An integral part of my teaching process is the whiteboard. I am constantly bouncing in and out of my chair as I write things on the board and then come back to discuss them with the students.
The image at the left is what I wrote during part of a class. You can see the huge diversity of topics.
This was part of a one-on-one class. The student (an adult man) is mid-level in his English skills, but incredibly inquisitive. I come to class with 3 hours of lesson plans, and sometimes don’t have time to do any of them–because he has so many questions and topics to discuss. I love classes like this. I wish every class involved the students walking in with a bushel full of questions, and me spending all my time doing my best to answer them. Honestly… If I get through an entire 2-hour class without deviating from the lesson plan, I’m half disappointed and half angry. It means that I haven’t engaged the students enough to get them thinking on their own and/or the students just don’t care.
As anyone who knows me will attest, it’s not difficult for me to stand up and talk for two hours. But… that’s not what I’m here to do.
Today, I prepared a lesson based on this article. In two hours we read the first 8 or 10 paragraphs. We spent the rest of the time debating international politics. In English. The first part isn’t a big deal. Everybody does that all the time. The second part, however, is. Discussions like this require not only an understanding of vocabulary, but the ability to put complex thoughts into a language that isn’t your own.
In contrast, I spent quite a bit of time this afternoon in my Chinese class trying to understand how “I feel quite cold” and “This tastes quite delicious” are (grammatically) almost identical. There’s only one word that’s different between the two (“cold” vs. “delicious”).
As I continually tell my students: Language isn’t about words, it’s about ideas. You can learn every word in the dictionary, but if you don’t understand the context and subtext, you won’t understand the language. Most European languages “think” the same. The rules may be different, but the basic way of approaching language is reasonably similar. Chinese and English are completely different at their very roots. The languages don’t “think” the same way.
I have an amazing respect for Chinese people who have learned even basic English. It is, arguably, the most illogical language on the planet–mostly because it’s not a single language; it’s an aggregate of dozens of bastardized interpretations (and outright thefts) of hundreds of other languages, pushed together and treated like it’s… well… logical.
Don’t get me wrong: one of the things I love most about English is that it is so wonderfully complex and illogical. That’s what makes it the most flexible, versatile, and fun language in the world.
And, oddly enough, as someone who has loved the complexity of English since grade school, it took me coming to China to truly appreciate just how beautifully fucked-up our language is (and I say that with a strong sense of pride). I have learned more about English in the past 3 years than I ever did in 12 years of public school and 5 years in university.
Einstein insisted that you do not truly know a thing unless you can explain it to someone who doesn’t know it.
I have always understood what he meant, but it has taken on a much more personal meaning since I’ve come here.
And I still have so much to learn.