Chalkface: Tang-tied in China

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“I’m not a ploduckachee!”

“Plo-ducka-chee”  No, it’s pronounced “product.”

“Ploduckachee” Let’s try again shall we?

Pro “Plo” du “dah” ct “kachee”

I think that’s probably enough for the moment, don’t you Uncle Tommy?

(Actual conversation, March 2018)

There are a lot of really good English speakers in China. They’re often the ones who have started learning English at a young age, and despite the rote-style learning of school English lessons and dry-as-dust textbooks. They’ve beaten the odds of achieving fluency by overcoming such challenges. At some point, a good number of students would have enrolled in extra-curricular English classes, gone on to study English at university and retained much of the extensive vocabulary delivered to them during this time. There are also those that, despite limited academic opportunities, managed to gain fluency by chatting with any foreigner they could get their hands on.

Some youngsters from poor families became fluent English speakers while working in Western restaurants.

There are also a lot of people who can’t or aren’t willing to speak English in China. Reasons of shyness and patriotism are two examples. That’s okay. We don’t need to import cultural hegemonism here and demand that everyone speak English. That said, it can be fascinating to hear the English words emitted from their mouths:

“Bah-nah-xia”  What was that?  Oh – banana!  Great.

“Bu-la-la”

yellow banana fruit

This writer has butchered many a Chinese word over the past 18 years. People have generally been polite and smiled in a confused sort of a way. They nodded despite not having a clue about what had just been said.  Many of my students rolled about laughing whenever I translated my own classroom instructions. How about that for pronunciational motivation? Ask them to raise their hands and (mistakenly) say “pig feet, pig feet!”  Mispronounce traffic jam and get foot ache, ask them to wait but instead mumble something about murder – goodness! Talk about loss of face.

A few of the older folk can speak Russian, or bits of it. That was their foreign language of choice during 1950s China. They’re the hardest students to teach. You really can’t teach old (do we have to use the word dogs here?) “codgers” new linguistic tricks. My mother in law (64 at the time of this blog) can count to ten. So can her husband:

“wan-ah, too-ah, fee-ah, fo-ah, figh-ah, sick, say when, eh-ah, line-ah, tin!”

It starts slow and speeds up at number six and reaches an epic speed by ten. It’s as if by slowing down they’ll stop and forget everything. Like riding a bicycle, they’re going to fall over if they peddle too slowly. The in-laws speak Cantonese well and can use mobile phones with impressive ability. They’re handy with the wok and very efficient in their tasks. Both are punctual and never late. Most of their generation are the same. But as English students…..

The younger students have trouble with certain English sounds including the th digraph (a fancy way of saying consonant cluster – the t and h phonemes). You can repeat both the voiceless- (this, that, those) and the voiced- (three, throw) fricatives (more linguistic jargon) and end up with:

this = dis

that = dat

those = doze

And:

three = fee

throw = srow

Show them how to place their tongue between their teeth and watch the spittle fly! Encouraged by this, I created a nasty little tongue twister:

These three fleas have free fees

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Courtesy of Cambridge Connect 1 (textbook)

As the 2018 Soccer World Cup progresses, it’s a good time to learn the names of some  of the participating countries (“China is terrible at soccer” they all say – I don’t know, my country is currently ranked 120th, 40 places below China). Portugal, Peru, and Argentina are particularly tricky for many to pronounce. Australia is another difficult one.

They inadvertently swear:

“My father is a bastard” (actually – “My father is a bus driver”)

“I’m wearing a brown shit” (shirt)

These are easy mistakes to make though the prevalence of Western computer games and the assorted potty mouth language of the accompanying soundtrack has introduced a world of colourful slang to the vocabularies of many students. This is concerning when you’re trying to teach “We Will Rock You” by Queen. The word rock lends itself to naughty substitution.

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Some words and phrases are correctable. These include:

Hamburger politics (Happy Birthday), sanka yew (Thank you), of (for), for (of), mudder (mother), sheesh-atar (sister), older body bra (older brother – I kid you not).

Others are not so easy:

Prisonality (personality), present (parrot), pirates (parents), peasants (parents), parents (presents).

Yes I’ve poked a bit of fun at the locals today. Especially Uncle Tommy. My two year old has just overheard me enunciating “ploduckachee” and has begun excitedly running around the apartment yelling “PLODUCKACHEE!” My mother-in-law (her grandmother and uncle Tommy’s older sister) has no idea what she’s trying to say, thinks it’s impeccable English and time for a nappy (diaper) change.

On a conclusory note, it’s worth noting that I’ve heard and read better English from people here in China than I have from many of the populace back in New Zealand. There is something to admire about the determination and hard-work it must have taken to achieve this sort of fluency.

Thanks for the likes and the feedback. It’s much appreciated.

KJ.

Chalkface: From the mouths of Chinese babes

This is a breakout blog.

I’ll do this from time to time, get outside of the Block 6 Lifts and write about something wider in scope. Chalkface is one such project. It is intended to share some of the observations from the Chinese language learning environment. We’ll get back to Caffeine Man, the Mad Tapper, and Sir Pick-n-Flick in the next Life In Lifts blog.

Chinese kids are busy on the weekends with loads of extra-curricular classes. It seems that the Chinese middle-class want their kids to be calligraphers, scientists, mathematicians, structural engineers, TV hosts, pianists, polyglots, and NBA All-Star team members – all before lunch time Saturday.

I taught ten lessons this past weekend. Ten different locations, with varying degrees of ambience, air-quality, size, materials, and linguistic skills. And ten traffic jams to negotiate. It’s a good thing that the job is a blast.

In April, I gave the students three weeks to complete a task: design a travel poster for the summer holiday. It had to be an overseas destination, limited to 10 days travel, with a clear itinerary of fun things to see and do. A route map was also part of the requirement (e.g. Day 1 – Pyongyang, Day 2 – Kim Il-Sung shrine etc.). Sixty percent of the mark was to be allocated to the poster (size, colour, visual effect) and 40 percent was for the oral component (pronunciation, grammar, vocab, length, and delivery).

Well, the posters were great. Some real passion went into the production of these posters with colour photos, drawings, computer-aided design, clearly-written paragraphs and neat layout. It made my school homework look embarrassingly inept. Most teams scored full marks.

 

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Where’s Bossy Town?

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Then came the spoken part.

There was one girl who spoke beautifully about a tour of New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC and Bossy Town. She lost half a mark for that. Bossy Town is home to both M.I.T. and Harvard universities and the Red Sox baseball team (have you guessed it yet?).

Here are some of the other things I heard:

“After Black Forest (breakfast) we will make a trip to the female agitation (what?)”   Tommy, 10

People like beer very much. Then it’s time for lunch” – Davy, 10, about a trip to a Swiss zoo

American food is very unhealthy so we will stop at a Chinese restaurant for lunch” – Jessica, 11

“New Zealand is made up of the North Iceland and the South Iceland. You will be arraigned in Christchurch.” – Connie, 10

“Sweetland (Switzerland) is in the middle of Earache. It is home to chocolate watch cheese.” – Lisa, 11

Quebec is the best city to cultivate children. It has many interesting topographical features (how do you know such complicated English – you’re 10 for goodness sake?!). The Canadian frog is red and white with a maple leaf….” – Ada, 10

After arriving at the sandwich hotel, we will get our passports (followed by  indecipherable words) from the Internet and visit  the old naughty (Nordic?) museum, then on to a ski Russell to try skiting” – Leo, 12

There were many examples of this but also lots of really good English too. The most touching thing was their attitude towards this assignment. They didn’t really have to do it. I would be powerless to contact their school teachers and have them fail English. They were incredibly self-motivated. Many parents were kind and said that I had been their child’s motivation but I disagree. Their collective effort made me yearn to take this  freshly-acquired inspiration and repeat my childhood all over again!

Do you ever wish you could go back and do things differently?  Feel free to leave a comment.