Haiyi Yan

Haiyi Yan

Haiyi Yan

Haiyi is an undergraduate student at the University of Ottawa, majoring in second language teaching and minoring in English. He is fluent in English and Mandarin Chinese and has experience assisting in English as a second language courses in several public schools. Haiyi is passionate about second language education and the study of English literature and writing skills.

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Submitted by Gael Spivak on April 19, 2022, at 18:06

Thank you for this very interesting post. It gave me information I didn't have before.

Submitted by Connor Yan on April 19, 2022, at 22:53