Archive for February 3rd, 2009

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

What it takes to learn – and to teach

Cute but not good enough for lifetime employment

Cute, but not good enough for lifetime employment *)

This post is a follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth about Learning Chinese.


1. Learning

If learning Chinese was easy and could be done by the way, without much effort and time, you could expect that about every third early teenager in America and Europe could read, speak and write the language fluently – there is no lack of initial interest in learning it. If it was that easy, all you had to do as a parent would be to hire a Chinese native speaker, no matter with or without professional skills as a teacher, and here’s your wunderkind. Proficiency would come easily and just naturally.

Many Western parents seem to be surprised when it isn’t really that easy.

No matter how old you are, you’ll only learn Chinese as a foreign language with some (exception) or a lot of (as a rule) concentration and dedication, unless your Mum or Daddy speak the language with you from the beginning. Even then, reading and writing the characters still requires dedication.

I’m not sure if it is because school has earned itself such a bad or such a good name – at any rate, few people expect that their child will learn English in school just by singing Humpty-Dumpty. On the other hand, many people seem to expect miracles from the Kindergarten in this respect – usually when it is about a relatively “easy” language like English. And they seem to expect miracles on a pentecostal scale once they hire a Chinese lady as a home tutor to teach the little brats Chinese.

A Chinese blogger, Tuluotuo, described the usually unhappy results of such great expectations last month. He described how native Chinese speakers are hired as teachers or tutors by ambitious American parents who want their children to learn Chinese. He describes the lack of dedication on the part of many children and their tutors’ tactical response to this lack of dedication: lowering the standards and teaching “Happy Chinese” instead of the real stuff. The result is usually that the children “don’t learn Chinese very well”.

I wrote in a footnote under my translation of it that I don’t feel as much with these teachers as Tuluotuo seems to do.

2. Teaching

One reason probably is that I’m a teacher myself. I know that training children to become good learners isn’t always easy. Fore one, it is true that many children here aren’t used to working reasonably hard. Another is that there are too many distractions from learning – many more than in an average Chinese household. A third reason may be that education in my country – Germany – comes mostly free of charge for the parents and at the taxpayers’ costs in general. And many people seem to value things by what they cost.

But all that said, I don’t quite agree with Tuluotuo’s assessment. Kids are what they are. Sometimes they are natural-born learners, sometimes not. In either case, you can’t twist them the way you want to have them before you start teaching. You can only train them to become better learners. Chinese children may be more dedicated to learning than many children in Western countries. But that’s why it takes trained teachers to train the kids who are not dedicated. And you may need a bit of this attitude:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.

Alternatively, a bit of cynicism (not to be confused with chronic contempt) may be useful too.

There are parents who want to have education for their kids on the cheap. It wouldn’t be fair to expect teachers to be really good at their job at such low tariffs, and parents won’t find many trained teachers for their children at silly prices. As far as that is concerned, the parents themselves are to blame. But a tutor like Ms Wang (described in Tuluotuo’s post) is part of the problem herself, too. You can’t teach a child just by being nice and speaking the language yourself. You can’t teach a child just by being nice to the child. And there is no way at all that you can teach a child successfully if you are just nice to all the parents. If you give in to every blow without making a case for learning – in front of the parents, in front of your headmaster, or both – you won’t be taken serious, and the subject or language you teach won’t be taken serious.

There are people with a natural talent for teaching. Fortunately. But without a reasonable sense of mission and good skills, nobody is a teacher. Without being in a position to make a professional case for real learning, everyone is what Ms Wang seems to be: an easy target.

There are no good teachers without training and experience, be it formal or informal training and experience. Every real teacher needs to learn to teach: by university studies, by working along with more experienced teachers, and on the job. Training is what learning is about. And training is what teaching is about. Who expects that becoming an achiever in martial arts would be a piece of cake? Is a natural-born soccer player already a pro without tons of practise? Is a natural born beginner good enough to perform an appendectomy on you?

When it comes to teaching, every wannabe educator seems to think of him- or herself as Confucius or Pestalozzi.

If only they were professionals. That would do in a lot of cases.


*) I’m aware that the use of this picture may be seen as objectionable. An explanation is available on request on this commenter thread.

— JR

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