Tuesday, July 12, 2011


With the window open in my apartment yesterday, I could hear the English lesson going on at the nearby school. The method of delivery—that is, what passes for teaching—was listen, repeat. The class was doing colors. "Purple." "Purple." "Pinka." "Pinka." After five or six times of this repetition, frustrated, I yelled out my window, "Pink! Pink!"

There are certain things that almost all my students get wrong all the time: /th/, many words with final consonants (as above), /v/, etc. As I've learned Chinese, I've come to understand that many errors come from directly translating from Chinese to English. A good example of this is the sentence He asked a long day off, which of course should be He asked for several days off. In Chinese, there's no word for "for" before the word for "day off." I don't know enough yet as to why there exists in Chinese "a long day."

So there are large-scale errors being taught and reinforced. Worse, students come to my class and don't believe me when I point out their errors. I am, after all, not their main teacher but only their once-a-week teacher, their in-addition-to-regular-school teacher. "But our teacher said it was this," they invariably say. I don't know how to say this, but your teacher was wrong. "Maybe you don't know. My teacher studied English for many years." That may be, but he also studied the same thing you've been studying, and it's wrong.

It's not just the words that are wrong but also the ideas behind them. In some classes, for example, I constantly have to battle with the Eastern teachers about the use of Chinese. Once the students are at a certain level, they don't need any Chinese in the classroom. I myself wasn't convinced of this for a long time, but this semester I've been teaching three classes—one a group of ten-year-olds, the other two groups of eight-year-olds—entirely without Chinese. Of course, Sunny, the best teacher in our school, is my coteacher in those classes, and she has incredible ways of seeing what the students don't understand and addressing those things, all without the use of their first language. She and I have taught the simple past without using any Chinese. Sure, the lesson takes longer, and you have to find things that are familiar to the students so that you can guide them through the use of this new tense, but it can be done. In a higher-level class, with a different Eastern teacher, I explain the new vocabulary; ask the students a question to test whether they understand; they respond with a satisfactory answer; and then, without prompt, the Eastern teacher tells them the Chinese. "I wanted to make sure they know the exact meaning." This pervasive idea that languages have a one-to-one correlation, that you can understand something only if you can understand it in both languages. As I've written before, if you can point to a concrete object and say what it is in your second language, you don't have to say what it is in your first.

Last night a fellow teacher and I talked about our job here. He came to the conclusion that you can teach our students the truth, and you can teach them how to learn, but he questioned how much that would actually help our students. You can teach them how the English works, but if the test is looking for the wrong answer, how much are you helping them? So you have to be extra aware of the mistakes they make and why they make them, and you have to be careful to tell them how to answer a test, even if it's complete bullshit. I still make it a point to call out bullshit. I'm not sure whether it bothers me when students think I don't know what I'm talking about. That's a whole different thing. However, it bothers me whenever their teachers' information is taken as sacrosanct. You have a large body of people making the same mistakes but stubbornly refusing to see that there's anything wrong. That's unacceptable.

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