Monday, 5 August 2013

Trading Places

I know this classroom well; I've taught at least three different classes in it over the past two years. As I sit here, I remember the time Chen fell over backwards in the back lefthand corner. Chen was a big lad who liked to lean back in his chair and had been warned that he could hurt himself. I'll never forget the split second it finally happened and he went heels over head, how scared I was that he'd broken his back--or how the entire class (including me and, eventually, Chen) roared with laughter when we saw he was okay. There are many familiar features: the place where I whacked my own head on a ledge when I straightened back up after leaning over to help a student; the window I could never manage to get open; the nasty radiators that could not be turned down in the winter when they turned boiling hot. And finally, there is the screen that, when pulled down, is almost impossible to roll back up; it needs to be pulled hard at a certain angle. Perfecting the technique took me a good year.

So it feels weird that here in this very familiar room I am not at the head of the classroom with the attendance sheet and a textbook; I am a student. And it is weirder still that the person teaching us is a Chinese graduate student. For the past three years, I have been teaching Chinese graduate students English. Here I am now, a student, being taught Mandarin by a Chinese graduate student. In fact, although this feels weird, it also feels great. Like being the household help for three years and then, one day, you are the one sitting down, putting her feet up while someone else is fussing around, fixing your meals, plumping up the pillows.

Then the class starts. The teacher introduces himself and tells us all about Mandarin, that there are five tones, 23 initial sounds, 36 final sounds, and a number of vowels. I do my best to listen carefully, but I'm distracted by our teacher's English. It is so good! His pronunciation is excellent, his use of articles is impressive--'the' and 'a' tend to be tough for Asian students-- and he uses stress well. Even as this poor man speaks, I am mentally giving him marks for fluency, cohesion, coherence, and pronunciation. Until he fumbles at the console to turn on the computer and I suddenly realize afresh that I am the student. He pulls down the awkward screen and it goes down too far and he struggles mightily to get it to up again. And, of course, fails, because this is the screen from hell that requires a good ten minutes of sweaty fiddling before it will cooperate. He worries that he has broken the screen, and my husband and I (my husband has taught in this classroom too) try to reassure him that he has not. I fight the urge to jump up and show him how to fix it. Finally, he gets the screen to roll up half a foot and the class begins.

I am acutely aware of several things by the end of the class:  1) I have been overloading my students by asking too much of them too quickly, 2) Sometimes people just need to sit there and not be called on, 3) Screwing up in front of a bunch of people is really, really embarrassing, 4) Chinese vowels are much harder than Japanese vowels, 5) Chinese consonants are harder and more plentiful than Japanese consonants, and 6) I have no concept of tones.

Years ago, I studied Japanese with three brainy Chinese students who assured me that I would be able to pick up Chinese in no time with my Japanese ability. I am ashamed to say that I believed them. They told me that I would surely find learning Chinese as easy as Portuguese learners found learning Spanish, or vice versa. "The characters are mainly the same," they said, "and the grammar is easy." They said nothing about the pronunciation, and in my youthful naivete, I just assumed it would be no problem.

By the end of the class, I am limp, exhausted, humiliated, and feeling a mixture of compassion and irritation for the teacher--he threw so much at us! Expecting us to get our mouths around all those hard sounds, then telling us that the tones were wrong!  And I am filled with respect and admiration for him too: he taught the entire class using English, a foreign language for him, however good he is at it. I would find it exhausting to teach a class using a foreign language.

"Wow, that was overwhelming, wasn't it?" my husband murmurs as we leave.

I nod. Seldom have I learned so much in such a short time. And very little of it was Chinese.


Lisa Shafer said...

Very nicely written.
I've had 25 years of fighting screens, tripping, forgetting something, etc. in front of students, so I'm rather immune to embarrassment. I just remind them it's a lesson in how they, too, can some day just go on if something happens to them in public, that life does not end if you have toilet paper stuck on your shoe, or whatever.
Mandarin. Wow. You are brave. My ex could speak Mandarin, so I learned early on that I can only hear the tones well enough to know that I can't say the tones right. :D
In Mandarin, I know how to say "How are you?" "thank you," "This is my wife," and "rabbit stomach." The latter two did not prove very useful for me when I visited China 12 years ago. ;)

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Maybe you should ease into this by learning a few key phrases that were popular with your own students, such as "Homework again? But it's the weekend!" and "Will this be on the test?"

Anonymous said...

I think learning a foreign lang as an adult is the single thing that helped me most as a teacher.

Mary Witzl said...

Lisa -- 'Rabbit stomach'? You can't just walk away from that one! Was it something you learned by accident-- i.e., aiming for something else-- or was there a need for that particular phrase. (Reminding myself to learn 'What is this meat, please?' in Mandarin.)

As a teacher, I've coped with TP'd shoes, accidentally unbuttoned skirt, walking into trash cans, and so much more. Definitely effective for raising your embarrassment threshold.

Anne--How right you are! One of the things I was dying to ask the teacher was how to say 'This is boring' in Mandarin, but for obvious reasons, I resisted the urge. But 'Do you understand what in the world she's saying?' is something I have learned--and I know I've heard my students use it. (As if their faces hadn't already told me--but it's still useful.)

Elizabeth--I couldn't agree more! I told myself that I knew how my students felt, having spent years studying French and Japanese. But it's been so long since I actually sat in the hot seat that this 'refresher' language-learner experience was a real kick in the teeth.

Charles Gramlich said...

Good to have the experience, it sounds like. I'd hate to try and learn a new language at my age.

Dale said...

Oh dear, yes, those tones! So hard to learn to take tone as semantic rather than emotional! The only similarity to clutch at is that we do use rising tone to signal a question, which is kinda sorta semantic. But oh man, that was so hard for me. I never really got over that hurdle, I'm afraid.

Christie said...