In Memoriam: Dr Jane Orton

Earlier this year we received the very sad news that Dr Jane Orton had passed away. As we approach the anniversary of her unforgettable plenary session at the IOE CI Annual Chinese Conference in 2019, it seems an appropriate time  to share with you again our interview with her last year.

Jane was an Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne, and a world-renowned scholar of Chinese teaching and a wonderful advocate for the learning of Chinese in schools; she was a friend of UCL IOE CI.

Jane was truly inspirational at our conference last year. Teachers have been talking about her and her most recent book ever since. Her keynote was the focus of the 2 days, but I shall also always remember her sitting on the armchair outside the conference hall, after the keynote, talking with such interest and warmth to teachers and giving them welcome and valuable advice. In the words of her colleague Andrew Scrimgeour: ‘Jane’s tireless commitment was a tonic to us all’;  I, for one, felt that very strongly when she was with us in London.

Katharine Carruthers, UCL IOE CI Director

In 2019 Jane spoke about ‘Chinese – the Learner’s Perspective’ at the Annual Chinese Teaching Conference. Her plenary session was very well received by all who attended.

Hello Dr. Orton. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and the work you do at the University of Melbourne?

I have always been involved in language learning and teaching. I studied French and German at school and at university, and am a trained English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher. After I graduated, I taught English in France and then went to New York to work with Caleb Gattegno, who created The Silent Way. When I returned to Australia I taught English to immigrant children and adults, and then taught English at what is now Capital Normal University in Beijing. I did my PhD on intercultural issues in introducing Western teaching methods in China. I was then in charge of Modern Languages Education at the University of Melbourne for 15 years and then set up and ran a research and professional development centre in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education for Chinese language teaching.

These days I am an Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne. I spend most of my time writing, speaking at conferences and consulting regularly to some immersion Chinese language programmes. I also spend quite a lot of time in electronic discussion with people from all over the world who contact me about teaching and researching Chinese language education. That is something I really enjoy.  I do still teach a class each year to the Chinese language teacher candidates in our Master of Teaching course and I also lecture to all the modern languages education candidates about gesture and language and gesture-based language teaching approaches. And I am involved in professional development courses that we run for pre-service language teachers and for teacher administrators from Jiangsu Province.  Lastly, I am a Board member of the international Chinese as a Second Language Research Association (CASLAR) and supervise the association’s Innovative Pedagogy Research group, which at the moment involves fostering the development and writing up of research on innovations in the field as chapters in a book we will publish in 2020.

So, for a retired person, as you can see, I am at no risk of wondering what to do each day!

Your talk at the Conference, ‘Chinese – the Learner’s Perspective’, reflects some of the content of your new book, ‘Teaching Chinese as a Second Language: The Way of the Learner’. Can you give us an overview of both your book and your Conference plenary talk?

My talk, and the content of the book my colleague Andrew Scrimgeour and I have written, both focus attention on the tasks of the learners of Chinese as they begin to create a path from their starting line as competent speakers of English towards the finishing line of competent Chinese. We believe that to date there has been a major focus on the language, in research and in practice teachers still mostly correct errors in the language a student produces rather than errors in the learner that produced the incorrect language.

Both my talk and the book reflects the idea that we also believe that for us, learning Chinese is not like learning another European language and that it is not anywhere nearly sufficiently recognised that very fundamental motor skill development is needed if the student is to learn to be tonal and literate in Chinese and develop grammatical competence and a good vocabulary; nor much awareness that these are not supported by competence in English, in the way that such competence does support the learning of many other languages.

These lacks come about because Chinese as a Second Language (CSL) is a young field and such a very high proportion of teachers of Chinese are native speakers. They are linguistically highly competent but also oblivious to the deep learning needs of their students. My experience in ESL has been very useful in appreciating this, because we were exactly the same when English began to become an international language.  It takes time and dialogue and research for L1 speaking teachers to get a real handle on their own language as an object of learning!  And in Chinese it is not just the challenge of the language, but also of the teaching approach. There are real differences in our educational philosophy, which need to be recognised and handled. Not surprisingly, teachers and students in China were among the earliest to start feeding back to English speakers that our way of teaching English didn’t fit their educational needs and preferences. And that was most useful.

The other part of the book is at ‘the other end’ of language teaching: making the learning of Chinese a more intellectual endeavour, one that results in the development of powerful knowledge. The book aims to provide teachers with an informed view of the task as an educational experience, as well as offer some strategies for making that real.

These matters are all normal issues in a young field. The book is written in the spirit of dialogue, firstly to L1 teachers, to let them know what it looks like from our end – something they cannot know unless we L2s tell them; and to teacher educators who don’t know Chinese and think about it as if it were another European language

We are aware that the pre-service and in-service teachers who should benefit from the book will need a certain level of academic literacy in both English and Education to read it, and that it may in parts be a stretch for native Chinese speaking teachers educated in a Chinese system. But we know that many of the newer native speaking teachers are doing initial or on-going professional training in our universities and they will be able to handle the demands of reading it. We hope they will find it illuminating to see their language and their teaching as we see it – not so they will laminate what they do with our ways, but so they will see more clearly the field they are working in and can then design effective ways to act, and that they will maintain and develop dialogue with us.

What are you impressions of Chinese teaching in the UK and how do they differ from Chinese teaching in Australia?

This is an interesting topic and one I hope to know a great deal more about after my visit to the UK in June of this year. At present I have to say my knowledge is very patchy. On the whole there have not been many conference papers or journal articles on Chinese in the UK, especially not about school learning, although there has been some terrific work done on heritage/Chinese background learners and more going on. I have also read reports on the national UK Chinese scene from as far back as 2007. The strong similarities with the situation in Australia are the generally low level of public interest in students pursuing the study of any language through to university level; the dampening effect on classroom second language learners of being in class with, and competing in exams with, huge numbers of competent home language speakers of Chinese; and the lack of knowledgeable, dedicated training in teaching Chinese for teacher candidates (compared with, say, French or EAL). Another similarity is that, like us, compared to other languages, the UK has few L2 speaking teachers of Chinese in its schools. Two differences that I think exist between the UK and Australian scenes are, firstly, the greater number of teachers of Chinese in the UK who are not Mainlanders, and indeed, may not even be L1 speakers of Putonghua; and, secondly, I suspect, a lack of the regional immediacy of China and Chinese people and language that we have in Australia.

Thank-you Dr. Orton