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Last week I did two new things that showed me just how tough learning a foreign language is. The first was visiting a friend of mine who teaches kindergarten and watching her in action. The second was starting a Chinese language course at my local Chinese language hogwon.
Watching my friend try to teach a group of four and five year olds English was as instructive for me as it was for those cute little brats (angels! – I meant to say angels!). I used to be an English teacher, and I taught adults and teens, but never little kids. All of my previous students could always answer basic questions (what’s your name? how are you? where are you from?) but some of these kindergarteners couldn’t (or wouldn’t) say a word in English. The teacher spoke English, the kids spoke Korean, and they clashed for the whole hour and had a great time.
A similar but more complicated dynamic is under way in my new Chinese class. I am the only way-gookin in the class. The students mostly cannot speak English. I can barely mumble and stumble through a sentence in Korean, and the teacher is speaking Chinese, which NONE of us (except, of course, the teacher) can understand. And we clash. And we have a great time – well, as great as can be had at 640AM.
So…what is all of this teaching me? I am not entirely sure yet (I think I need a little time to begin understanding everybody), but mostly these two experiences are making me think about the basics - the bare bones – of language. I am talking about everybody’s favorite topic: PHONICS!!
PHONICS!! What fun! In my Chinese class, we pronounce and pronounce and pronounce, over and over and over. We started with individual consonant sounds, then vowels, then we combined the two, then we tried some words, and then, just when I thought we were getting somewhere, we went back to the consonants, the vowels, combining – you get the picture. And even I, an experienced language teacher and a guy who knows and appreciates the value of phonics, was getting annoyed. “Let’s talk! Let’s learn some vocabulary!” I thought, “I’m wasting my time and money here! I already know how to pronounce L and N and D. We have these sounds in English - I already know them!!” But I stuck it out. I recited with the rest of the class. And then, after a while, something interesting started happening: I started to get it. The sounds were coming out differently from the teacher’s mouth - I was hearing them differently. And then I started hearing them differently from my own mouth. All of a sudden, after one hour of reciting sounds, it all sounded a little bit more like Chinese. And, in a weird way, I felt a little less like my true mi-guk self, and a little bit more like my “true” Chinese self. It’s in there – that other self – and you can find it, too.
My phonics lesson in the kindergarten class was less spiritual, but equally educational. When I was a teacher, in an effort to help my students learn as much as possible, I used to try to cover as much material as I could during a class. I would make my students say things from different perspectives, using different examples and different situations. I wanted them to be able to express something in the present, in the future, and in the past. I want them to be able to phrase a sentence and a question. I want to get them up and running with as much English crammed into their heads as possible. But with the kindergarteners, and with me in my Chinese class, I had to keep one word in my mind at all times: 천천히! And I can only hope that by the end of the class, maybe those kindergarteners had uncovered a little bit of their way-guk self.
So, my advice to you is to practice, practice, practice. It may seem tedious, but it will help you out big time in the long run.

by TONY WATKINS

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