Linguistic revelation, courtesy of my Thailand travels

JISHOU, HUNAN — Over the last five years, I’ve been puzzled by the manner in which one or two students in each class pronounce English. Talking with my Chinese colleagues, it seems some of these students have the same indistinct pronunciation in Mandarin, as well. We concluded it was a syndrome which used to be called “lazy tongue,” but (I have just learned) is now referred to as an apraxia of speech. Now I am not so sure, after hearing the way some Thais speak their own language. My students’ diction problems may result from the speech patterns of their mother languages, which are often not Mandarin. Some disclaimers, first of all. I have no formal training in linguistics or speech therapy, so take whatever I write here with a grain of salt. I am proposing a hypothesis, based on an amateur’s observations. Briefly, here is the situation. Several of my students’ English is blurred or mushy. Their voices seem to come from way back in the oral cavity, instead of more toward the front of the mouth. In addition, their consonants are often indistinct, so I have to pay close attention to what they are saying to be sure ...

So, classes started last week …

JISHOU, HUNAN — This term is shaping up to be a lot more relaxed than the last three have been. First off, I have only 10 class sessions a week, on Mondays and Wednesdays. Those are for Oral English with the sophomores and Listening Comprehension with the freshmen. Then, a new feature (since I am expected to have at least 16 class sessions a week) is six periods of “office hours.” Having never really had office hours in the past, this is a new concept to me. My initial impression was office hours similar to those at American universities. The professor sits in his office doing what-not, waiting for anxious students to appear. But no! Those office hours are expected to be tutorials, à la Oxbridge. So, for three of those hours I was asked to make a schedule for the students I will meet (freshman class 1) and devise some kind of exercise for them. The other three “office hours” will be devoted to meeting with a gaggle of non-English majors preparing for the English speaking contest. These have yet to be scheduled. Since I didn’t teach the freshmen last term, I’m using the first session as a get-acquainted ...

Student video project: From Rags to Riches

JISHOU, HUNAN — Some of my students produced these videos, but not for my class. They’re pretty good, so I’m sharing with you. Hope you can view them in the USA. Each was done by a team of four students.

Mean girls

JISHOU, HUNAN — I suppose I should not be surprised that Chinese adolescents can be as catty and mean-spirited as Americans are, but two incidents this week still bug me. I need to vent, so if you want to skip all this drama, go ahead. To set up incident number 1, I need to explain my oral English examination format. Modeling the Cambridge Business English Certificate exams, I meet two (sometimes three) students at a time for about 20 minutes. I test them on vocabulary and pronunciation, then give them a topic on the spot to talk about between themselves for a few minutes. There is usually time left for me to ask them a few questions to verify listening comprehension and coach them on pronunciation issues. Students sign up for these sessions in class about two to three weeks in advance. With more than 200 students to evaluate, I’m booked pretty tight. A couple of days ago, I was scheduled to meet three girls — roommates, as it turns out — who I will call A, B, and C. And B are among my best students in their class; their spoken English is not perfect, but they can chatter ...

My latest Daily Kos diary makes the Community Spotlight

My latest Daily Kos diary makes the Community Spotlight
JISHOU, HUNAN — More personal horn tooting here — I wrote a longish diary for Daily Kos about my experiences here after three years, and it made the Community Spotlight. As of right now (1:30 am EST), it’s had 58 comments since I posted it yesterday. And its plea for foreign teachers has netted three responses so far. Not bad for a couple hours of work.

I know what I don’t know … I think 14

JISHOU, HUNAN — I realized over this winter holiday how much I don’t know about teaching English. Despite accolades from my students and my fellow teachers, I’m not so satisfied with my work so far. I get better at it every term, but I have a long ways to go as a language teacher. Last term, my workload was relatively easy: two periods of Western Culture and six periods of Oral English a week. Nevertheless, a lot of my time was spent prepping for the Culture class. I felt somewhat guilty that I was not putting in more time prepping for the Oral English classes, especially for the freshmen, but I had organized the classes well enough that things pretty much took care of themselves. This term, I have more work to do. The juniors have me for two subjects: British Literature and Academic Writing. Needless to say, I’ve got several months of hardcore reading and writing ahead of me. The sophomores will still meet me twice a week for Oral English, and I hope to try some new activities to enliven the classes even more. The freshmen will have a different foreign teacher, since we each typically teach eight ...

Western Culture test #1: Ancient Greece 5

JISHOU, HUNAN — This test is what I inflicted on my Western Culture students this morning. How well can you do on it? No looking at your textbooks, cell phones, or the Internet. ——————– Western Culture and Civilization NAME_______________________________ Student ID ____________________________ 2008 G1 and G2 First test, Ancient Greece, 22 October 2010 IDENTIFY THE FOLLOWING PEOPLE AND PLACES: 1. Athens 2. Sparta 3. Troy 4. Achilles 5. Odysseus 6. Aristotle 7. Plato 8. Eratosthenes 9. Sophocles 10. Aristophanes  TEST CONTINUES ON THE NEXT PAGE  DISCUSSION QUESTIONS (Use your own paper for these, please): 11. Ancient Greece fostered the first known republic and the first known democracy in the world. Where were these political experiments, exactly? Give a brief description of how each system of government was organized. 12. Socrates was one of the earliest and most influential of the ancient philosophers. What were his core beliefs? 13. Give two examples of the Greeks’ contributions to mathematics and science. Discuss each one briefly. 14. What was the basic story or theme of Homer’s Iliad? Of Homer’s Odyssey? 15. Why is the civilization and culture of the ancient Greeks so important to the West? BONUS POINTS: Match the Greek ...

And we’re off! 6

[Cross-posted at the Daily Kos, where it was just rescued from diary oblivion.] JISHOU, HUNAN — Classes have been in session for two weeks now. It’s taken me a while to build a head of steam for blogging. Been a little busy, as you will see. As was the case last year, I am teaching 16 classes a week (that’s eight groups of students for 100 minutes at a go), but with some changes in subjects and students. This term, I am teaching oral English to the freshman and sophomore undergraduates majoring in Business English, and Western Culture and Civilization to the juniors in Business English. None of the juniors have oral English classes anymore, which befuddles me, but apparently It’s the Way Things Are Done Here™, according to fellow foreign teachers at other schools. The Business English students have a course in public speaking, but the English education majors — who will presumably be teaching English — have no more English language classes. More about that later. Previously, my writing classes were the biggest consumer of my prep time, what with reading essays and diaries and plotting more ways to get my students to write English. This term, it’s ...

Put another nickel in the nickelodeon 1

JISHOU, HUNAN — So, I’m staying another year here. As it was last year, the decision was an easy one to make. Logically speaking, it doesn’t make too much sense. Jishou is a small city, with few (Western-style) amenities. It takes at least two hours to get to the nearest airport. And Jishou University is an also-ran in the rankings of China’s institutions of higher learning. My friends in bigger cities in China have encouraged me to look elsewhere for teaching jobs in China. One said, “The pay will be better, and the students will be more excellent.” Yes, and no. No question about the pay. If I moved to Beijing, or even Changsha, I could probably double my pay pretty easily. Of course, my expenses would also increase, and I’d have the hassles of dealing with big-city life. (Changsha has 5 million people. Beijing has 22 million, making NYC look like a small town.) Big cities have higher costs of living, so it’s questionable whether moving would increase my net income to make moving worth it. I’ve lived in small cities for the last 32 years, two that were minuscule (60,000 population each), one just a bit bigger than ...

Time out to tell some tales 3

JISHOU, HUNAN — I am in the midst of reading the first drafts of about 70 term papers, but I wanted to take time out to write about a couple of cool things that happened today. One of my former students here in China is getting married next week. This was no big surprise, since she told me it was going to happen sometime this year. Today, when we went to lunch, T. threw me a couple of curve balls. First, she’s pregnant — one of those happy little accidents that sometimes proceed marriage. Despite the conservative culture of China, being pregnant just before marriage is no big deal, as long as the husband-to-be is still in the picture. The funny thing was, when I accidentally ran into the two of them downtown yesterday, I thought to myself, “T. looks pregnant.” Now, she’s only three months along, and not showing yet. (T. is very petite, and has not gained weight, so her size was not the reason for my hunch.) But, she was walking a little like a pregnant woman — her shoes were the problem there, she says — and her dress was similar in design to a maternity ...

It’s English-speaking season!

JISHOU, HUNAN — Along with rains and peach blossoms, April here brings another spring event, the undergraduate English speaking contests. As I did last year, I have served as a judge for several college contests, including my own college’s, and will of course judge the university finals next month. It’s a task I both enjoy and dread, because quite frankly it’s not that easy to be a judge for these things. Case in point: my college had nearly a dozen sophomores participate in our competition, from which we judges had to choose two to represent the College of International Exchange next month. The criteria include the usual for public speaking — content, argument, stage presence, eye contact, inflection, diction — but also pronunciation, intonation and grammar. After all, these students are speaking a foreign language. We found six who we judged as competitive, but could not narrow them down to two. Some had good public speaking skills, but their spoken English was lacking in some ways. Meanwhile, those who had very good spoken English lacked some public speaking skills. What a headache! The university, and the provincial and national contests, all include a three-minute prepared speech, a question-answer session, then ...

Teaching the little ones 4

[Cross-posted at The Daily Kos] JISHOU, HUNAN — Anyone who teaches English as a Second Language in China sooner or later gets called on to give private lessons or classes, or to put it another way, to get sucked into the maelstrom of English-learning angst here. Some of your students might be university students trying for high scores on their postgraduate exams (the Chinese equivalent of the GRE), which include a pretty tough section on English skills, or the two main qualification exams for foreign study, TOEFL and IELTS. But, by far most of your potential students will be middle school students (and their parents) who want high scores on the college entrance examination, and primary school students whose upwardly mobile parents want them to get into a good middle school. [In China, primary schools are like US elementary schools, and middle schools have two levels, lower and upper, corresponding roughly to US middle and high schools.] Many of these same children will also be taking piano, violin, dance, art, kung fu and/or taiji lessons besides. If all this over-scheduling sounds familiar to you, perhaps you know some parents in the States with similar agendas for their kids. It’s a ...
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