Which was the most polluted: modern day Chinese cities or the European cities during the industrial revolution?

A comparison of the Gread Smog of London in 1952 versus Beijing's smog circa 2015
A comparison of the Great Smog of London in 1952 versus Beijing’s smog circa 2015. Image source: 西安伦敦雾霾对比照_网易新闻.

When you look at these photos you might think that the pollution in China is worse or equal to the pollution of London in the 1950’s, but you would be mistaken. There is a gulf of difference between these photos that is not apparent without background knowledge.

I live in China, so I see the pollution here first hand. I came from the UK and my parents and grandparents told me about the pollution in London and other cities in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. The pollution in London at that time was terrible.

My grandfather told me stories of getting lost on his way home from work. The pollution was so heavy he couldn’t see the other side of the road. He couldn’t see the street signs on the poles telling him where to go. He couldn’t see any people. He told stories of crossing the road and getting distracted part of the way across and not being able to tell which way he had come and which way he should continue.

In contrast, the China pollution is nowhere near that bad. It is news largely because we now have measures of the pollution and because the green people have our attention on the global warming and dead forests. However, the health issues are rather overstated.

The pollution in Beijing might irritate your eyes or agitated your asthma but it is nowhere near the level that London hand in 1952.

Look, if you will, at the Great Smog article on Wikipedia. I can back this up with reports I have read in newspapers, magazines and on the BBC TV and radio.

In London in 1952 was the Great Smog disaster. This was not the first such disaster and it wasn’t the last but it was by far the worst there has ever been.

It occurred in early December in 1952 and lasted for about 4 or 5 days. In that time, it is estimated that between 4,000 and 12,000 people died and 100,000 became ill due to the smog. Look at those numbers again. In London in 1952, thousands of people died due to air pollution in just a few days. Many tens of thousands became ill. It was a dreadful disaster.

The pollution in China is nowhere near the level reported from London. It is high, and China could and should do better but let’s have a little perspective here.

If we may return to the photograph that I started with. The difference between the two is that the Xi’an picture is taken at the worst of the pollution when the smog is densest. Whereas, the London picture was not taken at the peak level of pollution. The photographer has waited for the smog to clear enough to take a picture with some vague detail. Based on my grandfather and fathers reports, had the picture been taken at the height of the smog, it would just have been plain white with nothing visible at all.

What books would you recommend to an ESL teacher to help teach adult students grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation rules?

For adult beginners and intermediate level students, I use Interchange by Jack C. Richards, published by Cambridge. This course starts with the very basics of grammar and vocabulary and steadily builds. It covers all aspects of language—grammar, vocabulary, reading, writing, listening and speaking.

At university, I use Inside Out, various authors, published by MacMillan. This course is a lot more challenging than the Interchange course, it has significantly harder reading exercises and more challenging grammar and vocabulary. Like Interchange, Inside Out is a complete course covering all aspects of language acquisition.

How long can you teach English overseas?

How long can you teach English overseas? As long as you want to. I’ve been teaching in China for eleven years now. I have no plans to stop anytime soon.

Most jobs teaching English overseas don’t pay very well. Also, the jobs are usually one-year contracts with no guarantees of staying in one place very long. It is enough for a young person living on their own to have some fun, but not enough for a wife and family.

I have been lucky in finding higher paid, reliable, work, that allows me and my family to live in sufficient comfort.

Is English language a required subject in Chinese schools?

English is compulsory for all school students in China. Many will start learning English at kindergarten. By grade 3 or primary school, everyone will be taking English lessons. The high school entrance exams (Zhongkou), high school graduation exams, and university entrance exams (Gaokou) all include English as a major section of the marks. All university majors will do an English exam such as the TEM or CET exams. Many professional examinations, taken in working life, also have an English language component.

So why are there so many examples of Chinglish on signs and menus?

I think the biggest reason is, “I don’t care.” The person making the sign doesn’t really put any effort into trying to be correct. They just put the text into a dictionary or online translator and copy paste the gibbering that results.

Another reason is simply misreading. Someone composes the text correctly but the person printing the sign doesn’t know any English. They then copy it incorrectly.

English is compulsory but hasn’t been so historically. Just twenty years ago, the education system effectively didn’t teach English and so many middle aged people don’t know the language at all.

The Chinese concept of face and loosing face prevents people from asking for help. People often over estimate their abilities.

In the sentence: it’s peaceful out here, what does “out” mean?

Joey and Chandler, from the TV show Friends, Sit in a wooden canoe in their livingroom

Chandler and Joey are in a canoe, pretending to be on a lake or river far away from the city. The word “out” is added to the sentence to emphasis the pretense that they are outside – when in fact they are clearly inside. It also references the idea of “the great outdoors” which is an idiom for being far away from civilisation in a remote location.

Should I use ‘assured’ or ‘insured’ in the sentence, “your maximum privacy will be _______”?

I would say assured in this case. When you assure something, you confirm that it is going to happen. Assuring someone’s privacy is a guarantee of privacy

The word insure means to take out a policy against losses with an underwriter. That is not the meaning that you want here. I think perhaps you have confused insure with ensure.

When you ensure something, you guarantee to make it happen. The difference in pronunciation is subtle but significant. Ensuring someone’s privacy is taking action to make something private.

Take this sentence for example:

“Our system uses secure password management to ensure that your privacy is assured at all times. However, just in case, you should be insured for any loss of data by taking out a Public Liability Policy before using our service.”

How can I quickly assess an English language school as a place worth working in?

Ask to view the course materials, lesson plans and schedules. A good school with good management will have everything planned out and in order, but a bad school will not or will be expecting you, the teacher, to provide everything. This also has the benefit, in your job interview, of making you appear to be a diligent teacher, interested in your work.


What is the difference between, “what does it taste like?” and “How does it taste?”


The two sentences require different answers.

What does it taste like?

It tastes like strawberries.

The question requires the answer to include a description of the taste.

How does it taste?

It tastes good.

It tastes bad.

It is OK.

This time the question only requires the answer to grade the taste


Why do Chinese, when writing in English, include Chinese parentheticals in their text?

I suspect this is a form of code switching. When people are talking in their second language, and hit upon a concept that leaves them lost for words, they drop back on their first language to vocabulary to fill in the gap.

For example, I was having a conversation with a Bulgarian about his diet and he said, “I like to eat this thing with grilled meat on a stick, kebob, its a long stick with meat on it. I would eat kebob very often.”

This Bulgarian didn't know the English word for this food was kebab, so he drops into his native language and accent for that word.

Of course, for this Bulgarian , he was speaking not writing. Had he been writing, he would have used the Latin script to write kebob. Bulgarian has its own script but transliterating from Bulgarian script to Latin script is relatively simple.

Also note that once the first language word has been introduced into the conversation, the speaker will continue to use it liberally, without further definition, assuming the audience has learned that word.

Now imagine the same conversation but with a Chinese speaker: “I like to eat this thing with grilled meat on a stick, yang rou chan, its a long stick with meat on it. I would eat yang rou chan very often.”

In this case, I’ve used pinyin to transliterate the Chinese words, however, pinyin isn't intuitive to many Chinese writers. They can write in Latin script for writing English, but when thinking in Chinese, their native Chinese script dominates for writing. They might give you the pinyin as an afterthought, or they might not.

To their mind, the pinyin isn't the word, they have to use their native script to convey their native language. So you might get something like: “I like to eat this thing with grilled meat on a stick, yang rou chan (羊肉串), its a long stick with meat on it. I would eat 羊肉串 very often.”

How much does it cost parents and students to go to English language schools in China?

The cost of English language schools in China varies massively. There are big differences between cities and regions. There are also big differences in the quality of tuition provided by various establishments. Thus different costs and benefits. I shall answer based on my city which is a middle-sized city in Liaoning.

How much does it cost an hour?

This could be anything from 10 RMB per hour up to 2000 RMB per hour. For the lower end, you are going to be in a class with 50 other kids in a small dirty classroom with no air conditioning. For about 80 RMB you will have a pleasant school with modern furnishings, and experienced Chinese teacher and access to a foreign teacher. For 120 RMB, you’ll be in XDF or some other name brand school. If you go up to 200 RMB, you can have private tuition with a foreign teacher. The Chinese university entrance exams are known as the Gaokao. This is a very important exam and much of a child's education focuses on passing this one exam. Some well renowned Chinese teachers have a track record of getting students to pass the Gaokao exams. These teachers might command 1000 to 2000 RMB per hour of class time in a one to one setting.

Does it depend on the age/grade of the student?

The cost of English classes doesn't change much with the student’s age. There are, however, two groups do incur higher costs:

  • kindergarten students wanting a foreign teacher because the foreigners don’t like this job so much
  • high school students doing their Gaokao, because their parents get desperate/panicked and start throwing money at the problem

What is the cost difference between a Chinese teacher who teaches English vs a native/foreign teacher?

The Chinese teacher will be paid based on experience and track record. Some can command very high salaries, others cannot. Foreign teachers are generally paid a going rate irrespective of how long they have been teaching. They are more likely to be taken advantage of and underpaid by the school they work for.  Yet, just because the school underpays the foreign teacher, that doesn't mean they pass on that saving to the student or parent. The student might, in fact, pay more for the foreign teachers class and the school pockets the big profit.

How about private 1-on-1 lessons vs in a classroom setting?

If you can afford it, these are great. Either one to one or perhaps in a very small group of two or three students with a teacher. The teacher can customise your learning experience and make everything so much more enjoyable and effective for you. The lesson can also take place in the comfort of your own home, saving you commuting time. Smaller class sizes are definitely worth the cost.

Do you feel that the (extra) lessons are worth it?

English can be very poorly taught in some state-run schools. The quality of the education can vary substantially. I’ve worked in some state-owned schools where nobody could actually speak English. Not even the English teacher could speak English! They could only read and write. So in some cases, where the mainstream education is lacking, outside tuition is essential.

The Zhongkao, Gaokao and university exams still require English. The proportion of the grade that comes from English is less than that from Maths or Chinese. However, it is still higher than that from other subjects such as chemistry or history. The exams award a significant number of points for English skills. If you don’t expand your English skills, then you need to replace those points in some other subject.

Lessons with foreign teachers are only available, in my city, via private schools or the universities. A foreign teacher’s class is very important to learn spoken English, which you would need if you plan to study abroad or do an English major at university. If you don’t take these extra lessons, you won’t learn spoken English.

How can I think in English, not my native language?

To speak English fluently, first, forget about the speaking part and just think in English. Get your internal voice talking in English. Laziness isn’t the issue. To do this doesn’t take hard work. It just takes repeated work. You can do it lazily and still get the same result. Actually, I’d recommend doing it lazily. When you are not busy, when you are not stressed, just think in English. The various parts of your brain are connected by neural pathways. As we do certain actions or think certain thoughts, electrical impulses travel along these pathways. The bigger pathways conduct the impulses faster and easier than the narrow pathways. When we learn something new, our brain actually builds new pathways between the various sections. We practice doing something, the pathways get larger and stronger. Repeating something often makes the brain faster at repeating that task in the future.

Two paths across a field. The left hand path is overgrown and bumpy, the right hand path is smooth and clear.

You can think of the pathways in your brain like the paths in the picture above. The right-hand path leads to your first language centre. The left-hand path leads to the second language centre. To improve your second language, you just need to walk on that path more often. As you do so, it will get wider and smoother, until both left and right paths look the same. However, I said walk, I didn’t say run. This isn’t hard exercise. Just wandering aimlessly and casually up and down the less worn path will build it up. There is no need to make it hard work.