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Archive for April, 2006

I went back to Táibĕi yesterday. As usual, I couldn’t resist hitting at least one night-market while I had the chance.

Shilin Nightmarket

After that, I headed over to Xiao Yu’s place for Daniel‘s birthday party. He turned 28, and it was a pretty fun group. The group was split pretty much in half between his foreign friends and his English students. One of the students played a trick on me and told me she was Japanese. She was pretty shocked when I just started talking to her in Japanese, but kept her composure well enough to say she’d moved to Taiwan when she was little and that her family spoke a regional dialect anyway. I asked where, and she said Kyoto. “Great!” I said, “My old roommate was from Kyoto!” I then tried some Kyotoben dialect on her and she gave up joke. I guess it was really bad luck that she tried it on the one western guy she’d ever met who actually had friends from Kyoto. It was amusing, though. Another guest was a cool British chef guy, who cooked all kinds of tasty stuff for the party. He actually has a work visa sponsoring him to work as a chef. I’ll bet that was tough.

Daniel, Brian and I

Most interesting of all is that I got to meet Brian Mathes. He’s been studying at the language school at Zhèngdà this year, and it turns out he and one of my best friends from college, Ryuta, became good friends there. Unfortunately Ryuta’s already graduated from CU with a Chinese major, left Taiwan and gotten a job in Osaka. I really, really regret not keeping in touch with more of my Japanese friends from college. Here’s a pic of Kazuto and Ryuta hanging out in my dorm room five years ago:

Kazuto and Ryuta

It sounds like life as a language student is pretty good at Zhèngdà. Brian said that he started on the CIEE program, which charges something like $5000USD per quarter. He was put in the exact same classes as people who sign up directly through the school, and they only paid about $700USD per quarter. Being the bright guy that he is, he switched out of CIEE at his first opportunity. From what Brian and others have told me, Zhèngdà has small classes classes and offers better instruction than Shīdà or Táidà (except for ICLP).

While surfing before work this morning, I stumbled upon a truly terrifying article about TEFL, called The Slavery of Teaching English.

Sure, you dress it up a bit, you produce your own handouts, you try to have a bit of fun. But you are basically a busker playing the same tired old tunes. Even though most students are charming and receptive, it is an exhausting existence, a life of pure drudgery.

Nevertheless, you always have to be on form, ever the life-giver. And perhaps worst of all, you always end up using the omnipresent “Headway” textbooks, which make full obeisance to every modern piety, and whose pages are full of fatuous illustrations of wimpish little men in aprons doing the washing-up, while their briefcase-carrying womenfolk stride out of the front door to waiting limos.

So while teaching English is fine if you want to spend a year abroad, and great for meeting pretty foreign girls, considered as a career that might offer some degree of professional fulfilment, it fails on every count. No one with a scrap of ambition can possibly consider it. As the philosopher Alain de Botton says: “You become a TEFL teacher when your life has gone wrong.”

As a character in Tim Parks’s Cara Massimina said,

What was a language teacher in the end? A nobody. A mere failed somebody else.

What a bleak picture. The financial situation for EFL teachers in Asia is far better than that of the Europe-based teachers described in the article, but I still find some unsettling parallels between their situation and mine. While I earn far more money than those poor souls teaching English in Rome, I’m not learning a great deal on the job.

When I was working as a programmer, I was always learning new things. The skills needed to do the job were constantly changing and expanding. I used advanced mathematics on a regular basis; I learned a great deal about the business world; and I was an integral part of creating things, things made out of pure ideas and logic, that made my employers millions of dollars. In short, I was challenged and stimulated. Spending eight to ten hours a day doing such work, had a clear effect on me. My mind was sharper. I could think more clearly, I could read faster, I could learn new things more easily.

Unfortunately, TEFL may be taking a toll. I’ve only been at it for about four years, and I can already feel the effects. Anything more I’ve learned about L2 acquisition and any progress I’ve made in learning Mandarin is more than out-weighed by what I’ve lost in other foreign language skills, math skills, and programming skills. Now, my urge to create has been confined to just a few JavaScript tools. Now, I can’t remember how to do Laplace transforms or how to talk about politics in Japanese. I just remember the names of my students, what their problems are, how to deal with their parents, and what they should work on next class.

Teaching is important work, good work that can affect lives. Somebody has to do it, and as long as I am doing it, I’ll put my whole heart into it and do it as well as I can. I’m beginning to realize I can’t keep at it forever, though.

Since an email conversation I had with Big Ell, a while back, I’ve been thinking about what would be the “ideal” teacher in terms of language skills. What sort of language skills should someone who teaches ESL to Chinese speakers have? Obviously, there are a lot of variables to consider. The short list I’ve considered is as follows:

  1. The level of the students: More advanced students have less need of a teacher who can speak their language. Higher level students might have a stronger desire to be taught by a native speaker of the target language.
  2. The number of hours of study per week: The more class hours per week, the more likely an English immersion program would work.
  3. The age of the students: For college students learning a new language, few would argue against using L1 in class. For toddlers, it would be the opposite.

My students start from the absolute basics, only meet for four hours a week, and have quite a bit of homework. Clear communication with their parents is also an absolute necessity for a successful class. As a result, there’s no way whatsoever a teacher who couldn’t speak Chinese could teach my classes. Big Ell’s school, on the other hand, teaches smaller children, and meets for many more class hours per week. As far as I know, they don’t assign that much homework, either. Consequently, teachers don’t need to know any Chinese at all to work there.

Now that I’ve acknowledged how important these factors are, I’m going to set them aside and try to rank each type of teacher from worst to best. Obviously, this is pretty subjective.

  • Doesn’t speak any English: Totally useless.
  • Speaks English moderately well and doesn’t speak Chinese: the “fake American”, i.e., the Russian who knows just enough English to fake out the boss and secure a teaching job… not my idea of an ideal teacher.
  • Speaks Chinese and English moderately well: the most common teacher I’ve seen of this type is the Filipino domestic worker who takes up tutoring on the side. This sort of teacher can communicate with the students well, and teach reasonably well.
  • Speaks English fluently, but doesn’t speak Chinese: the typical fresh off the boat foreigner. This sort of teacher may be perfect for more advanced students, but wouldn’t be able to do much of anything at all for a beginner who only had a couple of hours per week of class time.
  • Speaks English moderately well and speaks Chinese fluently: most local teachers fit this pattern. They can explain grammar and usage points to low level students, answer their students’ questions and motivate their classes. They may pass some of their own phonics and grammar issues along to their students, but those same students can always address those issues later. Unless the students are advanced, this sort of teacher can do really well.
  • Speaks Chinese moderately well and speaks English fluently: most of the teachers at hard-core foreign run schools fit this mold. This sort of teacher can provide a “perfect” model for pronunciation, grammar, and usage, and is capable of explaining it all to low level students, answering their questions and motivating them. The down side is that all explanations, motivational speeches, etc… spoken in Chinese are less clear and less efficient than they would be coming from a native Chinese speaker. The market pays a premium for classes taught by this type of teacher.
  • Speaks both languages natively: Some Chinese-Americans and most children of westerners in Taiwan are in this category. They can provide a “perfect” English model, and communicate with their students with complete efficiency in Chinese when necessary. There’s no guarantee that people in this group actually are good teachers, but in terms of language skills it’s nearly impossible to get much better.
  • Speaks both languages completely fluently, and learned one as an adult:These teachers have all of the advantages of those in the category above, and one additional one. They know exactly what it takes to become fluent in a second language… and they’ve done it. In my opinion, this sort of person is the ideal that every student could strive to become and that every school could dream about hiring. The problem is, there’s a severe shortage of language teachers who have attained virtually native levels of skill in a foreign language. I mean, how many kids can “CCTV Daniel” and Dashan teach?

Today was a day that only comes once every few years. I was so absent minded that I managed to make Martin seem like some sort of organization and efficiency guru. Considering the lady who runs the local zăo cān diàn by the MRT said, “啊, 馬丁! 那個很糊塗的那個老外.認識!” when I asked if she’d met him, it’s saying a lot.

Martin’s been low on fridge space and I had an extra one here, so he and Rika came up to my place to pick it up. Being the clever guy that I was, I neglected to check my long unused fridge. Instead, I cleaned up my apartment so as not to offend Rika’s Japanese sensibilities too badly. When they showed up, their cab driver was waiting downstairs and they were in a bit of a hurry. In an impressive and manly display of strength, I reached across the TV sitting in front of it, and lifted the fridge up and over it… dumping nasty water that had been shut inside for months all over myself. With little choice, I grabbed a towel to mop up the floor as quickly as possible, handed the fridge off to Martin, washed off my feet and lower legs, changed clothes really quickly, put on my sandals and backpack, grabbed my shoes and socks and ran out the door. I figured I could just let my feet dry in the cab on the way into Táibĕi.

After getting into the city, we had to carry the fridge across the street and up seven floors of stairs. Rika pointed out that I’d forgotten my shoes in the cab. Doh! Well, it was about time to buy some new shoes anyway, so we headed up to Shilin night-market. It’s so huge that it’s also open during the day, and it’s got the only store I know of that sells a decent selection of shoes in my size. I got a pretty good pair for only $1500台幣, not too bad. Next on our agenda was Costco. There, nothing too disastrous happened and we got some great food! It’s been a year since I went and I love that place! I got all kinds of stuff you can’t buy in the town where I live, like rugged whole-wheat bread, a block of pepper-jack cheese, etc…

We got back to Martin’s place, unpacked all the stuff and then I had to take off, since had plans to meet up with Daniel at the train station at 8:00. Martin kindly lent me an umbrella, and I was off! It was pretty tight, but I managed to get there by 8:01. Daniel wasn’t there yet, so I just hung out in front of the California Fitness center and waited… until I remembered that our plans were for 9:00, not 8:15. Sigh… it’s just been one of those days. There was a neat mall behind the gym, so I figured I ought to seize the chance to check it out.

Since there aren’t any malls in the town where I live, it was pretty nice to browse around. Daniel showed up around 8:45, so the wait wasn’t too bad. We decided on seafood and drinks and so we headed into the MRT and were off! But, I forgot the umbrella Martin lent me. Geez I’m glad it was a Sunday.

What would happen if you focused completely on phonics and practiced saying just a few phrases until you got them perfect?

I teach students English from the absolute basics. During the first class, the kids learn how to say, “hello”, “hi”, “how are you”, “I’m fine”, “good-bye”, and the names and sounds of the following letters: A, B, C, D, and T. They also learn “everybody”, “boys”, “girls”, “stand up” and “sit down” as comprehension items and learn how to spell single syllables with the above letters. While there are some false beginners (basically everyone who’s finished 3rd grade), the first class has been genuinely hard for more than half of the students I’ve taught.

Needless to say, I have to use quite a bit of Chinese at the beginning. Otherwise, explaining the new material would take a lot of time, and explaining what was expected, and how homework should be done would be impossible. Unlike many schools, my school doesn’t make it a goal to make the kids use as little Chinese as possible. They can ask questions. However, it is a goal to make the kids use as much English as possible, and so we have to make it inconvenient for them to use it as a crutch.

Starting in the second semester (i.e. after 100 class hours), students have to ask for permission to use Chinese in class and if they say something they’ve learned how to say in English, I make them do so. If I ask a question in Chinese or if I ask what something means, of course they can answer in Chinese. However, if they use Chinese in other situations without asking first, I take a point. The additional twist that makes the rule both brutally effective and fun for the kids is that if one can catch another speaking Chinese and tell me, then I’ll give a point to the student who told me. Here’s a common scene:

Jerry: Is Cindy an ugly pig?
Jackson: No he’s not. He’s…
Cindy:我是GIRL啦! (I’m a GIRL!!)
<30 hands are suddenly up>
Me: What do you want to say, Eric?
<Everybody who didn’t get picked to answer groans>
Eric:Cindy spoke Chinese!
Me: That’s right! Cindy, I’ll take a point!
Eric: 我加分! (I get a point!)
<30 hands are suddenly up and Cindy’s laughing>
Me: Michelle?
<Everybody else groans>
Michelle: Eric spoke Chinese! Give me his point!

It’s amazing. They’re becoming like vultures: anytime anyone makes a mistake, everyone leans forward, hands raised, vying to answer for the extra point. And when it comes to snitching on their classmates about anything, they’ll do it in a heart-beat… as long as points are involved.

I’ve decided to follow John’s advice and make a separate blog for all of my Chinese writing. I think he’s right that doing so will help reduce English comments on Chinese posts. You won’t see any more Chinese posts here, but I’ll leave a link to my Chinese blog on the right side of the navigation bar at the top each page. I’ve translated what I could of the interface related stuff in my PHP templates, but I’m using the same stylesheets for each blog. The shift back and forth between the two blogs shouldn’t be too jarring.

P.S. Does anybody know how to change the output of the

<?php wp_get_archives(‘type=monthly’); ?>

WordPress tag so that it quits printing out the English names of the months?

Foreign loan words have always been one of the hardest parts of Chinese for me. Despite hearing it millions of times, I still don’t say 拜拜 instead of 再見, or other alternatives. I don’t know why, but for some reason, I just don’t like saying instead of 打電話, either. Above all, I have absolutely no desire to start throwing English words into my sentences like so many “trendy” people in 台北 do. I’m not happy with saying “打 tennis” instead of 打網球, and I have no idea why.

Maybe it’s because I already speak English fluently and don’t see throwing it into my Chinese as a sign of coolness. I don’t think that’s it, though. I always used to love using all the foreign loan words I could, when I was learning Japanese. I even found my self grinning and muttering things like offisu waka (office worker) or konpyuta saiensu (computer science) to myself during my first few months of learning Japanese. There’s something about how thoroughly loan words are turned into Japanese that I found appealing. Maybe it’s because the phonics of Japanese loan words are changed to fit the languages, where as Taiwanese people sometimes, but not always, try not to change the pronunciation of foreign loan words in Chinese?

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One weird thing that doesn’t fit the trend I mentioned above, is that I love foreign loan words in Chinese when they are company names and foods. I like 谷歌, 肯德基, and most of all, 雅虎

Has anybody else out there loved loan words in one language, but wanted to avoid them in another?

大家好. 我大約六個月之前開始寫這個blog. 中文名字叫”韋小馬”. 我知道很多臺灣人覺得這個名字有一點像古代的名字,但是這是我第一個中文老師幫我取的名字. 他自己姓韋,所以這個名字我不能換. 我是從美國科羅拉多州來的, 現在住在桃園縣龜山.

以前在美國我是個電腦程式設計師,先做電動3D引擎,然後在一些網路公司做Perl網路軟體. 後來我回去大學,念日文系. 畢業之後我到瓜地馬拉,做一些義務工作. 大部分是幫Xela市政府設置一些免費的網路服務. 2002年底來臺灣開始教英文. 我對語言學很有興趣, 果然也是對教語言有興趣. 當我剛剛來臺灣的時候有一點難過. 因為我那時候的學生的進度很慢,所以我覺得我的工作沒有意義. 說實在我那時候教書的經驗全部是教大學生的. 那時候另外一個問題是我不會講中文. 還有我住在嘉義, 嘉義沒有國語中心. 2003年,我自己的進度和學生的進度兩個都很差! 但是現在比較好了. 我已經習慣住在這, 雖然還有一些在語言上溝通的問題,但是比以前好很多. 而且我現在工作的學校,學生的進度滿快. 所以,今年才有成就感. 在這個blog我已經寫很多英文文章, 有很多關我在臺灣教英文經驗.

我今天才決定要開始寫中文blog是因為我想要改善我的國語. 最近我並不是好的學生. 工作很忙,還有我常常會寫英文blog, 週末都會到臺北跟朋友出去玩, 很少看課本. 結果就是我沒什麼進步. 可能我現在會講的國語比去年多一點,但是發音和文法,兩個都退步. 在這個blog我百分之百一定會寫一些錯誤. 也會寫很多怪怪的中文. 我希望不會被罵,但是我會高興地接受你們的建議,改正錯的地方. 我也希望有機會瞭解多一些本地的文化.

還有: 我學校為我寫的介紹在這裡.

I’ve finally made up my mind. I’m going to start blogging in Chinese. I’ve been hesitant for a few reasons. Primarily, my Chinese isn’t that great. This blog already generates three or four pieces of genuine, curse-ridden hate mail a month, primarily from ESL educators offended by my ideas about teaching, but also a few from Chinese and Chinese-Americans offended by my view of Taiwan.

By blogging in Chinese, I’ll give both groups that much more ammunition with which to attack me. Truth be told, I will make plenty of mistakes. I make more grammar and word usage mistakes in Chinese than some of my more advanced students do in English. Unlike, CFL blogger extraordinaire Alaric, I don’t have anybody I can ask to check it for me at the moment, either.

So, why am I doing it? Well, with all the time I spend on work and pleasure reading, I really haven’t put much effort into my Chinese. I honestly don’t think it’s improved at all in the last year. My vocabulary is a bit bigger, but my pronunciation and grammar are worse. If I just do, say, 1/5 of my blogging, or even 1/10 of my blogging in Chinese, I’m sure it have a good influence on my Chinese skills. In the end, why give a damn about what all these random strangers think of me? I’d rather actually have good Chinese than just seem like I do. The way I see it, each time someone tells me I got it all wrong is a learning opportunity. If Daniel’s not afraid, then neither am I!

I would like a bit of advice, though. Should I leave posts of both languages in the same blog, like Darin? Or maybe make a completely separate blog for the Chinese?