Friday July 2, 2010

Thought for the day:
And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
And they said, Go to, let us build us a city, and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men built.
And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.
So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.
Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

This familiar quote blames God and human hubris for our plight: Thus we people have been scattered over the earth and can’t find a common purpose because we can’t understand each other’s language. So here we are Global Volunteers, near a Chinese frontier, among the scattered, trying to undo God’s work by learning about each other’s culture, which seems possible, and teaching our English language, which seems really hard.

All of our students Friday gave their speeches, choose the best four speakers, and, if our experience was typical, showed they earnestly cared about being understood in English. Our student with the most limited English, ironically named Hamlet, was clear and moving when describing his wonderful mother. He practiced saying “village” over and over until he got it right and could then tell us how this simple village woman encouraged him to go to college and become a teacher.

When we taught in Kunming a few years ago our students acted out a skit in which a teacher playing a student said, “I don’t want to learn English. I want everyone to learn Chinese.” And this sentiment has to be more acute in the villages nearby and far from Pu’er where our teachers’ students are brought by bus from the country to spend the week. Students and teachers must wonder why a young Bai or Yi or Nu, in addition to learning Mandarin, must also learn English.

In the speeches on Friday one of our English teachers may have partly answered this by saying that we must build a powerful and practical China so that we can avoid “humiliation like in the old China.” Apparently the sun never sets on the language we speak and teach, so a nation that wants to participate fully in the world’s commerce, on the Internet, in attracting tourists, and has already shown itself extremely eager to prove through an Olympics and a World Exhibition that it is a talented, advanced, and powerful country to be reckoned with, needs English.

But what about the children of Pu’er? To them “the humiliation like in the old China” may refer to a China that seems very old indeed, too old to care about. Another country. Again on Friday one of our teachers passionately expressed the problem of motivating students when he leaned forward to say to his fellow teachers, “You know about the pain, the suffering, and the noise” which we must endure.

The Friday afternoon speaker Zi Gusheng was clearly aware of how difficult teaching English to these students must be because he spent a lot of time giving the teachers very practical advice on how to make their teaching more interesting, effective, pleasant, fun, and especially humane. Among his suggestions:

1. Break them into teams and have them compete to name, in English, every item in the classroom. Give prizes.
2. Bring in interesting English language films.
3. Don’t be afraid of grammatical errors.
4. Put them in groups frequently to lessen the problem of large classes.
5. Ask them to write sentences about what is important to them in their lives.
6. Ask them to say English aloud in their heads or to a wall. Shout it.
7. Tell them to bring in passages that are interesting to them in English and tell the class about them.
8. Write diaries and journals
9. Use the Internet for games and use competition.
10. And, most important, don’t criticize your students in front of other students. Care about them and show that you care.

The speaker added that in an American classroom when he told them that practice makes perfect, a black student, the speaker mentioned his color more than once, interrupted him and said, “No it doesn’t.” And later the speaker decided the student was right. “Practice makes progress.” So God needn’t have worried. We won’t all speak the same language and build a tower that will reach to heaven or even be able to create a heaven on Earth. But our advancing technology and our efforts at a common language will mean that more and more of us will be able to participate in the global conversation. And because most of our current, really difficult problems are now global, we scattered, humbled people will try to reconnect with our stories, our language, and our good will.

– Janet

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