Sunday, August 08, 2004

the most important part--the language usage of chinese students!!

somehow, i managed to forget about probably the most important part of the trip, maybe the biggest question i had in my mind before i came [other than the heat, which even at a cooler-than-usual 90-degrees most days, has been a non-issue]: what kind of language skills would the chinese students have?

the answer is simple. their skills are excellent. of the 300+ students i've taught so far--every one of whom has to stand in front of the audience and pick a defensive position on the baseball field they want to play (about half pick catcher, not surprising since i describe it in my talk as "the brains" of the team)--only maybe 1 or 2 have been difficult to understand. but instead of speculating about that, i want to share some of the wonderful aspects of hearing them speak english.

1) a few have british accents. this is really cool. i have a student who is giving her formal speech at then end of the program on raising a lion, and her first line, in a *heavy* british accent is: i wuuuunt to raise a liyyyyy-uhn. it brings a smile to my face just to hear her say it.

2) it seems the expression "the feeling is __(blank)__" is a common one. i bet it is the main construction in dialogue practice the first few years of studying english in china. during the first week of teaching, i was hearing many students describe something and then analyze it by saying "...and the feeling is good." again, i found this great to hear and i began trying to coax them into saying it...after their speech i often asked for more details, specifically saying: how would you describe the feeling you got?

3) in chinese language there is no distinction between brother and cousin. so most the time these students mention brother or sister [although a rare few--from the countryside--do have siblings] they are referring to their cousins. it is neat though how the language brings the family closer :)

4) also, in chinese language "he, she, it" are the same word. so at least a few times a day, the students are referring to people as either a he or a she when the person is a she or a he. for some reason, i think this is also endearing and i don't correct it. usually, in the middle of the next sentence, the speaker realizes the mistake and corrects it, or his/her friends immediately catch it and start mumbling "he he he" or "she she she" whichever is the correct one.

5) there are also many single words uttered under the breath that i hear a lot and love....these are visceral reactions that people have when i tell a story about something bad ["tear-uh-bull" or "whore-uh-bull"] or something good ["ba-yoot-i-ful" or "lah-ve-lee"]. it seems when they say them that one word has never been as expressive before.

6) the students also have a way of introducing thoughts/ideas that they don't want to be offensive by saying: "it is said that....". i can't think of any examples, but it is enough to hear them start saying "it is said that..." to make me smile when i'm eating with them or visiting after school!!

in general, the way second language speakers use language is typically quite beautiful and precise. they learn volumes of vocabulary and are very specific with what they want to say. in fact, they have little pocket dictionaries with them every where they go [that look like calculators sort of]...and these dictionaries function as translators and they are always whipping them out to find the word they want, or when i speak, to figure the meaning of the word i just used. but enough about the translators...the speaking is the wonderful part. although they don't have confidence--or didn't have much in the beginning--they are all quite functional. they would be just fine if they came to america. better than fine. i had many ESL students last year at OSU who didn't have the skills these students have.

it is wonderful to hear them using "my" language, to in fact, be making my language their own with the words and phrases they use. it gives me great perspective on how imprecise so much of the language is that i use on a daily basis...from the "filler" words so many of us use such as "like" to the slang phrases that aren't really very expressive at all. basically, for the last month i have become very conscious of each word as it comes out of my mouth, in a way that i'm obviously not thinking about when speaking with native speakers. and i think having to be this conscious is not only helping them to learn vocabulary, build skills, and improve their english, but maybe i will find when i get back that my english has improved as well.

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