Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Emptiness of Words; Expectations

Today I had a couple of conversations with some fellow teachers at the college that I found really informative. Two different people were complaining about the students' constant use of "general" language in their writing. "Chinese students like to use a lot of empty words," one of them said. I wasn't sure what she meant. "You know, words like lovely, beautiful..."

Actually, the (over)use of these words is also something I have kind of been marveling at. The view of my colleagues, generally, is that the students are being lazy when they use this kind of language, that they need to work harder at expanding their vocabularies and at describing things in detail. From my (naive) perspective, though, I find this language oddly moving. It's not at all unusual for a student to write a sentence like "I think my mother is the most beautiful woman in the world" or "My friend is a lovely, sweet, and kind girl." When I see this, I think, wow, they're expressing a lot with a limited L2 vocabulary -- good for them! But maybe I just want to believe I can see a wealth of meaning and feeling behind these "empty" words; maybe the other teachers are right. I suspect the truth, as it often does, lies somewhere in the middle.


Expectations: well, they can and should change. I went into the writing classes not knowing what to expect, but assuming that my students would be fairly competent English readers at this point. Now that I've seen them once and seen their writing, I've had a chance to rethink my ideas and adjust the type and amount of work I hope to do with them.

Also, I expected that I'd have a pretty big degree of freedom in designing my course, since all the instruction we got when we arrived here was "here are your books, use them if you want to, or not, no problem." However, 3 weeks into the semester, I've learned that I am supposed to consult with another (Chinese) teacher -- who's teaching the other sophomore writing classes -- and make sure our courses are "the same," or as he diplomatically put it, "basically similar." Apparently the issue is that feathers will be ruffled the powers that be get to feeling like our students aren't learning the same information in our respective courses. (Cause, I guess, that would be like dis-orderly or something? I think this may be a cultural thing that's beyond me.)

Luckily, my colleague and I -- though we have different ideas about how to approach the course(s) -- have a lot in common*: we're both new at this university, we both find it a bit frustrating that we are being asked to compromise, and we both agree that as long as the students are learning fundamentals of writing, there shouldn't be a problem. Of course, I'll let you know later whether we agree on what the "fundamentals of writing" are...

(*Also, he is only L2 English speaker I have met here who regularly and correctly employs the word "sucks" -- as in "their writing sucks" -- in conversation, which makes me feel right at home, somehow.)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007



I know I'm way behind on topics I was planning to cover (see last entry), but I'm pretty sure I am the only person reading this blog, so I'm not sweating it too much.

Right now, I'm wondering if I can do anything useful with the AWL, or Academic Word List (Coxhead 2000) for my writing classes. The problem is, even the first sub-list of the 570 words seems to be way beyond my students' comprehension.

My classes are 2nd-year students at a Chinese college -- a college which accepts people who perform relatively poorly on their entrance exams (the Chinese SAT). They are English majors, but I'd say most of them are between (roughly, and vaguely) "low" and "low-intermediate" in most of their English skills. Of course, I want to try to help them increase their knowledge of academic English, but I'm worried about overwhelming them. Still, knowing these words -- really knowing them -- will only be beneficial in the long run. We're talking about words like: analyze, constitute, establish, indicate, occur, role.

The AWL omits the 2,000 words from the GSL or General Service List, a list of the most commonly used words overall in English texts. My students may not be that familiar with some of these words, either, so I wonder if a good strategy would be to start with some high-frequency words from the GSL (starting around the 100s or so, since the first words are "the" and "and" and stuff like that) and move on to the AWL, or mix them. I think I might take a bit from both.


The haphazard nature of my posts on this site is, I'm afraid, indicative of my general disorganization re: my teaching right now. Luckily (?) classes are canceled tomorrow because of an impending typhoon, so maybe I can take some time to get it together.

Thursday, September 06, 2007


If you've had the experience of being a "foreign-looking" person in China, you have heard one English word over and over: "Hello." It's so common to have this word shouted at you as you walk past a business (or a group of young dudes playing basketball) that some China guidebooks and websites recommend strategies for "dealing" with it, including:

- Ignore
- Say "hello" back
- Pretend you don't speak English
- Reply in Chinese (if you know it)

Although English has become a cornerstone of Chinese education in the last ten years or so, most Chinese of a certain age don't speak it, and many who have been educated speak very little -- but everyone knows "hello." Consequently, I've been thinking about this word a lot lately, especially in the Chinese context.

One thing I really can't wrap my brain around -- a curse of most monolingual people, I think -- is how to understand the relationship between relatively equivalent expressions in two languages. Like the idea that "ni hao" and "hello" might mean the same thing. My brain is perfectly able to process the meaning of this sentence:

"Ni hao" means hello. (Which it doesn't, of course. It literally means "you good.")

But the reverse feels almost absurd to my monolingual brain:

"Hello" means ni hao.

So far, I can't get that to make sense. And I don't think I'd be able to unless I were bilingual.

Coming next time:
A brief report from the local "English Salon."
And after that: Stuff about how I am now a real ESL teacher!

(Have you noticed that this blog has begun to live up to its name? I'm "doing" applied linguistics in real life!)