I used to think there was nothing in the world worse than grading a third grader’s sloppy English. I was very, very wrong. As a semi literate lăowài, I can tell you that grading a 2nd grader’s sloppy Chinese is much worse. I brought it on myself, I suppose. My school’s normal curriculum does include some translation tests, to ensure that the kids know what the heck they’re talking about as opposed to just manipulating grammatical structures, but not that many. The majority of the tests involve answering English questions in English.

Due to the influence of the L2 acquisition research I’ve been reading, I had the oh so brilliant idea of focusing on comprehension tests for my experimental 2nd grader program. Instead of spending the time it would take to get little kids (who can’t even write the letters of the alphabet reliably) to write out answers in English on quizzes, I give only spelling quizzes (in which phonetic equivalents are accepted), and English to Chinese translations. In other words, the kids have to know be able to comprehend it when I say “a police officer” and write “警察“, but they don’t have to be able to write out “police officer”. Obviously, since this is an English class and not a Chinese class, I let them write 注音 whenever they don’t know how to write the character.

There are definite advantages to this approach. The kids can acquire vocabulary much more quickly, since the focus is all on aural comprehension. Once their writing skills have developed a bit more, then they can start writing. There is a HUGE down side, though. Grading sucks. About a third of these little guys have ATROCIOUS Chinese handwriting, and they nearly all make frequent Chinese mistakes. Of course I’m not going to take points for Chinese mistakes, but even their zhùyīn is wrong sometimes. It makes grading… interesting. Single words aren’t too bad, but the sentences are killing me.

Here’s the sort of thing I often see:
Doctor, written with a 1 instead of a medicine character
The first time I saw this, I just thought, “Sorry, kid. You’re mother tongue ain’t that easy.” I had assumed that he had replaced the medicine character with the character for “one”. The Chinese word for doctor is 醫生, which is obviously much harder to write than 一生. Heck, I think I tried to write it as 一生 once or twice in my first semester of Chinese. Actually, though, he didn’t write the wrong character. He just wrote the zhùyīn for the sound “yī” so big that it looked like a character.
A mistake caused by a heavy Taiwanese accent.
Here, is an even simpler mistake to understand, but ultimately a much worse class of mistake to have to deal with when grading. Basically, Taiwanese people have really messed up pronunciation of Mandarin. Most have troubles differentiating between “zi” and “zhi”, “si” and “shi”, “ci” and “chi”, “ru” and “lu”, “er” and “e”, and a host of other sounds which involve curling the tongue. This student had meant to write “尸ㄨㄓㄨㄛ”, or “shūzhuō”, which means desk. However, due to her constant exposure to a heavy Taiwanese accent, she thought it was “尸ㄨㄗㄨㄛ”, or “shūzuō”. I’m sure grading stuff that little kids write is a little bit of a pain, even for locals. But with my Chinese skills, which admittedly fall short of literacy, it’s a pain. Not only do I have read in Chinese, which is slow for me, but I also have to guess what the kids meant when they make mistakes.