Sunday, January 25, 2009


Have a look at this, it's all worth watching but the bit beginning on 6:00 is especially powerful.

Chinese has a word 标准 biaozhun meaning "standard." Beijing people have the most standard Mandarin. To be good at karaoke your singing must be standard (meaning as close to the original as possible.) People in Guangdong and Xinjiang prefer to converse in their local dialects, therefore their Mandarin isn't very standard.

In spite of being a frequent target of the pronunciation police, I think Mandarin is a quickly evolving language that's full of poetry. I've been doing a lot more creative writing in Mandarin recently than in English.

And when I think of the kinds of people mentioned in the video, I wonder why I've been so keen to work in Higher Education in Britain. The discipline and self-motivation of the Students at this University, and the fact that many of them to pursue other subjects simply for the love of learning, despite the enormous exam pressure. This is in marked contrast to my experiences at University.

One of the biggest misconceptions about TEFL teaching in China is that it's a way of escaping working for the man. Yes, there are fairy-tale elements to it: contracts are short; there is no obligation to be a respectable member of the community (attempting to become one is a waste of time); you probably have more freetime than a school teacher in the English-speaking country of your origin, but you are working for an Industry.

The existence of this Industry, English teaching in China, has made it a subconscious, subrational response among the ordinary Chinese to say "hello" when they see a Caucasian or a black person. As well as its dedicated professionals, this Industry has its share of chancers and unscrupulous people. Being able to afford a foreign teacher is a bit like being able to afford a star in the old Hollywood studio system. Your selling-power depends on it.

The thing I've learnt to respect the most after working in this industry for 18 months is defiance of cliche. Most of my Students have memorised their English in blocks. After class, almost all of them choose to converse with me in Chinese, because their English is a functioning machine rather than a means of self-expression.

To help them get to the next stage, it's important to remind them that the Chinese for the verb "to master" is 学好 or 学会 study well, or study to the point of being able to. This knowledge is not something that you can buy like a car, a language is like a muddy stream, so just strip and jump in.

1 comment:

Nick Herman said...

I've been thinking a lot about this word lately--industry--in light of the current economic conditions of the world and what that portends for the future (along with barely working myself, at the moment).

I have realized that anything is and can be an industry in our modern society. It doesn't really matter what it is; a lot of people will be out there corrupting it for their own benefit, and 90% of anything is crap. It's just a matter of how you do it. It's too naive to think that there's any line of "work," that's an escape from this, however noble its purported intentions. Academic cultures and non-profits are in less direct competition with the rat-wheel mentality of more explicit capitalism, but have their own hurdles and self-perpetuating reasons for existence to contend with.

As I look for a new job, I think that the only real important criteria are a) pays me a decent wage, b) gives me an opportunity to continue learning, c) is something I can be enthusiastic about. That's all the food you need to be a complete human being and to make a positive impact on others. Just one slice of life; real freedom and self-autonomy are achieved by not losing sight of one's self, which transcends transient, opportunistic industries. Give people the tools to be themselves and respect them for it.