Meaningful Language Exchange

By Kelly Diep
0 CommentsPrint E-mail, April 15, 2011
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The closest I have come to teaching English is SAT classes in Shanghai and explaining a couple of English idioms to my language partner. For an American who has been to China five times, I've been able to evade the default job for a foreigner in China with surprising ease. Despite the generous compensation for an hour of English instruction, my friends' many stories of repetitive hours of "how are you" "I'm fine, how are you" and complaints of lackluster participation on the part of many students made the job seem less than appealing. However, last Thursday when I was asked to be a substitute volunteer for a class of migrant youths (ages 16-24), I admitted defeat and accepted the inevitable. Surprisingly, the three hours of instruction taught me an important lesson. No matter how well written a textbook or how avid a learner the student, fluency cannot be achieved without injecting that more personal connection which allows someone to reach beyond the bounds of sentence patterns and rote memorization.

I have to admit that I was foolishly overconfident about my ability to teach English. My hubris was reinforced by everyone's belief that I already had the most important asset- a native English accent. The topic of the first lesson was "introductions." The two other instructors and I set off on the first essential task- handing out English names. I tried my best to phonetically match each student's new English name with his/her Chinese name. I was relieved to have easier names to remember since Chinese names often sound the same and can therefore be even trickier to remember. Out of politeness, most students preferred to call me "Ye Laoshi," a title I was not entirely comfortable with because some of them were older than me.

It didn't take me long (about a half hour into the lesson) to realize that the book was quite useless. Some students didn't know the alphabet while others had been taking English for 12 years but had never had a native speaker to practice with. We decided to divide into three groups, and I was asked to take the advanced students. Many of them were quite shy at first. I tried to lighten the mood by reintroducing myself and drawing a hideous map of the US to show them where my family lived. After that, I decided to keep artwork to a minimum. We quickly went through the basics of introducing oneself to a foreigner. I could tell that they were politely hiding the fact that they already knew all of this. It wasn't until I began asking more personal questions that learning actually began.

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