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Teaching English in China: Overcoming Language Barriers

     When I signed up to teach English at Xi Kai Kindergarten in Xi’an, I thought I was prepared for anything that China would throw at me with my list of qualifications: being a native and fluent English speaker, having a love of children, and most importantly, being able to understand and speak basic Mandarin.  However, as soon as I got to Xi’an, I realized there is much more to being a teacher than being a fluent speaker.

     I only remember two things on my first day of teaching: many kids shouting at me in incomprehensible Chinese and all the teachers asking me whether I had any ideas on how to effectively teach English.  I was already overwhelmed.  I felt my mind working as fast as it could and still, I couldn’t keep up with even basic conversation. 

     Let me clarify something: even though I had studied Chinese for three years at the University of Pittsburgh, I had never really been in the field speaking actual Chinese.  I had always studied what I needed to know or memorized a few lines of a conversation beforehand and then subsequently, forgot it all the following week.  So as a result, my first few days in China were the worst – I found myself grappling to explain things that I didn’t know how to explain and trying to listen to every single word a Chinese person would say to me and still not being able to understand.  I kept reaching into my memory, half-forming a word and forgetting it a second later.  However, like most other people who wanted to experience cultural immersion, I resolved to just keep trying. 

     Luckily, I had downloaded a copy of Chinese for Dummies on my Kindle right before I came to China, just in case.  I began to read a few pages each night, trying to refresh my memory and asking anyone I was speaking to clarify what they were saying if they could.  Also, I took advantage of the fact that I could use simple explanations, hand motions, and use real-life things to get my point across.  The main goal was to communicate, not to master Mandarin in eight weeks.

     Secondly, teaching proper English to native English speakers is hard.  It’s even harder to teach it to foreigners,  especially when they are all between the ages of 3 and 6 AND are cute, Asian kids.  All I ever want to do is hug and play with them.  I hadn’t come with any devised lesson plans, but after my first day of work, I decided that I would need to be able to teach English in a hands-on, constructive way.  I needed  to figure out an approach to communicate that even the little kids could understand, which is probably asking a lot since I can’t understand most of what they shout at me during class.  Duck-duck-goose soon became a favorite game to play, along with Hangman, and creating animals out of play-dough.  In learning how to teach English, I was learning more and more Chinese and how to teach the most basic fundamentals of the English language.

     Finally, after all the language practice, I have to admit the thing that I am still getting used to in China is China.  Many Americans have a vision that China might be a country filled with people who can’t think on their own, who are not individuals, who do not have their own desires and wants.  This is definitely not true.  Living with a homestay family has given me an insider’s look on how a Chinese family functions and while there are many differences (not being able to use air conditioning all the time or staying at home more than I would in America), in the end, families are still families. 

     The other day my host mother and father got angry at my host sister (who’s 17) because she wasn’t studying hard enough and did poorly on the last test she had taken in school.  This sounds exactly like my parents not only in high school, but even today.  My host sister wants to go to music school to play piano, but she needs to pass an all-encompassing entrance exam to get in.  For this exam she needs to study hard, and pass every section, including the English one, which is often thought to be the hardest portion of the test.  My solution for this?  I began to tutor her as much as I could in English.  We set up a system in which she writes a description of her day in a paragraph in English.  I take a look at it and then grammatically correct each sentence.  And then it’s my turn.  I try to write how my day went in Chinese and she corrects me.  I feel like I’ve learned more in writing these daily paragraphs than I ever did in language homework at school.

     Ultimately, cultural immersion is not easy.  We see people on television living glamorous, worldly lives in other countries, speaking fluently in multiple languages.  The truth is that living in another culture, espeically one that speaks an entirely different language takes work and time.  No matter how prepared you are, there will probably be a situation in which you won’t know what to say or how to act because you literally do not understand.  Something as simple as teaching your first language may seem easy on paper, but in reality, it’s very challenging.  In my few short weeks in China, I’ve learned, if you want to communicate, you will find a way, even when it involves sounding like a kindergartner.  That said, I am off to teach more English and speak more Chinese!

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