Aug 17, 2009

Would I teach me?

Every day, there's at least one student whose behavior baffles me. They plead for conversation practice, then fall mute when I start chatting. They bury their heads so deep in their dictionaries to understand one word, they end up tuning out the most valuable parts of the lesson. Sometimes, when I explain a bit of idiomatic English, I get the impression that they plain ol' don't believe me (Down under means Australia? I think they're directions, teacher.")

I get frustrated, but then I wonder if I'm just the pot calling the kettle black in the language learning arena. Having been in Istanbul for two and a half months, I'm ashamedly slow to develop my caveman Turkish ("Me Canada, you Turkey." "Bus go where?" "Sandwich, please.") Then again, my Turkish is self-studied with a stew of tourist phrasebooks. Maybe I would be different in a proper classroom setting? This odd idea popped into my head this morning. I can point fingers all day at the "bad students" in my classes. Roles reversed, though, would I be so different?

In South Korea, my boss took it upon himself to give me Korean lessons twice a week, and our Eastern/ Western notions of learning butted heads completely. I wanted a basic arsenal of vocabulary for ordering food, directing taxis, and making pithy weather chit-chat with my neighbours. He wanted me to learn the ins and outs of linguistic formalities, teaching me a half-dozen different ways of saying "how are you?" with varying degrees of respectfulness. The lessons tapered off as both teacher and student grew frustrated. From where I stood, he was disregarding my language needs. From his perspective, I was disregarding crucial Korean formalities.

As a student, I wouldn't have won any prizes in a Korean classroom, where correctness is crucial and "points for trying" is an odd concept. However, I'm sure a "Korean for Tourists" course would have floated my boat, where fluency wouldn't have been the overall goal. I guess the lesson was that, as a teacher, I must bear in mind what my students want to learn, not what I feel they should learn. Of course, this concept gets tougher when you're met with a culture different from your own. You can't say, "come on, I know it's tough, just give it a shot!" to someone for whom saving face is crucial and errors are humiliating. You can't have repetitive one-speaker-at-a-time grammar drills with students from a highly social, expressive culture.

So would I teach me? Of course I would, and it would be delightful. Student Anne and Teacher Anne would have the same precise expectations when it comes to education and language learning. But the whole challenge of foreign language teaching is that your students aren't like you. Some days, I wish they were, though. I could finally put to use my homemade arsenal of Desperate Housewives-themed worksheets...

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