Sunday, October 05, 2008

Wo Bu Hui Jiang Zhongwen*

*I Don't Speak Chinese

Taking a small break from politics, today's post will be a pure rant. Okay.

As you know, I'm taking a Chinese class at the same time that Bambina is in her kiddie Chinese class. Language instruction for kids is vastly different than that for adults. For instance, in the kid's class they are learning via songs about lao hu's (tigers) and rabbits and colors and numbers, and learning only the actual Chinese characters. In adult classes we use pinyin, which is the romanization of Chinese characters, such as "lao hu." It puts the Chinese characters into English lettering so we can understand it and be able to use a Chinese-English dictionary. Pinyin makes the language accessible, especially to adults who are so entrenched in their own language that they need that pinyin "bridge" between the two. The most difficult element of the Chinese language for Western speakers is the use of tones. Chinese has four tones: flat, rising, falling, and falling-rising. Using a particular tone changes the meaning of the word. Ma with one tone means horse. With another it means mama. With another it means you are asking a question. They are not "learned" by native Chinese speakers because they are simply an innate part of language acquisition from infancy (a lame comparison might be the fact that no one taught you specifically to raise your voice at the end of a question; you just do it. Or that you know if you say "Huh" (as in "Huh...that's interesting"), that that has a different meaning than "Huh?!?" (as in WTF?!) Nobody teaches you that, you just know it because that's how it has always been said to you.

With me so far?

Okay. So this class is 45 minutes long, once a week. Which means that anyone who wants to really learn Chinese needs to be engaging in other activities to supplement what we're getting in class, because no one is coming out of 20 weeks of one-day classes with any real knowledge of such a complex language. Well, there is a woman in our class who is apparently deeply dissatisfied with the course. Why? Because she is not learning the same things as her kids in the kiddie class, and how can she support their learning if she isn't getting the same stuff?

Well, here's why: the kiddie teacher, Wang Laoshi (Teacher Wang) specifically told us not to "review" the Chinese with the kids because we will no doubt get the tones all wrong and mess up their learning! Kids acquire languages far easier and faster than do adults, and because we are so entrenched in English, while they are still acquiring much of its nuance, even English-speaking kids can pick up the tonal aspects of Chinese with very little effort or thought. And in this teacher's experience, any "help" the kids get from English-speaking parents is, at this point, counterproductive. As we get better, we can help them. But while we are still figuring out how not to call our moms horses, best to leave the lao hu songs to the teacher. Fine with me.

But not with Angry Mom. Angry Mom is deeply confused in our adult class. She says its because the teacher is not very good and not reinforcing the kiddie lessons. My unbiased opinion is that she's confused for the following reasons:

1. She missed the first class, preferring to stay in the kid's class for that session.
2. She showed up at the second class with no pen or paper. I xeroxed all my notes for her and gave her appropriate writing implements.
3. She showed up at the third class without the notes I'd given her and then seemed frustrated that she couldn't follow along.
4. She does not review her notes during the week before the next class.
5. She can't get over the fact that she really wants a list of "vocabulary words" to study rather than going with the teacher's method, which is more of an immersion approach.
6. She is lazy and feels entitled to learn Chinese with little effort.

Okay, maybe I'm being mean on the "lazy" part. But who shows up to a class with no materials, not having looked at anything in the past 7 days--and then has the balls to say that the teacher sucks?!! And our teacher is the sweetest lady who just has to be freakin' tearing her hair out listening to us destroy her beautiful language. She's patient but she's also throwing us in at the deep end with the understanding that it will all become clear to us soon enough.

For mine and the BBDD's part, we're going with it. I'm just along for the ride, seeing what I can learn in the time we have. But I'm also supplementing with podcasts, fridge magnets with chinese words and phrases, a dictionary/grammar guide. In other words, I feel motivated to learn. Angry Mom seems to think that showing up is enough and she'll magically acquire knowledge of Chinese with little effort. And let's be honest. If there is one language that requires some effort, it's Chinese. You can't phone it in and think you're going to learn anything.

So why am I ranting? Because Angry Mom now wants the class to email the headmaster of the school to express our dissatisfaction with the teaching. BBDD told her that the teacher seemed open to our suggestions, so why not simply ask her to incorporate colors and numbers into our ongoing lessons? I mentioned that, in fairness to the teacher, she did ask in our first class what approach we preferred, and the class as a whole agreed that we preferred immersion. I also mentioned that the goal for most of the adults in the class is to be able to speak basic Chinese: ask a question, understand a question, say your name, how are you, thank you, engage in small talk a la "do you have family? what are your hobbies? where are you from?" Knowing a song about a tiger with two tails is not going to help me when I'm standing in Guangzhou with my new baby looking for some hydrocortisone cream in a store. I want to be able to ask "How much is this?" etc.

In class, I can tell she's nervous, but rather than just trying to say something when the teacher asks her a question, she says, "I'm not speaking yet; I'm going to listen for a little while longer." I recognize that am looking like the love child of Arnold Horshack and Tracy Flick in class as I raise my hand all the time, but that's because I want to mangle it in front of the teacher so I don't mangle it alone at home and think I've done it right. I'm not embarrassed to suck at Chinese because it's not like I'm in a class for Not Drooling While Eating, and doing poorly. It's okay to suck at Chinese. At least that's what I tell myself... So I tried to say that after class in a humorous way, but Angry Mom is not having any of it. Her needs are not being met and someone must pay.

It's so annoying and so "ugly American." Rather than being open to the experience of learning this language in the way native speakers have determined over years of teaching is the most effective, she's hung up on the fact that she's lost and confused. Hellooooo?! It's effing Chinese! You're SUPPOSED to be confused! It's SUPPOSED to be hard! You're SUPPOSED to feel inadequate! And yes, you are SUPPOSED to feel like your kids are smarter than you! I understand that different people do learn in different ways. So it seems to me that if this approach is not working for her, Angry Mom should research other alternatives or speak directly to the teacher, rather than clotheslining the teacher behind her back to the headmaster. It's the conflict-orientation that's bothering me, and just this accompanying sense of entitlement, that things just should not be this hard.

So I've decided to really go full-on Tracy Flick on Angry Mom. I'm writing some emails of my own to the headmaster, telling him what a fabulous teacher we have, what a fabulous class we have, and how delighted we all are with our learning.

Oh--and that's the last time I'm sharing my notes. :)


Beach Bum said...

My wife is learning Chinese so she can expose Miss Wiggles to it. My wife is doing it through CD's and she has caught on to some of it although with work and daily kid duties she can't get much more than that.

Anonymous said...

Every class has one of those people. It's always the teacher's fault that they aren't doing well or they are just totally negative people to begin with.