Miscommunication

This past week has seen a lot of depressing stories in the news. Brexit seems to be heading for catastrophe and the cliff edge, there is a new conservative supreme court judge in the US, and to cap it off, the earth is burning, and if we do not do something urgently, then we are basically up a certain creek without any paddles whatsoever (and, in fact, we may already be here) ….

I do not often read The New Yorker, though I do follow them on Instagram. Earlier this year, I was reading an article – I cannot remember which – and it referenced another article in the magazine about paper jams in printers. This may seem like a rather dull topic to write about, but being a geek and something of a curious sort, I checked it out. It actually turned out to be pretty interesting, talking about the physics behind the jams, but also different paper jamming situations. As with many things, the story behind the issue turned out to be far more complex – and engaging – than it might at first appear (if you are interested, the article in question is here).

However, I digress. I was going to write something further about the IPCC’s recent report, the importance of eating less meat, moving towards a zero-carbon society quickly, and so on. But this has already been written about at length by far better and more knowledgeable people than I.

I was chatting with a former student who has recently commenced studies in the US, at the University of Maryland, Chapel Hill. She was the one who played volleyball at RDFZ. She told me that she now understands how annoying Chinglish can be to native speakers. I do not usually find it that annoying, but I do find that I notice it a lot.

My own students use Chinglish quite frequently. I asked them recently to write about a typical day for them. They wrote various accounts of various lengths, but a common theme was that they wrote they liked to ‘play’ with their friends. When I ask them in class what they did during the recent holiday, again they will say they played with their friends. I was on a train coming back from Xi’an once, and a girl and her mum were sitting opposite me. The girl – probably about eight or nine years old – came to sit next to me. Her English was not so good, but we communicated through my broken Chinese and her English, and phone translator apps. She said she had been to Xi’an to ‘play’. I knew what she meant, just like I know what my students’ mean. I tell them that children tend to ‘play’, whereas adults do things with their friends – hang out, go shopping, have a meal, watch a film, whatever. They can play a sport, but often they will need to describe what they are playing, which they do not usually do. They use ‘play’ to mean ‘hang out’.

Similarly, a word that students use reasonably often (at least, I heard it quite a lot at RDFZ, no so much now), is ‘seldom’. They will say, ‘I seldom play sport’, or ‘I seldom study English’. I guess I pick up on this because we do not use it much in everyday speech. When they use language like this, depending on the situation, I will point it out and suggest alternatives. Next lesson, with my second-year students, I was going to do a lesson about US music, but I have since decided to scrap that (for now, perhaps completely), and instead do a class about slang and language, which I intended to do later in the semester. This was following a comment by a student that their Chinese teachers do not teach them ‘useful’ language or common and frequently-used English like slang terms or idioms. I have only a rough idea of what I will do in the lesson – I will give them some matching activities to do (they have to match the word or phrase to the definition), but otherwise, I am as yet unclear. I may well introduce various situations to them, where they have to use the language (role plays and so on), but that might be in future weeks. I am going to do a Halloween class, I think, and one for Christmas. I also planned on doing something on social etiquette, but maybe they can use the slang in that class. I also planned on them having a debate to do at the end of the semester and give them 10% of their grade towards that. I am on the fence about this now – I might get them to put together a scene or something instead using the language. I have not decided yet.

In the freshman class, I did a familiar lesson this week, which worked well, and last week did another lesson about giving advice (similar to what I did with the sophomore students a couple of weeks ago; in fact that lesson had been adapted from this one).

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