Tag: teaching


02

Dec 2016

Back from ACTFL (2016)

I’ve been back from ACTFL for a while, but immediately upon returning I discovered that a bunch of my websites (all hosted on the same shared server) had been infested with malware. So I had that to deal with, in addition to a mountain of other pre-Christmas things.

The server was likely infected because an old WordPress install (that should have been deleted) was exploited. The best fix was a clean wipe: change passwords, export WordPress content via mySQL database dump, re-install WordPress, and re-import each website’s content. Fortunately, my web hosting service, WebFaction, was really helpful. They detected and alerted me of the malware in the first place, and provided useful guidance helping me clean it up. WebFaction is not the best service for anyone relatively clueless about tech, but if you can handle SSH and, like me, don’t mind Googling Linux commands occasionally to get stuff done, it’s really excellent.

But back to ACTFL… It was great to talk to the teachers I met there, and although I was there representing Mandarin Companion this time, I also met teachers familiar with Sinosplice, AllSet Learning, and ChinesePod. It was invaluable to get this rare face-to-face teacher feedback.

Here are my observations from the conference:

  • I was last at ACTFL in 2008, when almost all Chinese teachers in attendance were university instructors, with a sprinkling of teachers from cutting-edge high schools. Now there are plenty of high schools, middle schools, and even primary schools represented. So one unexpected piece of positive feedback was that even middle schools can use Mandarin Companion’s graded readers, and the kids like them.
  • In 2008, pretty much all Chinese teachers in attendance were ethnically Chinese. The only exception I can remember was my own Chinese teacher from undergrad at UF, Elinore Fresh (who was a bit of an anomaly, having grown up in mainland China). But now many of those non-Chinese kids that studied Chinese in college and got pretty good at it have become Chinese teachers themselves, and are also attending ACTFL. I’ve always been a proponent of the learner perspective in language pedagogy, so this is a fantastic trend to see. Chinese and non-Chinese teachers can accomplish so much more by collaborating.
  • There’s a strong TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) faction at ACTFL, the lead proponent for its application to Chinese pedagogy being Dr. Terry Waltz. I got a chance to talk to her about her methods, as well as other practitioners such as Diane Neubauer, who contributes to a great blog dedicated to TPRS for Chinese called Ignite Chinese. It’s very encouraging to see classroom innovation in this space, and I am researching TPRS more.
  • Boston is a pretty cool city. I regret that I didn’t have the time to check it out properly.

When I attended ACTFL in 2008, I met the guys behind Skritter, which went on to become a world-class service. I didn’t make any similar discoveries this time, but there’s no substitute for direct communication with all the teachers back in the USA working hard to prepare the next generation of kids for a world that needs Chinese language skills more than ever. I expect to be attending ACTFL pretty regularly in the coming years.

Now for some photos!

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What I wish my Chinese teacher knew

14

Jul 2016

What I wish my Chinese teacher knew

One of the things we do at AllSet Learning in Shanghai is to continually train our teachers. Of course it’s not that our teachers have no training; in fact, many of them have masters degrees and many years of teaching experience. The issue is that many of the academic degrees and classroom teaching experience attained in China draw on an outdated teaching tradition, largely a variation of how the Chinese educational system teaches Chinese children.

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Add to that the fact that our service is based on deep personalization for individual learners, each with her own goals, needs, interests, and quirks, and you pretty much have an endless bounty of teaching issues to discuss and improve upon.

As a result, we’ve been sharing some of our ideals, methods, and tips with our teachers in Chinese on WeChat. Then we also post a lot of the same material to our own blog. Some articles come from old Sinosplice posts (like this one), sharing the foreign learner perspective with Chinese teachers (like this one), while others share more specific teaching tips. (We have a number of articles of this type which haven’t yet been ported from WeChat.)

The point of this post is to ask the question: What do you wish your Chinese teacher knew? I’d be happy to make it into a topic that we address in Chinese in a constructive way, and share online.

Obviously, we’re not talking about politics or cultural differences. It’s issues like:

  1. I know my tones suck; why won’t you correct me more?
  2. I really don’t think I need to be able to hand-write 2000 characters…
  3. If you’re my Chinese teacher, why do you ask me to call you “Sunny” instead of something Chinese?
  4. This textbook doesn’t even have the word for “cell phone” in it… why can’t we update?

Please share your ideas in the comments, or on Facebook, or whatever. All constructive feedback welcome! This is about working to improve the situation, not simply whining.


15

Oct 2014

Chinese Teachers: Use Your Chinese Names!

Chinese teachers, please have your students call you by a Chinese name. You’re not helping them by calling yourself some easier-to-pronounce English name. I would have thought that this was obvious, but after all these years in the business, I can now see that it is not obvious to many otherwise well-meaning teachers. So I’ll spell it out here. (Please forward this to your Chinese teacher who doesn’t ask you to use a Chinese name in your interactions.)

So why should students of Chinese call their Chinese teachers of Chinese by a Chinese name? I’m glad you asked…

Using your actual Chinese name shows respect for the culture

My dad is one of those people that enjoys befriending recent immigrants in the United States. He likes to find out where they’re from, why they came to the U.S., etc. One of the things he always asks “Bob from Iran” or “Alice from China” or whoever is, “what’s your real name?” He does this not only out of curiosity, but also to show a genuine respect for their culture and interest in their identity. Most of the time immigrants are thankful for this gesture (even if he can’t always accurately reproduce the sounds that make up their names).

As a teacher, you get to decide how your students address you. But in Chinese culture, it’s a non-question; teachers are simply called “[Surname] Laoshi” by their students. As a teacher of Chinese, why would you not use this opportunity to start teaching your students about Chinese culture in an easy, practical way? Get the cultural respect going from lesson one. Students will be totally on board.

Using Chinese names is good practice

One of the main arguments for NOT using real Chinese names is that “my Chinese surname is too hard for foreigners.” OK, maybe your surname is hard for most foreigners, but your students have decided to learn Chinese. They probably already know it’s not easy. Even if your surname is particularly difficult to pronounce, it’s probably only one syllable. And it’s one syllable your students are going to be able to repeat over and over every lesson, and they’re eventually going to start getting it right.

So don’t baby them. Let them struggle a little bit. It doesn’t matter if your surname is “Xu” or “Zhu” or “Jiang” or “Zhang” or “Yu.” They’ll get it eventually.

Chinese Teachers: Please Use Chinese Names!

It’s a vote of confidence

So it’s a pretty safe bet that your students will not be pronouncing “Xu” correctly on day 1, and that’s OK. But when you tell them, “You don’t need to try to say ‘Xu.’ Just call me Vivian,” you’re casting a vote of no-confidence in their ability to learn correct pronunciation. That’s a terrible thing for a teacher to do.

Not only are you saying, “you can’t learn this,” but you’re also saying, “you can’t learn this, and I won’t even be able to teach you.” So it’s also a vote of no-confidence in yourself as a teacher!

Cast a vote of confidence in your students by telling them, “my name is a little tricky to pronounce, but don’t worry; you’ll get it eventually. Just keep trying.”

Have confidence in them from the first lesson, and they will keep trying. They need you to believe that they can learn to correctly pronounce your name.

Chinese names are hard to remember

This is totally true. Chinese names are hard for foreigners to remember. But you know what doesn’t help? Enabling learners to never even try to remember, and always copping out by using English names. That’s just lazy.

Chinese names are hard to remember in the beginning. But learners get better at it by learning more real Chinese names, and the process starts with you, the Chinese teacher. With each new Chinese person the learner meets, he learns a real Chinese name, and one by one, the names start to seem less insane. They become manageable.

Start your students down this road.

But what about Hong Kong?

One thing I’ve heard over the years is, “but in Hong Kong, Chinese people often use English names. It’s also a Chinese thing.” OK, yes, that’s true. But as a learner, I really don’t need help learning names like “Jacky” and “Coco.” What I need is more practice with the less familiar names… the ones starting with “Zhang” and “Wang” and “Hu.”

So Hong Kong-style English names are easy freebies that we sometimes get, but they’re certainly not the norm for everyone in mainland China, and they’re not an excuse to avoid Chinese names altogether.

Don’t be absurd

Lastly, let me leave you a counter-example. Imagine a blond-haired blue-eyed foreigner living in China and working as an English teacher. We’ll call him “Carl.” He teaches English, but he also knows Chinese, and uses it a little bit with beginners.

But here’s the thing: Carl has chosen “Zhang” () as his Chinese surname, and in his English classes he has all of his students call him Zhang Laoshi (张老师). It’s because “Carl” is hard to pronounce, and he just finds it easier.

Is that not absurd? Would the Chinese students not find this odd? Does it help the students to call Carl “Zhang Laoshi” in English class?

Chinese teachers, please have your students call you by a Chinese name. They’ll thank you later.

中文翻译:中文老师:请用你的中文名!


See also:

Sinosplice Guide to Chinese Pronunciation
AllSet Learning Pronunciation Packs


22

Mar 2013

Classroom Culture Clash

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photo by LeeTobey

A friend in Beijing recently reported an exchange with his Chinese tutor to me that went something like this (embellished by my own imagination and translated into English):

> Friend: So today I’d like to talk about the air quality in Beijing.

> Tutor: I really don’t want to talk about that. You foreigners come to China, and all you want to talk about is how bad the air is, or how the food is unsafe. There’s really a lot more we could talk about. China is an immense country with a long history and rich culture. We don’t even have to talk about China. There’s so much more we could talk about than just complaining about the air quality here.

> Friend: I’m hiring you to help me improve my Chinese, and I want to talk about Beijing’s terrible air quality. So that’s what we’re talking about today.

> Tutor:

Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t the greatest tutoring session. But just that little piece of dialog recounted by my friend contained quite a few layers of cultural expectations. (A thoroughly enjoyable exchange, from my perspective!)


20

Nov 2012

CIEE Conference: Tech and Chinese

Over the weekend I joined the CIEE Conference in Shanghai. It struck me as a mini-ACTFL (but in town!), focused on study abroad. I was part of a panel discussion on “Effective Use of the New Digital Chinese Language Technology,” chaired by David Moser and also joined by Brendan O’Kane.

To sum up our initial points (and apologies if I get any of these wrong), what we said was:

David Moser: Chinese used to be a huge pain because looking up words was so difficult, but now, thanks to technology a lot of the pain is gone
Me: Technology is not inherently useful, but there is now great potential for a new, student-led way of learning enabled by technology
Brendan O’Kane: both the level of students entering Chinese translation classes and the quality of Chinese reference materials are going up, but there are still some fundamental reading/parsing issues that need special attention

After we made our points, the discussion turned to a bunch of learning resource name-dropping, including FluentU, Shooter, and the Chinese Grammar Wiki.

Fielding questions from teachers and program directors, some of the issues that struck me were:

1. It’s not at all clear what resources are most useful to teachers (even ones like Pleco that have been around for quite a while and have a good name in the space) and which ones they can use
2. Even if teachers are willing to use new tools to find interesting, up-to-date material for their students, they don’t feel well-equipped to do so in anything resembling a systematic manner
3. What technology is here to stay, and what is just a passing fad? It’s hard to say. I don’t blame some of the teachers for wanting to just wait until the dust settles.

There are so many opportunities for innovation in this space right now…


12

May 2010

The Challenges Chinese Teachers Face in the USA

The worldwide boom in Chinese study has resulted in a greater demand for Chinese teachers. China is the natural supply, and thus the Chinese government is working hard to train teachers and send them abroad to teach. I’ve heard from numerous sources (including people in the Hanban, an organization which oversees the governments efforts at teaching the world Chinese) that schools are often disappointed with the Chinese teachers sent to them. American schools feel that while the teachers may know about the Chinese language, they are much too traditional in their teaching styles. They just don’t connect with American students very well.

It was interesting, then, to get the other side of the story. ChinaGeeks recently wrote about Teaching Chinese (and China) in the United States, and linked to a great New York Times article: Guest-Teaching Chinese, and Learning America. C. Custer makes some great observations, and his article is well worth a read.

Reading the NYTimes article, Ms. Zheng’s disappointment and frustration is palpable. Clearly, culture is a huge issue; the challenges faced cannot be explained away by outdated teaching methodologies.

> Still, Ms. Zheng said she believed that teachers got little respect in America.

> “This country doesn’t value teachers, and that upsets me,” she said. “Teachers don’t earn much, and this country worships making money. In China, teachers don’t earn a lot either, but it’s a very honorable career.”

And yes, there are also a few ironies in this article that anyone familiar with China will appreciate.


29

Dec 2008

Recasting in Language Learning

If you’re a language teacher, you’re probably quite familiar with the concept of recasting, even if you don’t know the name. And if you’re a language learner, being aware of recasting can help you learn faster. So what is recasting?

Fukuya and Zhang define a recast as “implicit corrective feedback.” Another definition of “recast” given by Han Ye in a presentation at the ACTFL 2008 conference was “a native speaker’s corrective reformulation of a student’s utterance.”

It’s not very complicated in practice. Here’s a simple example:

> Student: I want read.

> Teacher: Oh, you want to read?

In the above example, the English teacher communicates with the student (using a question to confirm what the student had said), while at the same time making a correction (adding “to”). The teacher may or may not choose to emphasize the correction.

Here’s a slightly more subtle example:

> Student: I want read.

> Teacher: What do you want to read?

In this example, while you could identify a correction in the teacher’s question, the focus is more on communication and less on correcting the mistake.

Recasts don’t have to be questions, and they can be focused on pronunciation, on grammar, on vocabulary… but they always carry with them some degree of ambiguity, because recasts are not overt corrections, and some degree of repetition is a natural part of normal speech. Will the student pick up on the correction, or will the conversation just keep moving along? (Does it even matter what the student consciously notices his mistakes?)

I believe that much of my own success in acquiring Chinese has been due to (1) getting lots of practice with native speakers, and (2) being receptive to recasts.

Here’s a typical example of an exchange that might occur (in Chinese), with a string of letters representing the focal language point:

> Learner: Abcde.

> Native speaker: What?

> Learner: Abcde.

> Native speaker: Ohhh… AbcDe!

> Learner: Yes, Abcde.

The native speaker’s second utterance above was a recast, but as we see in the last line of the exchange, the learner didn’t get it. Yes, the recast was almost imperceptibly different from what the learner said originally, but recasts tend to be that way (from the learner’s perspective)… especially when they involve tones. As a learner, when you become more sensitive to recasts, you’ll hear them all the time.

Think about it… some people will pay big bucks to a teacher in order to obtain explicit corrective feedback. In actuality, though, if that person is in a second language environment, he is probably getting corrective feedback all the time in the form of recasts and not even knowing it. Recasts are great because they don’t impede the flow of information and they’re usually not an embarrassing form of correction. They’re also great because you don’t get them if you don’t get out there and talk to native speakers. They’re a positive side effect of speaking practice. As a learner, recasts are your friend.


At ACTFL 2008, Han Ye of the University of Florida presented the findings of an experiment on tonal recasting. The experiment sought to compare the effect of recasts on Chinese heritage learners with the effect of recasts on non-heritage learners. The recasts were all for tone-related errors.

Interestingly, the study found that the uptake rate for non-heritage learners was 51%, but only 28% for heritage learners.

I found this interesting for a number of reasons. The Chinese heritage learners were likely much more confident in their ability to communicate, and probably less self-conscious about their Chinese. The non-heritage learners are more receptive to feedback, but do they communicate as well?

It is likely that the role of recasts is most important in the early stages of learning a language. Our own parents used recasting on us plenty when we were children still learning our mother tongues, but eventually, either they stop doing it or we stop paying attention.

There are a lot of factors at play here, not the least of which are individual learning styles and learner personality. Recasting research continues.

I’m just one of those people that likes to pay attention to recasts.


14

Dec 2008

Black English and Chinese

I was helping a Chinese friend with her English, and was very interested to read the following dialogue in her book. (I have preserved the grammar and punctuation of the original, but I didn’t feel like writing “[sic]” everywhere.)

The dialogue:

> A: Your English is not like American English.

> B: Oh, I see. What I speak is true American English, but it is not standard American English.

> A: What kind of English is it?

> B: It is Black English.

> A: What is Black English?

> B: Black English is as perfect as Standard American English, and in sounds it is equally distinctive.

> A: Can you tell me the difference between Black English and Standard American English?

> B: Black English is similar to Chinese in a way.

> A: Is it like Chinese?

> B: Yes. For example, a Chinese said, “我有5分钱”, there is no -s behind “钱”; an English or an American said, “I have five cents.” After “cent” there is -s; the Black English is “I have five cent”, no -s after “cent”. Another example, a Chinese said, “花红”, an American said, “the flower is red”, but the Black English is “The flower red”.

> A: Oh, I see.

The textbook is called 衣食住行生活英语900句. If I remember correctly, this was Dialogue 1 of five in a chapter called “Learning a Language.”

What a bizarre topic to cover in a book supposedly focused on “useful English.” You only have so much content you can cover in the book, and only a small fraction of that is devoted to talking about language, but you kick off the chapter with a discussion of (morpho-)syntactic similarities between AAVE and Mandarin Chinese??

I’m well beyond being outraged about inferior English textbooks, though. In this case, I have to admit that it’s kind of cool from a cultural standpoint. I’d imagine that the average Chinese person is seldom exposed to such egalitarian linguistic concepts.


04

Dec 2008

English Essay Templates

You’ve probably heard that tests are a big deal in China, and thus test prep is big business. This applies even to such “un-gameable” forms of tests as free response essay questions. But how do you game the free response portion of an English test?

Well, you memorize a number of essay templates, then just fit your essay answer into one of the templates. All you have to do is plug in a few relevant words and phrases, and with any luck, they’ll all be included in the essay topic.

Curious what these templates might look like? I give you two examples below, taken from an MBA prep course in Shanghai (mistakes preserved):

> Essay Template 1: 优缺点类

> At present, there is no doubt that 主题 plays an increasingly indispensable role in 领域/运用范围. We are all aware that, like everything else, 主题 has both favorable and unfavorable aspects. Generally speaking, the advantages can be listed as follows. First of all, (优点1)… makes people’s everyday life more convenient. In addition, (优点2)… connects its users with the outside world. Most importantly, with a…, (优点3) people’s life will be greatly enriched.

> Nevertheless, it is a pity that every medal has two sides and the disadvantages of 主题 can’t be ignored. To begin with, there will be a danger of (缺点1) spending too much time on it therefore ignoring what you should concentrate on. To make matters worse, (缺点2)主题 is most likely to add to your daily expenses. Worst of all, (缺点3)主题 may plunge you into an unexpected trouble.

> As is known to all, 主题 is neither good nor bad itself. Its effects on people depends, to a large extent, on how 主题 is used. Now that the disadvantages have been put out, they will be paid attention to and eliminated to some degree.

> Essay Template 2: 意义影响类

> We are very glad and excited that our dream of 主题 will come true/ have come true after a long waiting. People throughout the country have been celebrating the coming of 主题 in various ways and they are eager to participate in or experience in … person.

> There is no doubt that 主题 will benefit China and Chinese people in more than one aspect. First of all, 主题 will expose China and Chinese to more domestic and foreign visitors, thus promoting the mutual understanding and friendship between people from different regions and cultures. More importantly, by interacting with people from different regions and cultures, people can learn from each other. Finally, 主题 will undoubtedly promote the development of the national and local economy.

> Now that 主题 is significant to our country and the people, everybody involved should make his effort to contribute something to 主题. With everyone’s involvement and participation, 主题 will be a great success and is bound to benefit the country and the people involved.

Somehow those “generic” topics don’t seem totally generic, do they? The templates above definitely used “topics with Chinese characteristics,” and they should certainly come to no surprise to anyone who’s lived in China in the past year.

Can you imagine grading hundreds of these essays that mostly use the same templates? That would drive me insane.

For those of you that find some morbid amusement in these essay templates like I do, here’s one site that hosts more of them online. There are some slight differences in wording between the ones I have in front of me and that site, but they clearly came from the same source.


30

Nov 2008

Back from ACTFL (2008)

I had a great time interacting with other teachers at ACTFL 2008. Yes, what we do at Praxis Language is quite different from what the teachers in the trenches do, but it’s important to connect with them, to hear about how the classroom is changing, how the students are changing, and maybe even about how we might converge in some areas.

I sat in on some particularly interesting talks on CFL (Chinese as a Foreign Language). Only half a year after I finished my own thesis, I felt I really needed to be reminded of the wide world of academic pursuits… some of the research was quite fascinating. I’m planning to revisit some of the topics here in my blog in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, I’d just like to draw my readers’ attention to a cool product I ran into at ACTFL: Skritter [China-friendly link]. It’s a really well-executed online system for practicing character writing, and it has built-in support for Integrated Chinese. Check it out.


07

Sep 2008

Denison Witmer for English

Some selected lyrics from Denison Witmer‘s song “Are you a Dreamer?“:

> Dream, are you a dreamer?

> Are you a dreamer?

> Do you dream?

> Sleep, are you a sleeper?

> Are you a sleeper?

> Do you sleep?

> […]

> Love, are you my lover?

> Are you my lover?

> Do you love me?

> Save, are you a savior?

> Are you a savior?

> Will you save?

As a linguist with experience teaching English, my reaction was, this song could be good material for teaching simple derivational morphology and question forms.

(Of course, on a personal level, my reaction was, I need to listen to some punk to balance out this Denison Witmer stuff…)


22

Jun 2008

My God

欧,MY GOD!

It’s Euro Cup time, and as soccer fans, the Chinese are loving it. This punny headline caught my eye: “,MY GOD!” is a character most often used to mean “Europe,” but it sounds like the English interjection “oh.” “Euro Cup” in Chinese is 欧洲杯.

This headline took me back to my English teaching days and an issue I faced frequently back then. It bothered me when my Chinese students said “oh my God” in English. It’s not an uncommon expression, and as a fair translation of the Chinese exclamation “(我的天哪!” its use came to them easily. So what was the problem?

Well, raised in a traditional Catholic family, I had been taught not to use God’s name in vain. There was a commandment expressly forbidding this linguistic behavior, and it wasn’t even #10, but #2, way ahead of more obvious sins like stealing and killing.

I learned pretty quickly that most people (Christian or not) didn’t adhere to this commandment. I always thought it was interesting… it was a habit that was pretty easy not to get into, but almost everyone did, ostensibly because it was defined as a sin by Judeo-Christian dogma. And then the people that didn’t openly violate the second commandment still used obvious substitutes, like “geez” and “gosh.” This kind of behavior struck me as very similar to adolescent rebellion (in both its strong and weak forms), but on a sociolinguistic scale. It was also interesting to me as an example of a chicken-egg cultural phenomenon.

So I had perspective on the whole “taking God’s name in vain” thing, and I had no real problem with other English-speakers’ “my God” exclamations. I never imposed my own beliefs on other people; I just didn’t use the expression myself.

With my Chinese students, however, it was different. These were students with no Judeo-Christian cultural background. They weren’t willfully violating a commandment of a foreign god; they were simply using the language they had learned in a textbook. I recognized this, but I felt they should be aware of the cultural implications. I never told them not to say “oh my God,” but I taught them what the Judeo-Christian second commandment taught, and pointed out that they would never hear me use that expression. They needed to know this, because while I was perhaps not representative of the average native English speaker, I was not a total anomaly. Some people are actually offended by the phrase “oh my God,” and I didn’t want my students to be completely confounded if it ever happened to them. More important, I wanted my students to appreciate this real-life example of culture’s grip on language which their education up to that point had never touched upon.

Unsurprisingly, some students took my point to heart as a significant cultural issue, while others brushed it off.

This “oh my God” issue led me to consider its parallel in Chinese: is saying 天哪 in Chinese a violation of the second commandment? I asked a devout Catholic Chinese friend about this. She gave me a pained look, revealing that I had just opened a can of worms with which she was well acquainted. My Chinese wasn’t good enough at the time to understand everything that she said, but the answer she gave me was something like, “maybe, sometimes.

Ah, there are times when questions of religion and language make one long for simpler pursuits… Like watching a soccer game.


25

Mar 2008

Ignored Contractions

contractions

No, not THAT kind of contractions…

One thing I’ve noticed about students of English in China is a tendency to ignore contractions. Chinese college students tend to be weak on spoken skills in general, and one of the symptoms is this failure to use contractions. We native speakers like to use contractions in informal speech, and as a student of English, failing to follow suit makes you stick out. When I taught English in Hangzhou, I used to focus on the use of contractions to get my students speaking more natural English.

Typically, the symptom goes something like this. Given this sentence:

> I’m a college student.

A typical Chinese college student will read this:

> I am a college student.

Given this sentence:

> He’s a very smart* boy.

A typical Chinese college student will read this:

> He is a very smart boy.

Obviously, these are not heinous mistakes, but it does make me wonder why for something so simple, the students don’t just read what’s written there.

Common sense tells me it’s just a habit. The teacher once told them, “I’m” means “I am” and “he’s” means “he is,” and it was just easier to convert it over, in pronunciation as well as in meaning. And the teacher didn’t care.

Still, a part of me wants to link it to characters somehow (you can’t contract 我是 or 他是**), or some “deeper” reason. I have to mentally smack that part of me… contractions are something of an ordeal for any learner of English; being Chinese has nothing to do with it.

If you’re teaching English, though, one easy way to help your students sound more native is to remind them to use contractions in their speech, or at the very least to get in the habit of pronouncing them correctly when reading them.

* Have any of the textbooks started to use the word “smart” instead of “clever?” They never did in my day, even when they claimed to be teaching “American English.”

** Although maybe some northern Chinese dialects kind of sound like they attempt this…


01

Sep 2006

Language Podcast Roundup

Hank from ChinesePod has written a Language Podcast Survey, presenting the biggest players in the world of language learning by podcast. ChinesePod is #1 in terms of total number of podcasts (300+), but JapanesePod101 is not far behind. There are also four other podcasts for learning Chinese in his list, as well as one for Tibetan!

If you’re interested in language learning, be sure to check it out.


21

May 2006

Volunteering to Teach in China

Do you know anyone who has “volunteered” in China? Volunteers are often good, selfless people, but I can’t help but see most volunteers in China as suckers. I’ve just seen a little too much about the way it usually works here.

There are tons of “programs” that, for a fee, help you find work teaching English in China. These programs make deals with schools–either directly or through intermediaries–to provide English teachers. They charge both the teachers and the schools as much as they can get away with, pay the teachers an extremely modest salary, and end up making a very nice little profit on the deal. If their teachers are volunteers, it’s just all the more profit for them.

Too often, the teachers are new to China and very naive. They realize their pay is very low, but they explain it with, “China is very poor.” After living in China for about a year, they often learn that the local director for their program drives a BMW, that other English teachers make about three times what they do for the same work, and that their students are no more disadvantaged than most kids in China.

Now obviously, the respectability of different programs will vary. I’m sure some of them have admirable goals. But if the organization uses any kind of local “middle man” to find its schools, some kind of funny business is almost a sure thing. The English teaching business attracts quite a few unscrupulous individuals.

I shouldn’t pretend to know too much about how these organizations work, but I do know enough to recommend this: if you’re looking into any kind of volunteering program in China, be very, very wary. The primary beneficiaries of your good heart and hard work might not be who you think.


24

Mar 2006

Field Tripping for Vengeance

Back in my first year or two of teaching at ZUCC, there were several instances where I showed up to the classroom all prepared to teach “Spoken English” (invariably they were early morning classes), only to be stood up by the entire class. No one came. Why? It was their 春游–their yearly “Spring Outing.” The “class monitor” (班长) had neglected to inform me.

What are these “Spring Outings?” They’re a very Chinese way of enjoying life’s splendid reemergence in nature. They’re an opportunity for students to bond and further develop comraderie. They’re a means for Chinese citizens to rediscover the natural beauty of their motherland. But most importantly, they are a “get out of class free” card.

You see, when a Spring Outing comes up, all you have to do is tell the teacher “we have a Spring Outing,” and class is automatically canceled, no questions asked. Matters of curriculum are petty in comparison to this wondrous rite of Spring.

Well, this year, I finally get my turn. The international center of East China Normal University has arranged a Spring Outing for its foreign students: a three-day trip to Wuyuan (婺源), Jiangxi Province. It only costs 50 rmb per student–bus fare, hotel, and basic food included! I leave today at 7am and get back late Sunday. It might be an overly touristy experience, but at least I’ll get some time to meet some more people. Plus I haven’t gone on a trip in a while, and I’m overdue. I’ll probably pick up some tea for my girlfriend’s parents (I hear they like that). Anyway, all that is only secondary, because this time I’m getting out of class and going on a Spring Outing as payback. This time I’m… field tripping for vengeance!


26

Feb 2006

Fonts on the IELTS

I’ve been helping a student prepare for the IELTS (雅思 in Chinese), and she recently brought an interesting point to my attention. In her book of practice tests (a quality book published by Oxford University Press), different fonts were used for different reading selections. For example, a selection about biology was written in Times New Roman, whereas an article about education was written in Arial, and a passage about blindness and visualization was written in Verdana. She wanted to know if the real test was going to be like that.

I was impressed by her observation, but I had no idea to respond. Does the IELTS use a standard font, or does it vary the font from passage to passage? I’ve done some preliminary research, but I’ve been having trouble finding an answer because when I use “font” as a search term, Google ever so helpfully includes font tags and CSS text in its search, rendering the search results useless.

I asked my student if she thought the choice of font affected her performance. She responded, “Yes, it does. Sorry, I’m sensitive.” Heh. It would probably affect anyone at least somewhat on the unconscious level, but her years of experience in the marketing industry brought it to her conscious attention.

So, I’d just like to know… does anyone know if the IELTS actually varies the fonts of the passages on the real test? If not, which font does it use? If so, why does a respectable publisher vary the font in the practice test?? I think it’s good practice to expose students to different fonts, but in a test prep book, I don’t think it’s justifiable unless the test itself uses various fonts.


09

Feb 2006

Inherent human worth

I am a grad student, and I’ve been doing part-time English tutoring and translation work to pay the bills. As a tutor, I sometimes have English sentences to correct. I recently got this sentence (more or less):

> It’s common for people to envy the people who are better than them.

During the lesson, I told my student that the sentence was grammatically correct and the vocab word “envy” was used correctly, but I couldn’t help but find it funny. It reminded me of the play insults my little sister and I used to sling at each other in high school, or that spunky hillbilly in the movie, picking a fight with the snooty aristocrat using the line, “you think yer better’n me??

I explained to my student that blatant statements of one human’s inherent superiority over another are either ridiculously elitist or racist in nature, and frowned upon (officially) by the West, where we (in name, at least) adhere to the concept that “all men are created equal.” My student didn’t really understand what I was getting at, so I explained it this way:

> Let me compare myself with Bill Gates. You may say he’s richer than me. Well, yes, he certainly is. You may say he’s more powerful, more successful, and harder-working than me. I can accept all that. But if you say Bill Gates is better than me, I have to disagree. As humans, we are equal.

To my surprise, she still took issue with my point. She was nice enough not to say I’m worthless compared to Bill Gates, but she still held that some people are just better than others. Eventually I understood what I think her point was, and that was something to the effect of value to society. I’m not sure if I was able to explain the difference between “value to society” and “inherent human worth.”

In the end, we adjusted her sentence thusly:

> It’s common for people to envy the people who are better off than them.

Sometimes you really can’t guess what will be difficult to explain.


21

Oct 2005

The M&M

While I used to live in Hangzhou, I made the observation that Chinese people seemed to have an unreasonable fear of germs. True, China is not always the most sanitary place on earth, and there’s no question that many Chinese germs live out a blissful existence where antibacterial disenfectants are restricted to germ horror stories. Still, I felt that the germ threat was overplayed in a lot of cases. I will offer but one example.

One time before class started, I was eating a little bag of M&M’s and casually eavesdropping on my students’ conversations. I overheard an exchange about germs, and it prompted me to ask my class the following question:

“What if I were to take one of these M&Ms and allow it to drop to the ground — a place that looks clean — and then pick up that same M&M, dust it off, and eat it? What would be the chance that I would then get sick from eating that M&M?”

My students gaped in shock at the mere suggestion. They required prodding to take the question seriously enough to actually answer it. What would be the probability, from 0% to 100%?

I started getting some answers. 80%, one said. 90%. Even 99%. One or two students ventured as low as 40% or so. I couldn’t believe it.

They laughed at me when I told them I thought the chance was less than 5%. I was really tempted to drop an M&M and eat it right there in front of them to prove my point, but that didn’t seem like a very teacherly thing to do. Plus, if I did, by chance, catch a cold (it was early winter), I would never live that down.

For a nation of people that believes in Chinese medicine’s power to boost the body’s natural defenses, I would think they would have a little more faith in the human immune system.

Or maybe they just knew way better than I what had been on that floor…


21

Sep 2005

The ZUCC Chronicle

Jamie’s recent post outlined his history with China. It was a history which crossed mine. The most significant common experience was had in a college in Hangzhou we call ZUCC. (If you’re American, you say Z-U-C-C, kind of like F-B-I. If you’re Aussie or kiwi, you say “Zook,” rhyming with it “book.” I have always wondered about that little cultural linguistic difference.)

In chronicling my three years at ZUCC, I aim to do three things:

  1. Create an easy reference for myself, since I’m very forgetful.
  2. Provide a reference for friends and family with regards to ZUCC friends.
  3. Provide an idea of what kind of salary you might expect. (Yes, I’m going to disclose how much I was paid for each semester I worked at ZUCC.)

(more…)



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