Saturday, March 3, 2007

Students need communicative skills

By Pete Marchetto

My favourite new vocabulary taught to me by my students is 'operose' meaning onerous. My least favourite is 'autocade', a variation on 'motorcade' which, when you look at the word parts, is an ugly one. I advised the students to use 'motorcade' instead, not that I can see them having much use for it. I also found myself getting confused by the word 'bimonthly'; did it mean twice a month or once every two months? It transpires, to my surprise and disturbance, that it can mean both.

'Bimonthly' aside, 'operose' and 'autocade' demonstrate something I've long felt in the repetitious complaint amongst some that foreign teachers are regarded as mere window-dressing. I flatter myself in thinking that even if that is how I'm regarded - and I sincerely hope I'm not - then the reality is very different. It's clear from talking to the students that they have comparatively little understanding of English as a tool for general communication having had it taught to them like Mathematics as some other purely abstruse subject.

What we expose the students to far better than their Chinese teachers sometimes seem capable of is English as it is used 90% of the time, ie: in daily conversation. I am slowly weaning my students off the idea that there is some perfect 'answer' as to how to express oneself along lines of 1 + 1 = 2; that 'often' might be pronounced with a 't' and might not; that the simplest words are usually the best; that 'delicious' used repeatedly lacks sincerity; that they, with their Chinese accents, are often more understandable to most of the English-speaking world than, say, a native English speaker who has had the misfortune to be have been born in Yorkshire and perhaps it's not worth the dozens of hours of effort to change when a certain level has been reached for that fraction of a percent of 'improvement'; dozens of things that move English away from the purely academic and into the realms of practical use and more intuitive understanding.

It's much the same with my culture classes. There is no point at all preparing facts and figures for the class because every time I do I find they know everything I've researched already and then some. That said they're still hung up on the idea that it's compulsory for meeting British people to talk about the weather, that London is perpetually foggy, that we all carry umbrellas, that Christmas is a joyful time of the year and similar nonsense.

Back to oral lessons and, when discussing them with my students, I liken them to someone learning how to paint. After a while you have to move away from learning how to mix pigments, which brush to use, how to prepare the canvas, the rules of perspective and just PAINT something. Heaven knows they only get an hour or two a week with me to do it in; the rest of the time they'll be crammed with still more book-larnin'.

I still think / hope that I'm appreciated by my department. I KNOW I'm appreciated by my students. Above and beyond that, I know the job I'm doing is valuable and so do my best to do it well by making it interesting, challenging, amusing, realistic and so on.

Two of my most pleasant memories in China are of oral lessons. One of a very slow student lacking in confidence suddenly discovering he was able to make his fellows laugh through his sense of humour in English. From that lesson on he bonded better with classmates from more sophisticated backgrounds, (his family being cave-dwellers), and became enthusiastic about expressing himself in lessons. He advanced tremendously in the months that followed.

The other was a debate in class where people became heated. I was tempted to wade in and stop the arguments but held back. To my surprise no one lapsed into Chinese and the argument came close to abuse. Things calmed down, the belligerents made up... and I realised that the instinct that had led me to let it run had been a good one; for the first time ever the students had used English out of a desperate URGE to express themselves in a genuinely emotional situation which had then to be resolved through delicate negotiation.

For those of us who don't feel valued, it doesn't mean that what we're doing isn't valuable. Just a thought...

1 comment:

mike perrington said...

that's waht teaching should be all about.

putting the students into a situation that makes them use english.