When I met you I was but the Learner…

Happy Star Wars Day! Now, an unrelated story about teaching and learning:

It’s a three day weekend, and I am being very, very lazy. I mean, I went running two days ago, and yesterday I wrote five decidedly decent pages of book while sitting at a tea house for four hours, but otherwise it’s been ramen and video games.
My reasoning is I’m headed to Shanghai for a few days – I’ll be super busy then.

Today promised to be no different. I went up to the eighth floor with my embroidery, knowing my room needed to be cleaned. I sat and stitched, politely smiling and defleting comments from the man watching me. Along the window were two young girls, perhaps around 10 or 12. They watched me too, but they had work to do. I could feel their curiosity, though. Little kids can’t hide it – it’s one of things I find admirable (and sometimes annoying) about them.

Eventually, and through the cunning use of the hallway that runs around the back of the buffet area, they sidle over to me and shyly watch. I looked up and smiled.
“Hello,” they say in unison.
“How are you?”
“I’m fine, thank you. How are you?” they say, again together.( If this were a horror movie, the music would cue).
“I’m good, thank you.”
“Beautiful,” says the shorter girl, pointing to my embroidery.
“Thank you. When it is finished, it will look like this,” I say, giving them the cover art. They nod.
“Where are you from?” asks the taller girl, in very clear English.
“I’m from America – near the middle of America,” I say. The smaller girl smiles wider.
“My brother is in America too,” says the taller girl.
“Really? Where in America is he?”
“I don’t know. I just know he’s in America.” This sentence amuses me, partly because she says it with startling clarity. For twelve, she’s obviously had quite a bit of exposure to English. It also confuses me because it’s very vague for family talk. How do you not know where in America your family is?
“What…” Tall girl hesitates
“…brings…” prompts the shorter girl.
“…brings you to China?” she concludes.
“I am an English teacher here – Wo shi lao shi ying yu.”
“Ah, an English teacher!” exclaims the small one. At this point the man who was watching me earlier speaks up, and has a small conversation with the girls. I gather he is asking for them to translate what I’m saying into Chinese.

“What are your names?” I ask.

“My name is…Joyce!” The small one says after a pause to remember the English name she chose.

“My name is Sarah!” Says the taller one.

“My name is Jean. Do you have any other questions for me?” I ask, starting to go back to my work.
“English is difficult language,” admits the taller one. It’s my turn to smile.
“Chinese is a difficult language for me. If you need help with your English, I’ll help you. And then, you can help me with my Chinese. It was nice to have met you both.” The girls smile and nod, and we all go back to our projects.

I stitch and think about watching a movie, making some ramen, playing some Mass Effect or some Assassin’s Creed (still have to actually finish the game – I like sailing around too much). A second, more powerful thought process co-opts my thoughts of sitting on my butt doing nothing the rest of the night. Something I had said to the girls makes my brain start clicking. I rise, packing up my things quickly. As I start to leave, the girls say goodbye.

“Can you help me with my Chinese homework?” I ask. They say yes, and look quizzically at me as I trot out of the dining area.

Not long after I arrived in Wenjiang, in a moment of grabbing the bull by the horns, I picked up a children’s school workbook. It’s a series of matching, writing, and Kindergarten level Chinese sentences. I don’t understand most of it. Grabbing the book, I return to the dining area. Sarah and Joyce (note: not their real names) meet me, and stand over my shoulder as I illustrate my ineptitude.

What follows is one of the best language lessons I’ve had in a while.

Perhaps because it was absolutely ridiculous. I’m thirty, and I’m learning the following:

  • Xiao ji shì dòng wù, xiao yā yĕ shì dòng wù (A chicken is an animal, a duck is an animal too).
  • Xiăo hái er hé xiăo gŏu zài wán fēi pán (The child and her xiăo dog are playing Frisbee).

Here, I learn that “xiao” is a term of endearment – it means “small” normally. Sarah agrees when I ask if it’s like a nickname. She’s excited to learn the English word “Frisbee.” Fēi pán literally means “flying plate.”

  • Tàiyáng dāng kōng zhào, miányáng zài chī căo (The sun is in the sky, sheep are eating grass).

Here Sarah helps correct my pronunciation. The “c” sound in căo is pronounced like a “tz” and the “zh” in “zhào” is pronounced more like a French “j” or “g” (like “The woman wears rouge on her cheeks when meeting Jean-Claude”).

Joyce and Sarah are clearly excited to be explaining words to me. They debate between each other in energetic little girl movements before settling on a definitions or explanations. And I cannot help but be very impressed with their language skills. Sarah even tries to explain the difference between simple present and present continuous to me, and I am happy to let her. This is so damn wonderful for all of us. I’m learning Chinese, they’re strengthening their English.

What impresses me, at least from a teaching perspective, is the seeming ability for young people to absorb new ideas with a greater ease than when they are older. At least, it seems like that here. These two little girls know all these words in English, and when I teach them a new word, they immediately put it to use. A couple of my high school students have to be dragged into new vocabulary, and are reticent to use it at all. Even my strongest student would only have the advantage of a high school vocabulary over these two little teachers.

(Yet another note: I am not speaking for myself. I don’t know if I can be unbiased toward my own abilities.)

Teaching college did not require me to have a degree in Education, but I know teaching high, middle, and elementary school does. I wish I knew how to properly articulate what I am seeing in more academic terms. I know very little of learning theory, save what I learned getting my CELTA, and toddler psychology from working at KidVille.

Is this an example of the increasing Western influence in China? As 2 Broke Girls, Harry Potter, and Spongebob make their way into the cultural scene, will more young people have a natural base level of English? Or is this an example, perhaps, of what happens when language training begins from a young age, as opposed to later in schooling? I have no doubt that those two girls, if they continue, will be incredibly sought after in the job market. As young as they are, they are well on their way to being bi-lingual in two of the most critical languages in the world today. I sincerely hope they find a way to use their natural skills.

They certainly pulled me out of my doldrums!

May the Force be with them.


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