Meaningful Language Exchange

By Kelly Diep
0 CommentsPrint E-mail, April 15, 2011
Adjust font size:

As migrants, the students had come from all over China with parents who hoped to provide their children with more opportunities in Beijing. Some had come by themselves in search of better job prospects. Unlike many of the students that my friends have taught in the past, whose parents could afford private lessons and expensive tutors, these students had been thrown into a flawed education system. They were behind many of their peers and had never had much interaction with foreigners. Despite this disadvantage, I sensed a strong desire to learn. Knowing their more complicated backgrounds, I realized how much they could share with me if I just asked. And so I did, but in English.

Reflecting on my three and a half years of learning Chinese in college and my interactions with locals here in Beijing, I noticed a clear pattern. My fluency always peaked whenever I was prompted to discuss more personal details of my life. While I am not always very keen on disclosing intimate aspects of my life, I must admit that it is an effective teaching tool. My best Chinese teachers know more about my life than some of my closest friends. They took the time to get to know me and gain my trust. Shattering that uncomfortable language barrier is vital to overcoming embarrassment when learning a language.

For my final question, I asked the class, "Who do you most admire?" After giving them several minutes to think, I asked the students for their answers. The one-sentence responses to the textbook questions we had started class with were replaced by an easy fluidity of self-reflection. Each student spoke for over three minutes and without hesitation, proudly told me about their parents and grandparents. It wasn't only the speaker that seemed to improve in fluency. All the students listened attentively, nodding in acknowledgment of the profound nature of each response. After each speaker, I would ask the next student to summarize, and all their answers were correct and on topic.

People dislike being wrong, but in learning a language, even the smartest individuals have a hard time achieving fluency. Textbooks are certainly needed to build vocabulary and establish the foundation for learning a language, but they are in no way sufficient for true progress. Just as we are challenged in life to confide in others and reveal less than pleasant details of our lives, we should also be challenged in learning a language to close the books and confront the more difficult questions.

The author is an American working for an NGO in Beijing.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of


   Previous   1   2  

Print E-mail Bookmark and Share

Go to Forum >>0 Comments

No comments.

Add your comments...

  • User Name Required
  • Your Comment
  • Racist, abusive and off-topic comments may be removed by the moderator.
Send your storiesGet more from