I have great respect for teachers of English to speakers of other languages (TESOL). I’m not one of them, in the sense that I don’t have that training. I do have some training, as an undergraduate, in second language instruction (in fact, among the proudest moments of my life was the time I beat out a native Russian speaker for a job as an immersion-only Russian teaching assistant!!) but I don’t have anywhere near the grasp on the theories and practices of TESOL that I would need to be teaching language beginners. However, the fact remains that I now find myself at the head of an English classroom populated entirely by speakers of (an)other language. Let me say again to the TESOL folks out there: Respect.
In reading student response papers, I find myself repeating the phrase “surprisingly hard” to describe a couple types of language errors. I am hoping that also by using this phrase in the marginal notes, I am able to convey to my students that they are not being dense, this particular thing is just surprisingly hard to understand. Here is one I encountered today. On a revision of a paper, at the bottom, a student wrote: “At last, thank you for your careful feedback.” Had I received this note from a native speaker of English, I would have assumed (not without some umbrage, I imagine) that this student was needling me for being late or delinquent in giving feedback. (I wasn’t, but that’s not quite the point.) What I realized after a moment was that she meant something closer to “Lastly.” And herein lies the category I’m calling “surprisingly difficult.” “At last” and “lastly” take up very much the same type of space in a sentence like this–they would both be introductory clauses that say something about the temporality of the action contained in the rest of the sentence. They both, of course, contain the same “last” root, and there is something final, so to speak, about both of them. But they don’t mean the same thing, and they won’t accomplish the same goal.
Another in this list of distinctions is the difference among “different” “distinct” and “inconsistent.” Nuances of article usage are getting me too: I went to some trouble to explain why we say “development of the computer” but not “development of the high technology.” Don’t even get me started on how happy I am never to have had to learn a language with as many conjugations/tenses as English has from a language with no verb forms at all! (Though, I did have occasion to be browsing through the archives of old computers on my hard drive and found my old Attic Greek verb synopsis sheets. I cannot imagine a transition more difficult than going from Chinese to Attic Greek!)
Grammar, it’s important!
Part of what this all means is that this semester will certainly see (and already has seen!) me developing my grammar meta-vocabulary more than I ever have before. Like a lot of native speakers educated largely in public schools, I was taught little English grammar. Well do I remember the day in 6th grade Spanish when my teacher, after raging at us for a long time about the fact that we didn’t know a direct from an indirect object, stopped teaching Spanish for two whole days to teach direct and indirect objects in English, so that we could subsequently learn them in Spanish. Thank goodness I took Spanish! I learned the subjunctive first in Latin class, then in Spanish, never, to the best of my recollection, in an English class. The list goes on. I finally understood participles when I took Russian. One might say that everything I know about English grammar, I cobbled together from the bits and pieces of other languages. (Perhaps one of the greatest ironies of my English education was that some of the best grammar education I received was from a teacher later disgraced and incarcerated.)
(A) Student Teaching
When I’m brave enough, it seems to help my student to tell anecdotes of my Chinese learning. When they have to listen carefully and ask me to repeat for them to understand even the words I’m saying, it seems to give them confidence to speak up more themselves. Making it clear that while, yes, I know more about this class’s subject area than they do, they know a lot more about Chinese than I do seems to be creating a blessedly egalitarian classroom environment (in a culture which, I’m learning more and more, tends to take pedagogical authority as inviolable, almost infallible). For example, I may bring them my most recent panic, when I was attempting to type the left-hand character pictured here and kept accidentally typing the right-hand one. After mailing this snippet of screen cap to my teacher, I came to the root of the problem: basically, they are in different fonts, one a little more archaic than the other. These elementary troubles that I am having 2 months into my Chinese education are lifesavers in the classroom.
It reminds me that all of us teachers are (I hope!) also learners. Keeping our students tuned in to our roles not as “already knowing” but as “always seeking to know” helps make our classrooms communities of seekers and not rigid role playing exercises.