Thursday, 13 May 2010

My Inner Language Learner Is Hurting

It's the last hour of a long, three-hour class. Attentions are straying, and although I'd love to put us all out of our misery and dismiss everybody early, I can't do it: the final is next week. "Haluk, can you tell me which room of the house has the yellow floor?" I ask hopefully.

Caught off guard, Haluk hunches forward and chews his lip as he desperately searches his book for the answer. But it's no good: he hasn't been paying attention and he doesn't have the foggiest idea what the answer is.

"Teacher, I am very boring," he confesses.

I smile inwardly, tempted to let this one stand. No matter how many times I tell my students that their feelings should be expressed with -ed words and not -ing words -- embarrassed, bored, excited, interested -- they always tell me that they are boring, frustrating, tiring, etc. And although they often frustrate, tire and bore the socks off me, I know what they really mean.

"You mean you're bored, right?"

"Teacher, we are all boring," Haluk insists, gesturing around the classroom. My mouth twitches as I see heads nodding in confirmation. Fortunately, one of Haluk's smarter classmates leans over and whispers a correction.

"Bored!" Haluk almost shouts, throwing up his hands. "We are bored!"

"I know how you feel," I reason, "But we've got to cover these last few units. And there's just one more week until the final exam."

There is a collective sigh. "Teacher," Sevgi groans, "this book very bored."

"Boring," I mutter, irritated beyond reason. Because the truth is, their textbook isn't the least bit boring. There are colorful photographs and cartoons and the language is relevant and useful. The authors have made a real effort to include subjects kids are likely to know about and find interesting, and the vocabulary has been chosen using a carefully researched data base. There are funny stories and diverting games and intriguing puzzles and optional songs, and where do these kids get off calling this book boring?

Ooh, I could show them what boring really is! My first Japanese textbooks had columns full of drills. There were black and white illustrations of dopey looking people in business suits, stilted conversations with no attempt made at humor or intrigue, and long, tiresome vocabulary lists. And our book didn't come with CDs that included songs and funny conversations and interesting extracts from real radio programs; we had to go to the language laboratory to do 30 minutes a day of drills there. Watashi wa yubinkoku e ikimashita, a woman with a perky voice intoned, and we sat with headphones on and parroted the same thing back to no one at all.

The teachers at the school I attended in Japan wrote their own book and it was a brave effort, but it was nothing more than poorly mimeographed pages stapled together, clumsily illustrated. Some attempt was made to make the topics chosen interesting and there was a running story about an American man (with the unlikely and hilarious name of Penny) and his adventures studying Japanese. My fellow classmates and I weren't big fans of the fictitious Penny. He sounded like a hopeless nerd, but also like a huge kiss-ass. He spoke perfect Japanese, knew what to do in every possible situation, and had a lot of admiring Japanese friends. He was depicted as blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and pointy-nosed, which we particularly loathed. The only good thing about the Penny book was that we all got a lot of pleasure running him down after class.

When my Japanese got to the intermediate level, I was desperate to acquire more vocabulary, so I bought half a dozen books to help me. None of them were illustrated and all of them had long lists of vocabulary with phonetic readings and English translations. No context was provided, and there was no attempt made to show the frequency of occurrence.

The year I took the Japanese Language Proficiency Examination, it seemed like every bookstore in Tokyo had suddenly begun to stock Japanese textbooks that were more than grocery lists of drills and vocabulary -- books with good listening exercises, useful vocabulary with plenty of context, and pertinent photographs, all professionally bound and published. All those years I spent studying Japanese, I'd have killed for a textbook half as good as the one my students find so boring.

"This story very boring," Sevgi scoffs, flicking a long manicured nail at the page. The story in question is about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and their house in Mexico City. It might not be a thrill a minute, but it beats drills and vocabulary lists with a stick.

For my next lesson, maybe I'll bring in a couple of phone books. And perhaps an introduction to Penny is in order.


Carole said...

"It might not be a thrill a minute, but it beats drills and vocabulary lists with a stick."

Maybe you just need to beat your students with a stick. No, not really, but seriously you are too nice.

Chris Eldin said...

ahahahaah! I'm understanding more and more about your students.

Vijaya said...

Hah! These kids are too spoiled (mine included). I don't even want to hear the word "bore" or any of its forms. If I hear it, I put the kids to work!

Tabitha said...

LOL!! I like the phone book idea. Or a dictionary. Or thesaurus. :)

Speaking of learning languages, I am finally starting to learn my husband's native language in India. He couldn't teach me sentence structure, verb conjugation, or grammar because he went to English speaking schools and never learned those things. He can read his language, but he couldn't tell me anything about how to construct a proper sentence.

I finally found some actual lessons with actual grammar and sentence structure. So I'm hoping I might actually be able to learn it now. :)

Jacqui said...

When I took Japanese, the spoken lessons were all dialogues we had to memorize. They were so painful that a friend and I took to staying up late figuring out how to extend them in ways that we thought were hilarious. Our senseis did not find us nearly as funny as we found ourselves, i fear.

Robin said...

I love hearing about Penny! What an annoying boy. I definitely think you should resurrect Penny.

I think my kids' textbooks rock. I love the little tidbits of information in the colorful side bars. The boys hate the side bars. If I suggest they read them they whine so loudly my teeth ache, and explain that those side bars are useless, because they won't be on the test. Yes. Knowledge is useless. Just shoot me.

Robert the Skeptic said...

When my wife and I moved in together before we were married, we were combining all of our stuff. We had the same Tupperware, many of the same record albums, and some books. We both had the same high school Spanish texts... which means we learned the same dialogs.
"Hola, Isobel. como esta?"
"Estoy bien, gracias. E tu?"

I remember they were as boring as the Dick and Jane books we learned to read from in grade school.

So maybe you have something there, Mary... bring in a phone book and have them role play the scenario of needing to call and explain to a plumber they have a leaking toilet. You may be onto something there!!

Pat said...

Gosh learning Japanese - that's like a foreign language to me;)

Seriously though remembering how kids - including my own - used to appreciate hearing that even one had difficulties when learning - it might be worth sharing some of your experiences - maybe it might work with them.

Kim Ayres said...

Teach them Japanese for a day, then perhaps they'll appreciate the English lessons :)

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- I hope my students never find my blog. If they saw your comment, they'd definitely set you straight! I don't beat them, but I'm not all sweetness and light. There are times I would LOVE to take a swing at my guys, but they're bigger than I am.

Chris -- If you could see them in action, you'd be amazed! For the most part, they're insufferable spoiled brats, but I'm lucky to have some decent ones too.

Vijaya -- My mother had zero tolerance for the word 'bored'. She claimed that anyone who got bored was just begging for work. We quickly learned not to whine about boredom unless we felt like dusting and ironing. Maybe I'll make my guys carry their own phone books!

Tabitha -- Good for you! (I'm assuming you're learning Hindi, but you might be learning Bengali? You've told me before, but I've forgotten.)

When I went to graduate school, teaching grammar wasn't in vogue, so no one taught us how to teach English grammar. I've been picking it all up on the job so to speak, and it hasn't been easy! If I hadn't taught myself English grammar first, I'd never have been able to teach English to beginners.

Jacqui -- Which books did you use, I wonder? I seem to remember ours were the Young and Nakajima series. They were full of dialogues, but they really did come in handy.

Our teachers couldn't for the life of them understand our negative feelings about Penny when we let them slip. He was apparently a REAL student, according to one of them. Learning that didn't help his cause much.

Robin -- Our books have side bars too and I've heard the exact same complaint: Will that be on the test? If it the answer is no, no one gives a hang about it no matter how compelling it is.

Sometimes I think that the more interesting and kid-friendly they make books, the less inclined kids are to learn -- and vice versa. It just kills me to hear about African students puzzling their way through old copies of The Mill on the Floss and managing to glean some knowledge from them when my privileged, entitled little brats are yawning over stories about shark attacks and fast food.

Robert -- Whoa, you and your wife had the ALM Spanish books too, didn't you? They were GREAT! I was able to get around Mexico with those dialogues, and I'll never forget the French one about the library: "Pas loin d'ici en face de l'eglise." What a crying shame they don't have ALM books for English. I'd say my spoiled students have more than earned them.

Pat -- Sadly, most of them aren't interested in hearing about my language learning experiences. I've tried telling them, but they just throw up their hands and say in Turkish, "Oh, she's on about Japanese again!" I have one Japanese student now. HE is interested in hearing about my Japanese-learning experiences.

Kim -- They're not worth it. I'm feeling particularly pissed off today. If I taught them anything off the curriculum, I'd be inclined to pick something like janitorial skills. Then I'd tell them that this would probably come in handy considering how unmotivated they are to learn anything else.

Chocolatesa -- Color me envious -- what I would do to have that sort of ability! What a lovely description of your teacher! You really ought to write that up in proper story and post it on your blog.

Charles Gramlich said...

Students sure can be boring. That is definitely true!

Postman said...

I didn't know how good I had it! The Korean textbooks Charles got to teach me were like the latter kind: lots of pictures, fun exercises, not too much stilted repetition or vocabulary, and plenty of context. Whew...glad to know it'll be the same in Japan...

AnneB said...

Pity there's no time to make them translate Barbar Kingsolver's ovel about Diego and Frida!

Mary Witzl said...

Charles -- Amen. Sometimes they bore me so much I'm inclined to agree with them and say, "I know, you're boring -- there's nothing you can do about it." But the urge to set them straight about -ing and -ed participial adjectives always gets the better of me.

Postman -- I think it's an age thing. Back when I was a teenager, textbooks were supposed to be boring. If they had pretty pictures and fun stories in them, they were for little kids. I look at my daughter's chemistry book and think even I could have learned chemistry with books that interesting. Sometimes when I'm messing around on my computer, I come across informative, helpful, graphically intriguing websites on Japanese grammar and I feel so envious I could cry. And I feel old and cranky too: I can hear the old farts who used to bore me saying, "You kids today don't know how good you've got it!" Which is exactly how I feel...

AnneB -- I suspect a few of my students couldn't even point to Mexico on the map; even an intriguing couple like Frida and Diego didn't pique their interest. And apart from a handful of Kazakh and Kyrgyz students, most of the kids I teach would find it a challenge to render 'Make Way for Ducklings' into Turkish.

Charlie said...

In Catholic high school I was required to take two years of Latin—you know, since so many people speak it.

The second year was hell on earth: lists and lists of conjugaiting verbs in about 20 tenses—pluperfect, past plupefect. etc.

The only thing Latin has done for me is decipher legalese, another foreign language.

Charlie said...


Jacqui said...

We used Eleanor Harz Jorden's Beginning Japanese and Writing Japanese. I think they were actually pretty good and the dialogues really were useful -- we were just smart alecks.

Kit said...

How about making them come up with their own exciting plotline.... in English.
My 7 year old got so bored of the early readers that she has leapt straight in to reading proper story books... maybe you could get some young adult fiction to hold out as a lure?

Mary Witzl said...

Charlie -- Latin -- what a great idea! The next time my wimpy kids whine about how tough it is to remember that 'met' is the past tense of 'meet', perhaps I'll trot out some Latin verbs to show them what a REAL challenge is. I had to learn 1,980 Chinese characters when I studied Japanese, some of them with over 20 strokes in them. It's very hard to sympathize when they moan about memorizing irregular English verbs.

Jacqui -- I welcome smart aleck students because I like to see that creative spark they have -- the ability to play around with language and do funny things with it. The fact that you could play around with your dialogues and extend them shows that you were good, creative language learners. I yearn for students like you!

Kit -- I wish I could say that most of my students are bored because they aren't challenged enough, but in fact the opposite is true: they are bored because the books we are using are too difficult for them and many of them are bone-lazy. We've got all sorts of age-appropriate books for them to read, we have them do fun exercises like reconstructing stories, etc., and they are STILL bored. I think I could bungee-jump from the ceiling, singing at the top of my lungs and waving firecrackers about and they'd just yawn...

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