Burning questions about teaching English in China #9: We are families!

Burning questions about teaching English in China #9: We are families!
Puzzler #9: Why do Chinese students think they have more than one family? Here’s another error I have seen fairly often — something like: I can’t wait to go home and see my families. While it is possible for someone to have more than one family — a person who was adopted, for example — usually each person has only one family. “Family” in English is a collective noun, which represents a collection of individual members. Your family consists of your parents, children, spouse, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. So, probably you are going home to see your family, just as I am right now. In the case of an adoptee or a foster child, he or she might have an adopted or foster family and a birth family. So, such a person could legitimately say they have two families, meaning two unrelated groups of family members. The rest of us make do with just one. Collective nouns can be considered plural or singular, grammatically speaking, which determines the verb form following the noun. As usual, English does not make this easy, as American and British usage differ. AmE: My family is in Kentucky now. (singular noun) BrE: My family are ...

Burning questions about teaching English in China #8: You can never back home again 2

Burning questions about teaching English in China #8: You can never back home again
Puzzler #8: Why do students misuse the adverb “back?” Another common student mistake is the improper use of “back” as a free-standing verb, which of course it can be, but not in the sense most students use it. Again, it seems such an easy thing to correct early on in English education that I wondered if some texts and dictionaries have the usage wrong. It is that widespread of an error. So, I did a little research. My YouDao Cidian app gives as the first definition of “back” 回来 huílai: to return, to come back. Already this is a problem, because “back” requires a verb to convey the sense of returning somewhere. But, going from Chinese to English gives the correct usage, “come back,” as shown above. Baidu, meanwhile, offers as the first definition, 后面 hòumiàn: rear, back, behind, later. It correctly uses “back” as an adverb to mean “return”: She went back to her parents’ house. The Sogou search engine follows Baidu’s example, and gives the correct usage. So, the puzzle remains. Why do so many Chinese students get this wrong? After all, “to go/come back” is a very common phrasal verb in English, and one they would learn ...

Burning questions about teaching English in China #7: I ever visited Beijing

Burning questions about teaching English in China #7: I ever visited Beijing
Puzzler #7: Once and ever So far I’ve discussed confusion among Chinese students about he and she, how to spell “true” and “know,” how to write the letter “E,” when to use “let” and “make,” and how a “vocation” is not a fun “vacation.” Here’s another pair of words I see students often mix up. While native speakers usually have no trouble distinguishing the words “once” and “ever,” Chinese learners seem to have a harder time, because “ever” has multiple meanings, one of which is similar to a meaning of “once.” (See album cover above.) I’ll try to clear things up. “Once” and “twice” (and “thrice”) belong to the same family, so to speak. Once means “one time,” twice, “two times,” etc. Once and twice (and their shy sister, thrice, who hardly ever (ha!) appears in public) refer to distinct occasions or events in time. Please press the button only once. (That is, one time.) [By the way, the word “only” also comes from the word “one.” In Old English (pre-1066) “one” was spelled an and “only” was anlic. Old English an (one) also gave us the indefinite articles “a” and “an,” which each mean “one of something.”] But that ...

Burning questions about teaching English in China #6: You say vocation, I say vacation

Burning questions about teaching English in China #6: You say vocation, I say vacation
Puzzler #6: Why do Chinese like to take “vocations”? Now that it’s the summer holiday for students and teachers (Yay!), let’s talk about another pair of commonly confused words here in China – and maybe elsewhere. They differ by only one letter, so I suppose that is one explanation why they are so often confused. But, as which “make” and “let”, their meanings are almost the opposite of each other. So, using one in the place of the other makes you look rather foolish. A vacation /vei ‘kei ʃən/ is a break from your everyday work. A vocation /vou ‘kei ʃən/ IS your work. Here are some photos to make the distinction even more clear. A vocation is not just an ordinary job. We don’t say a factory worker or a sales clerk has a vocation. We use the word specifically to describe a specific kind of occupation, one requiring a special dedication or sense of responsibility. The examples I gave above are monk (or nun), priest (or Pope), and doctor (or nurse). Both “vocation” and “vacation” come from the Latin language, which was the common language of the Roman Catholic Church – and of Europe – for hundreds of ...

Burning questions about teaching English in China #5: You can’t let me!

Burning questions about teaching English in China #5: You can't let me!
Puzzler #5: Why do students confuse the verbs “make” and “let”? Moving on from spelling errors and interesting ways to write letters, here’s a common error in vocabulary usage. This one puzzles me, because I had assumed the meanings of “make” and “let” are pretty clear. In fact, the two verbs are almost opposite in meaning. Yet, many students get them confused. Perhaps the trouble lies with dictionary definitions, because in looking at my own Chinese-English dictionaries, I can see their definitions could be confusing. For example, under “make” I see the Chinese word 让 ràng, which can mean “to let sb do sth.” Under the word “let,” I see the same Chinese word 让 ràng with the additional meaning of “to have sb do sth.” So, I can see how a beginning learner of English could confuse the two words. Bilingual dictionaries are great for quickly finding the meanings of words, but they often do a poor job of showing how those words are most commonly used. In fact, even the Merriam-Webster dictionary (English-to-English) can be confusing to a non-native speaker. Here is where textbooks and teachers need to step in and teach correct usage. “Make” and “let” are ...

Burning questions about teaching English in China #4: A B C D Ƶ F G

Burning questions about teaching English in China #4: A B C D Ƶ F G
This is the fourth in a series of articles about some of the puzzling aspects of teaching English as a Foreign Language in China. You can find the previous entries linked below. Puzzler #4: Why do some Chinese students write “E” with its “hat” on backwards? Like the misspellings “ture” (for “true”) and “konw” for “know”, this peculiar way of writing the upper case E has popped up in my classes each year I have taught here. Again, I have no idea why or how some students acquire this habit, because they have all presumably learned the alphabet in primary school. Could it be because some students are naturally left-handed? Is it because of Chinese character stroke order? Have computers and cellphones ruined their penmanship? Or are they just being careless? Strangely, I have not seen students write uppercase “F” in the same fashion. It’s generally written in the standard way, in manuscript form anyway. [NOTE: For my non-Chinese readers, students here learn the manuscript Latin alphabet, and by high school apparently learn a kind of italic handwriting for English. They do not learn cursive Latin handwriting, which I hear is now true in the USA, as well. I’ve found ...

Burning questions about teaching English in China #3: You konw wat?

Burning questions about teaching English in China #3: You konw wat?
The idea for these articles came to me during this past winter holiday, as I was reflecting on beginning my tenth year teaching English in China. In that time, I’ve noticed many common mistakes made by English learners and wondered why they were so common, yet so easily corrected. In other words, I wondered how it was possible for so many university students to have acquired the same bad habits, regardless of where they went to school or what their major was. So, I decided to write a series of (mostly) short articles highlighted each of these puzzling errors, in the hope that students – and their teachers – can somehow explain why they occur and how best to stop students from making these mistakes in the future. I will post them in my Qzone, on Steemit.com, and on my blog. Readers who are not familiar with English education in China need to understand that all university students have had English as a Foreign Language (EFL) instruction since middle school, and many from grade 3 in primary school. Additionally, all university majors need to take two years of English instruction and pass two national English-proficiency exams. Despite all these years ...

Burning questions about teaching English in China #2: Ture or false?

Burning questions about teaching English in China #2: Ture or false?
The idea for these articles came to me during this past winter holiday, as I was reflecting on beginning my tenth year teaching English in China. In that time, I’ve noticed many common mistakes made by English learners and wondered why they were so common, yet so easily corrected. In other words, I wondered how it was possible for so many university students to have acquired the same bad habits, regardless of where they went to school or what their major was. So, I decided to write a series of (mostly) short articles highlighted each of these puzzling errors, in the hope that students – and their teachers – can somehow explain why they occur and how best to stop students from making these mistakes in the future. I will post them in my Qzone, on Steemit.com, and on my blog. Readers who are not familiar with English education in China need to understand that all university students have had English as a Foreign Language (EFL) instruction since middle school, and many from grade 3 in primary school. Additionally, all university majors need to take two years of English instruction and pass two national English-proficiency exams. Despite all these years ...

Man from Hunan farming village gets doctorate, speaks at Harvard commencement

Man from Hunan farming village gets doctorate, speaks at Harvard commencement
JISHOU, HUNAN — A man from a small village near Changsha has become the first Chinese person to address a Harvard commencement ceremony. Hé Jiāng 何江 is the older son of a farming couple in Ningxiang county. Though the family barely had two coins to rub together, Hé did very well at school and his college entrance examination (gāokǎo 高考) scores gained him admission to the University of Science and Technology in Hefei, Anhui province. On May 26, he graduated with a doctorate in molecular and cellular biology from Harvard, and was selected to be the graduate school speaker at the graduation ceremony. In his speech (text in Chinese and English), Hé said he is concerned that modern medicine is unevenly distributed, so that poor people, like his own family and their neighbors, don’t have access to adequate care. He related a dramatic incident from his childhood, when his mother wrapped his hand in cloth soaked in liquor and set the cloth on fire after he was bit by a spider.    You see, the part of China I grew up in was a rural village, and at that time pre-industrial. When I was born, my village had no cars, ...

In which I recall the wise words, ‘Never assume’ 3

In which I recall the wise words, 'Never assume'
JISHOU, HUNAN — Journalists are often reminded to “never assume” they know the truth, or in fact if anyone knows the truth. Teachers need to follow the same advice, as I found out a few weeks ago in class. One of the activities in our Oral English textbook, which is published in the UK, asks the students to pair up and tell each other about a book they read as a child. Easy enough, right? Well, that’s what I assumed. In fact, it was not an easy task, because for a fair number of my students, the only books they had as kids were their textbooks in primary school. For these students hailing from the countryside, their first real chance to read a book for pleasure didn’t come until they boarded out to middle school. When I give my students this kind of assignment, I usually let them talk among themselves. If the hubbub seems to be winding down, I’ll ask a few of them to tell the class what they’d been discussing with their partner. Other times, I’ll join a group, or a student will ask me a question and I’ll stay and chat for bit. On this occasion, ...

VIDEO: Why do Chinese students come to American colleges, universities?

The BBC posted this video in June. Chinese students at the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign explain why they prefer to study in the USA. The main reason: they can study what they want. In China, your major is pre-selected for you, based on your performance on the college entrance exam (gaokao). High school students list five preferred majors on their exams, and the exam section with the highest score determines which of the five possibilities is assigned. So, this is why I’ve had students who prefer physics and math, but ended up being Business English majors. Their gaokao scores on the physics and math sections were too low. Parents are also fed up with the Chinese gaokao system. If they have enough money, they will send their children abroad for their university education, sparing those kids three years of intense, high pressure preparation for the gaokao. You can read more at the BBC.

Making a scale model of the solar system (video)

Some of my American students may recall our attempt at drawing the solar system to scale along Broadway in front of SFHS. It’s not easy to get both the size of the planets and the distances between them to scale. This video explores that question.
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