Friday, October 19, 2007

Putting myself in the position of a student

To be a good ESL instructor, many would say that you have to have taught English in a foreign country. Perhaps even more important, in my opinion, is to have studied a foreign language yourself. I've never taught English abroad, but I have studied several foreign languages in public school and the university. In addition, I had an immersion experience the first time I did anthropological fieldwork (studying chimpanzees) in Africa.

Our research base camp was actually in the heart of a Congolese village in the Equateur region of the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly called Zaire). Despite being able to get by in French in the towns and cities, it was of no value in the village of Wamba. Lingala was the lingua franca of the area, and with no Lingala books or dictionary at hand, I essentially tromped out to the forest every day with people whose language was totally foreign and tried to pick it up by ear.

Thank goodness I'd studied a number of quite different languages by that time (Spanish/French, Quechua, Japanese, and Arabic), for varying lengths of time (6 mos to several years) . You might say I have always been fascinated by language, and the experience in Zaire/DRC has had the biggest impact on my ESL teaching career.

From that first-hand experience learning a second language as an adult through immersion in a work/research setting, I learned very well some of the differences between learning from a book and learning through communication. I also learned that making a lot of mistakes and sometimes being stressed to the point of tears and humiliation forced me to become communicative in a rather short period of time (about five weeks). There was no time for translation; whenever I spoke, I found out quickly if people understood what I said. They didn't correct my grammar, so I have no idea if the quality of my speech was TV or radio broadcast-quality Lingala, which was usually mixed with lots of French. Nevertheless, though I've been away from the language for more than a decade, some expressions have stuck, like the farewell from one of my favorite trackers Iyokango "Dimanche" - Soki Nzambe alingi, tokomonana ntango mosusu. We'll see each other again, God willing....

Recently, to try to recapture the exhilaration of being able to communicate in a foreign language again, I decided to do an English-for-Japanese language exchange with a former student who still lives in San Diego, but no longer formally studies English. S. is trying to learn Spanish now and does volunteer work, visiting with elderly people, practicing her conversational English, and awaiting the birth of her first child.

How does it feel to study Japanese with a former ESL student? I was definitely a bit stressed about it. She had never heard me speak Japanese, and now she knows how truly limited I am. Though not a trained instructor, she has done language exchanges before. I told her I didn't want English translations, but explanations in Japanese. Synonyms. Lots of examples of how to use an expression. She did a good job in her role of teacher. I guess time will tell what kind of student I am, but I got home feeling ambitious (though I wonder now how I'm going to squeeze some Japanese language studies into my schedule).

As I always tell my students, "you'll be surprised at how much English you'll understand after studying it here in San Diego, even if you don't use it again for years." Happily, this was true for me with Japanese as I was able to understand most of what S. was saying this week, even though I haven't used Japanese for many years. To my delight, I can still recognize a lot of kanji and read the phonetic scripts (hiragana and katakana) too (read a little about my translation experience). However, output in Japanese is a different matter. Must practice what I preach now! Oh yes, remember, Evelyn? Practice makes perfect. Use it, or lose it?!


Anonymous said...

They say Asian language speakers have harder time to learn English than Latin-roots language speakers, and vice versa. That's so true. Not to mention the gramatical structures are totally different, the cultures behind each languages make it difficult for language learners to grasp.

For example, claiming yourself as smart and a good person sounds narcissistic and arrogant in my country, that requires modesty first, but sounds confident in English speaking countries. Also how would you explain the notion and things that don't exist in other countries?

I had been trying to translate from my language (Asian) to English word by word with MY perspective, and had stressed out about my poor performance. I would wonder,"Why English is spoken like that?" until I acknowledged the facts mentioned above. Yes, no wonder it's daunting. Because the take is subject to which language you speak.

I already passed the phase where all second language learners go through.And now I'm enjoying learnig third language with taking the new language as it is. I no longer waste time by pondering "why".

I belive, for person like Evelyn and those who already have learned second language, especially the language that is far away from your native language, adding one or two more languages could be just fun thing, not tormenting. Because their brains are already accustomed to accept something mind-boggling.

I admire your rechallenge, and am looting for you.
And, hey, I bet your Japanese is much more impressive than you think!

evelyn said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, and I really appreciate the support. You have obviously reached a very high level of English, and I congratulate you! It feels like a fantasy right now to ever reach such a level in Japanese.

Nevertheless, last night I was online and discovered that there is almost a limitless choice of Japanese websites for practicing the language. As with English language learning sites, it's going to take me some time to sort out the useful ones from the not-so-useful. However, it looks like I can read and listen to a lot of Japanese during the week even though I'm not in Japan.

I'm sure I'll write about this again. I'm crossing my fingers and looking forward to some progress as I reactivate my brain in Japanese. Best wishes to you too!