Judy the ABC Chinese
During the Summer of 2004, Hong Hu's number 5 Middle School got a foreign teacher. She was an American Chinese by the name of Judy.
|Judy at Yichang|
Judy's family originally hailed from the south of China, and as a child, her mother was sent to stay with relatives in Hong Kong. She later moved to the United States where she married a Chinese man from another country. Since their Chinese languages were different, their two daughters grew up speaking English.
And so it was that Judy came to China to find her roots. What she initially found was that she couldn't stomach the food, and she spent weeks trying to recover from the shock to her system.
When I first met her (can't remember how that was arranged), she was not well at all, but we did become good friends and spent a lot of time in each other's company.
It was at her place that the incident with Jessica occurred. (The teacher who told her students to grow up and open their arse!)
Because Judy looked Chinese, everyone assumed that she spoke Chinese, and many is the time that upon seeing us together, people started asking her questions about me. She of course didn't know what they were saying. I on the other hand, understood some of it!
I remember one time we were out looking at bicycles and the shop owner was trying to question Judy, and she was doing the Chinese thing of just ignoring him. Finally he grabbed her by the arm and started shouting at her to answer his questions.
At that point I stepped in and said: 'Hey Mister! She's a foreigner. She doesn't speak Chinese!'
The poor guy nearly dropped dead from the shock.
On another occasion we were in YiChang on a sightseeing trip, (Yichang is the starting point for the three gorges dam tours). We were walking along the river bank and Judy went down to the water's edge to take a photo. I remained on the path. An old couple on seeing us made a comment about the 'foreigner'. I looked at the old lady and, pointing at Judy, said: 'She is the foreigner. I am Chinese. I come from the province of Xinjiang'. [Xinjiang is in the North West and is a Muslim Province and many people have a Middle Eastern appearance.]
|Inside Qin Chuan pavillion Wuhan|
The old lady started yammering on that I was stupid and obviously a foreigner and that Judy was Chinese. I called to Judy to come back. Then I told the old woman to speak to her. Judy had a blank look on her face and in her worst Chinese accent said: 'I don't understand!' The look on the old people's faces was priceless.
Another time (in Wuhan) we were leaving a restaurant and taking a taxi. I got in the front seat and Judy sat in the back. I gave the taxi driver instructions on where we wanted to go, and he ignored me. Three times he asked Judy where we were going. Finally I said: 'She's American. She doesn't understand Chinese.'
Once it was established that she did not understand and could not speak Chinese, suddenly the driver could understand what I was saying. This is a common occurrence when a foreigner speaks Chinese whilst accompanied by Chinese friends. No one understands the foreigner!
The time I spent with Judy in Hong Hu was wonderful. We made the trip together to Yichang; another to visit the Qinchuan pavilion in Wuhan; and frequently went on bicycle rides all over the countryside.
With my second year in Hong Hu coming to an end, I had decided that I wanted to learn Chinese properly. Most of what I had learned, was learned in local pronunciation in the bathhouse.
My decision to move to Wuhan to study, was finally made when Judy told me that she had booked in at Wuhan university. And so it was, that at the beginning of 2005, we both set off to study in Wuhan. As it turned out however, we each only managed one semester of study.
Studying in Wuhan
|Classmates at Wuhan University|
At the time I went to Wuhan, I had sufficient cash reserves to do two years of full time study, but had additionally made inquiries about teaching in Wuhan as well.
I had made contact with the Hubei TV and Radio University, and told them that I would be studying 5 mornings per week, but that I would be available to teach in the afternoons and/or evenings. They were not interested.
In the meantime I had gone into Wuhan and made my arrangements to study, but did not finalize arrangements to live on campus. After seeing the various types of accommodation, I returned to my hotel, whereupon I saw a letter from the Radio and TV university saying that they would indeed hire me. Seeing that cheered me up, for I much preferred to be paid while studying, and living in a better apartment than provided for students at WuDa. (WUhan DAxue = WuDa).
Well as things turned out, I really made the wrong decision, because firstly, I never completed more than the one semester at WuDa. The second reason relates to what happened at the Radio and TV university.
During the Summer of 2005, when trying to make arrangements for the second semester of Chinese study, the administrators could not or would not tell me when the classes for the new semester would be held. While they were holding me off on that point, the Radio and TV university was pressuring me to advise them whether I was free to teach in the mornings or the afternoons.
On the Friday before the Monday classes were to start at WuDa, they insisted I pay my fees, but still couldn't tell me when the classes were. So I took a stab in the dark and told my university that I would be free to teach in the afternoons.
When I arrived at WuDa on the Monday, I, like many other students, turned up at 8am to discover that classes were to be held in the afternoon.
Many Chinese people advised me to retrieve my fees from WuDa immediately ..'or else they will cheat you'.. but when I did try, it was suggested that I simply come back the following semester. This I did, only to discover that there were 2 morning and 2 afternoon classes. This screwed things up right royally and after a couple of weeks of only doing 2 classes per day, I quit; losing my money in the process.
|Qin Chuan Pavillion looking to the Yangtze River|
During that first period of study (it was actually 2nd semester of the school year - March to June 2005), Judy and I were in different classes, because she at least could read Chinese, having previously studied it in High School in America. Notwithstanding this advantage however, Judy found it difficult to master Mandarin, and after a couple of months, became discouraged enough to quit, and found a part time job.
I on the other hand began to excel in my studies. In fact, I was the only student in my class who had any ability in Chinese, and was often called upon to translate for our non English speaking teachers. This was not an easy thing to do, because my Chinese, apart from being very limited, was learned with local pronunciation rather than standard Mandarin. In class, I was constantly being corrected for my 'poor' pronunciation, but if I was talking with the teachers trying to understand their meanings, nobody minded if I used local pronunciations.
I remember my first class with 'Old' Mrs. Zhu. She was testing our knowledge of Chinese by pointing to various parts of the body and asking what it was. I couldn't answer any of the questions, until she pointed at her watch, at which point I jumped up and down with excitement and said: 'Xiao Bian!'
She gave me the most disgusted look and said: 'Shou Biao!'
'Oh!' I thought to myself. 'I got it wrong! So what does Xiao Bian mean?' So I put on my thinking cap. I think I frightened the whole class when the light in my brain came on. I let out an almighty 'Oh!' as I realised that I had used the slang term for 'urinate'.
On another occasion a different Mrs. Zhu was asking me questions about my teaching duties out at DongHu Campus. Now as I say, my Chinese was very very limited (and still is).
I told her that the students were poor, lazy and uncooperative. To that, I thought she asked: 'What grade are they?' And I thought I had replied: 'Grade 2'.
Well! She jumped up and down exclaiming that my Chinese was wonderful and how marvelous it was that I had learned 'usual' expressions.
The students then all wanted to know why she was excited, and all I could say was: 'I haven't the faintest idea!'
After class I went to her to explain that I really didn't know what that was all about, and so she explained. She had in fact asked: 'What can you do?' - Zhenme ban? (about these students), and I had used a colloquialism meaning 'What is there to do?' - 'Liang ban'.
The difference in the two sets of conversion is not much in Chinese. It mostly depends on intonation.
|Classmates at Wuhan checking out the Cherry Blossoms|
I thought Mrs Zhu had said 'Shenme ban' - What grade?, and I answered 'liang ban' thinking I was saying Grade Two.
Even the simplest things in life become difficult when speaking Chinese, if you don't get the intonation right. You think for instance that you are saying '2 yuan - 2 rmb' [liang kuai] and it turns out you are saying 'cool' [also liang kuai but with different intonation]. That's Chinese for you.
Speaking with an Accent
Even today, starting my 8th year of living in China, I still don't know how to speak Mandarin correctly. The Chinese tell me that the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd speaks perfect Mandarin, but at least he spent years studying the language and speaking what he learned.
I still can't read or write Chinese, and apart from that one semester in WuDa, have learned the northern Chinese language - in English called Mandarin - in the manner and pronunciation of various local peoples, and additionally have learned dialectic words and expressions that are not used in Mandarin.
The word for local or dialectic language in Mandarin is 'Fang Yan', but for 4 years I never recognised that word when spoken in Mandarin, because I pronounced it in local accent, which sounds more like 'Far Ya'. It was also in Suzhou, 4 years after arriving in China, that I discovered that the word 'MaMu or Mameng' (rickshaw) was local language. In Mandarin it is 'San luen che'.
It wasn't until I arrived at WuDa that I discovered that 'San Kor' (class) is supposed to be pronounced 'shang ke'. I also didn't know that the correct pronunciation for Zero is 'Ling' not 'Ning'.
|Gates to the 3 gorges|
I mentioned earlier that I told the old couple that I was Chinese from the Northern Province. I quite often do this with hilarious results. Since many Chinese know that the Xinjiang people look different, they often believe me when I say that I am from there. These days I say that I am from a Russian Minority group in the North. It is more believable. But how do I get away with it?
The answer is that because I learned 'common' speech, I quite often don't sound like a foreigner. This confuses people enough to give credence to my claim to be Chinese. I remember one woman saying to me: 'According to your face, I think you are a foreigner, but according to your Chinese language, you MUST be Chinese'.
Judy on the other hand, while not having a 'foreign' accent in Chinese, had a 'southern' accent - Cantonese. This was because Cantonese was her mother's language, and she had had sufficient exposure to that pronunciation and intonation so as to effect her 'Mandarin' pronunciations.
In one sense she was lucky, because many Chinese just thought that being a Southerner, she had not really learned Mandarin all that well.
When Judy finally quit WuDa, she went to work for a Chinese company, the owner of which spoke fluent English, and I remember the time she told me about an incident at work, that I have used in my teaching of university students.
One day she was in the owner's office when a graduate student arrived for an interview. As Judy went to leave the room, the owner asked her to remain. This is what transpired.
The owner invited the interviewee to sit down and tell him about herself. She did just what every university student learns to do for an interview. She rattled off her prepared speech.
'Hello! My name is ------. I'm 22 years old. I am an English Major Graduate of Wuhan University. My favourite hobbies are swimming and playing tennis. That is all!'
The owner said: 'No! That is not all! Tell us a little about yourself.'
The girl then replied in Chinese asking what he meant. He replied by saying in English: 'I want to know what your dream for the future is. I want to know why you want to work in this company. What do you think you can offer this company?'
The girl looked blankly at him and said: 'I don't understand!'
The owner then said: 'NOW that is all! Goodbye!'
That girl, like Judy, who had studied Chinese at school, had never developed her listening and speaking skills. She could read and write English, just as Judy could read and write Chinese, but confronted with a real live conversation, had extremely limited ability.
|Above the 3 gorge dam|
This is the tragedy in Chinese Education. Students can spend 10 or more years studying English, even completing their Bachelor Degrees with an English Major, and still not be able to talk to a child in English.
The focus in Chinese Education is totally on passing Grammar exams, and when you see the nature of those exams, you just wonder what it is that the Educational system is trying to accomplish. As an example of the standard of the tests, I read an article on the net which posed the following test question.
Which is the correct statement:
- The cost of living has gone up.
- The cost of living has risen.
- The cost of living has increased.
Grammatically, only one of these statements is correct, but as a native English speaker [most of whom by the way would not score more than 70% in a grammar test in China], you have to wonder why it is important to know which statement is correct, because they all say the same thing.
If you are a fluent speaker of English, then you might like to argue the point, but when you are teaching people this 'perfect' knowledge of English grammar whilst not giving them practical and effective skill in its daily use, then the observation that this teaching method is useless, is legitimate.
I have however come across many a student whose Oral fluency was excellent, even without ever having been taught by a foreigner teacher, or a National teacher who could speak English. It is my guess, based solely upon observation and experience, that 30% of students are truly self motivated and can achieve a reasonable degree of proficiency on their own. I also estimate that 30% are utterly lazy. The other 40%, in my experience, just tag along for the ride provided by whichever student power group is in control of a class. And this is without mentioning the fact that there are plenty of students who believe that it is totally wrong for students to even learn English, let alone actually speak it.
As an Oral English Teacher, I have been asked by other foreign teachers how I managed to get students involved in discussions in class. The answer is that I first began to learn the 'how' of teaching, from my experiences in No. 1 Senior Middle School in Hong Hu. Because I had my own classroom, and only those who wanted to learn were permitted in class, I soon found myself challenged as a teacher, to provide what the students both wanted and needed. Both the want and the need were the same: To gain ability to have a normal English conversation.
It was from those experiences that I began to formulate teaching processes - not actual methodology. One of the major issues for all foreign teachers, is how to define their actual job, given the reality of what they face in the classrooms. My own opinions on that subject may be found in the article entitled: What is the Foreign Teachers Job
My whole focus in teaching, is to firstly provide the theoretical skills of the mechanics of a conversation, and then to teach those skills through practical demonstrations, and from there moving on to allowing students to just use those skills however they like.
The greatest secret to my success however, is that in Public Schools, students MUST pass the Oral Teachers exams, and so in class, EVERY TIME I ask a student to be involved in some type of discussion or other, it is a test for which a score is given. Students can find themselves having as many as 15 tests per semester.
It does not take them long to realise that there is no justifiable excuse for not involving themselves in discussion. If they want to pass, then they have to try. And that is all I ask.
As for the exams themselves, you can read about them in my article entitled: Oral English Exams, from which I now quote:
The purpose of the test is merely to discover if the student has at least basic conversational ability. Therefore, the first thing that I do with all my classes, is to start them out on a journey of processing information and forming opinions, to see if they can handle a normal conversation relating to daily life in Chinese society.
|YiChang, starting point for 3 gorges tour|
Once they reach that stage, then they can progress to discussions on topics related to their specific major. These two stages are important, because if one cannot discuss in a general way, then they will not be able to discuss in a specific way, complicated and sometimes technical matters.
Both individual topic tests (impromptu speeches) and group discussion tests commence with a topic, but students are permitted to use the 3 primary skills (Open Questions/ informative answers/ use of keywords in Changing Topics) to follow a natural progression in the directional change of a conversation.
I remember in Suzhou during a final examination time, I called upon the brightest student in the class to come forward and do her 3 minute impromptu speech for which only 10 seconds preparation time is provided.
I said to her: 'Your topic is the 17th (Communist) Party Congress'.
The whole class let out a sigh of unbelief. The girl looked at me and said: 'But I don't know anything about the 17th party congress!' To which I replied: 'Good start! Continue'.
Well she rambled on and on for the whole three minutes and when she was finished I loudly exclaimed: 'That was wonderful! It was utter rubbish but it was wonderful rubbish! Well Done!' And promptly gave her 85%.
In view of how students can score top grammar marks without any ability to understand or speak conversational English, the foreign teacher's job 'must be' to develop this speaking SKILL. They must be able to hear, understand, think and answer in real time. The amazing thing is that once they discover that they actually do have the skill, students progress at an accelerated rate all on their own.
|YiChang on the Yangtze River|
The funny thing about language teaching in China, is that most National teachers teach English in Chinese, whilst foreigners are taught Chinese in Chinese. And they wonder how we can learn the language so fast.
I'm sure by now that Judy wishes she had stuck with her Chinese Classes, for I know I do. I regret having taken the teaching job in Wuhan. In hindsight, I would rather have spent the whole two years learning Chinese Grammar and vocabulary and applying it to my oral ability.
Hardcover Publishing inquiries welcomed!
R.P. BenDedek is the pseudonym of an Australian who has been teaching in China since 2003. He currently lives in Baotou in Inner Mongolia. In addition to contributing to Magic City Morning Star News as a columnist, he also is an assisting Editor for the Newspaper.
Additionally, BenDedek is the author of 'The King's Calendar: The Secret of Qumran' at www.kingscalendar.com