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Five Simple Rules for Learning my Language

March 17, 2011 3 comments

The British comedian Tony Hawks in an episode of the BBC’s “Grumpy Old Men” told of his revolutionary new diet plan.  One Day One, you eat less and get more exercise.  On Day Two, you eat less and get more exercise.  One Day Three, you eat less and get more exercise, but on Day Four, you do something really exciting:  You get more exercise and eat less.

The number one question I get asked is “how can I improve my English?” Like a lot of things, it’s not really about getting the right answer, it’s all about asking the right question.  “How can I improve my English?” is one of those questions that is often answered with the simple, and rather uninteresting “speak more”.

It is entirely possible to learn English (or any language for that matter) in a very short space of time; you just need the right tools.  And by “the right tools”, I don’t mean “a good teacher”.  There are a number of roadblocks for Chinese students that must be overcome in order to obtain proficiency in a foreign language – in the vast majority of cases, this means learning English.

The first step is to set a goal.  “Speak English well” is not really a goal, whereas, “I aim to achieve a level 8 on the IELTS exam” is a goal.  When I first started learning to read and write Chinese in 2009, the best advice that anyone gave me was from my Chinese textbook – write the date at the top of every page.  Then, six months down the line, you’ll be able to see how your writing has progressed from the uncertain scratches in the front of the notebook, to the more practiced strokes of someone who is getting somewhere in their studies.

Using an outside system of measuring is essential because, basically, your own perception of learning isn’t a really good way of determining if you have improved or not.  Intermediate English students regularly complain to me that they feel their English isn’t improving, but they are basing their level of learning on their past experiences of learning lots of things three or four months ago when they were at a beginner level or pre-intermediate level.  Even worse, some of them will compare themselves halfway through a course to an advanced student, or even a native speaker, and find themselves demoralized that no matter how much work they put in, they can never quite get to the level that will satisfy their own, ever changing measuring stick on how good their English fluency is.

So the first rule is: Don’t trust yourself to measure your own successes and always set realistic goals.

You can never trust yourself to measure yourself.  Lying on the sofa suffering from a hangover after a New Year’s Eve party can make you feel pretty awful, but you are not seriously sick, and certainly don’t need to visit a doctor.  Your own perceptions of yourself are skewed, depending on the time of day, whether you are hungry or not, or how much sleep you go the previous night.  Don’t trust yourself to guess how good or bad you are at something, because you’ll almost always feel bad.

If you want to learn to swim, go swimming.  If you want to learn to drive, go drive a car.  If you want to learn to speak another language, then you have to go and speak that language.  Western language learning systems, and their respective companies have known this for years.  Rosetta Stone is a system of listening-based matching activities.  The Pimsleur Method is only available on CD and contains no written material at all.  Michel Thomas goes even further and tells students outright that under no circumstances should they ever take notes during a class.  Reading and writing something employs different parts of the brain than speaking a listening.  Writing things down means that your brain tells your fingers which position to hold a pen in, while speaking requires your brain to co-ordinate different sets of muscles in your throat and your mouth to make the right sounds.  Logically, they are completely different parts of the body, and they’re completely different parts of the brain.  Writing everything down (in case you forget) is pointless because, well, you will forget exactly because you wrote it down.  If you’re just going to go to a class and write things down, it’s a waste of your time and money and you may as well give up because reading and writing won’t help your speaking a listening skills.

Rule 2: Don’t write everything down.  If you forget something, listen again (ask your teacher, replay the CD, etc)

Chinese students get too hung up on the teacher.  Students who have never been near a school since they graduated from university years before think that they are good judges of what is a good teacher or not.  This is complete a total rubbish, and allows the student to display an amazing amount of contempt and arrogance towards their teacher.  Students are no better judges of their teacher in the same way that soldiers are not good judges of what makes an effective drill sergeant in the army.   A teacher needs to follow only one – he must speak less than the students.  If your teacher is speaking too much, and isn’t letting you speak, you need to complain, or you need to find another teacher.

The teacher is never a good as the materials, and before you sign any contract or hand over any money, you should ask to see all the materials that you will be learning from.  Demand to sit in on a class, or arrange a demo class.  The best type of school is the type of school that will allow successful students to continue on to the higher level classes, and keep back failing students – essentially they fire underperforming students from the class.  The class can only go as fast as the worst student, and one beginner in an advanced class can ruin the whole learning experience for everyone.

Rule Number Three is: Be critical of your teacher and materials, expect failing students to repeat classes, and make sure to see any and all materials that you’ll be learning from.

When I started working at Wall Street Institute a few years ago, a large American man called Charlie who had moved from Dubai with his wife to relocate to China told me a rather incredulous story that a rich Arab had wandered into the center of which he was the manager, and after sitting through the sales pitch, quite politely asked, “so you just download English into my brain?”  Four years, later, I still can’t decide if I’m stunned at his ignorance that a language can be learned this way, or that he was willing to have the surgery to have a USB socket implanted in his brain.  The point is that language learned cannot simply be a passive process.  If you look at children in the playground, they don’t speak because they have to, they speak because they can.

I can still remember when I reached what I call “The Playground Milestone” because I could finally tell people in China what they looked like and what they sounded like.  I took great pleasure in telling people they looked like a whale, or that they smelled like a monkey.  Hugely offensive, of course, but it gave me important practice in what is an essential part of language.   The point wasn’t that people really did sound like frogs but that I was taking the language apart in my mouth and my brain and placing it in that “sweet spot” that enables me to quickly and fluently withdraw and deposit words from and to my long term language memory and produce the sound accurately.  An active learning process means that you are able to guess what a word or phrase means based on the context and any other cues (sounds, wild gesturing by the teacher, bizarre graffiti on the whiteboard).

Rule 4: Get involved, engage your brain and start thinking, try to make your own grammar rules based on observation and repetition.

Over the weekend and Advanced student took a pre-intermediate class.  She didn’t really need to be in the class, and she could effectively communicate in English with me on a variety of different topics.  Her English was a little ropey, but for someone who had almost exclusively learned from books her entire life, she had pretty good speaking and listening skills.  In the class, she asked quite possibly the most pointless and idiotic question that I’ve ever heard from a student of her ability: “Is, ‘do you married?’ ok?”  The poor teacher tasked with leading the class had to stand around and patiently explain exactly why it was wrong.  Which is where we come to Rule 5: Don’t use the classroom as a crutch.

Chinese students essentially want to be told that their English is great.  Having said, everyone wants to be told that their second language ability is great.  It’s only when you get out of the classroom and start talking to people that you realize one important thing: You don’t know shit.  Suddenly, you are grasping for words, trying to keep up with what they are saying, you don’t understand much and you fall silent as your pathetically small vocabulary fails you in almost every respect.  Back in the classroom, you get all the answers right and you feel great.  One of the reasons that Rosetta Stone is such a great success is that once you mechanically learn all the right responses, you get 96% on almost every level.  You have great grammar, wonderful pronunciation and you can recall each and every word perfectly.

Your brain needs to be strained and tested and put through a trial by fire to truly get to the level where you can converse naturally with a high level of fluency with native speakers in another language.  It’s only when you start having to donate a lot of energy to decoding and recoding foreign words that you really get to the point where you’re not talking to someone, but talking with someone.

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Don’t Get Angry, Get Embarrassed.

March 7, 2011 Leave a comment

I’ve been to America once, and God love it (which I’m told He does) I do want to live there and would spend many happy days in Maspeth, where I stayed courtesy of my friends Dan and Zoe, and watch the evening sky, at first blood red, then cool through the infrared spectrum to a dark, velvet, Guinness black.  The Manhatten skyline – still something that you can’t quite think “men made that” – of the Chrysler Building, the Empire State and the Brooklyn Bridge would be mere silhouettes that melt into the blackness of the night sky.  All of the Disneyesque poeticism pulls into stark contrast the Stephen King nightmare that is dealing with American airlines and American Homeland Security.

My time in America was a fantastic experience bookended by simply the worst travel experience known to humanity.  An experience that would make cattle on their way to the slaughterhouse feel loved.  Rarely have I been made to feel like a criminal in any airport in the world.  Even at Osaka airport, where I was fingerprinted, photographed, medically examined for fear of carrying H1N1 into the country and subject to intense investigation (I was the only foreigner with the documents that supported a one year work permit in the country), I was made to feel at home, wanted and looked after.  The elderly airport official who said “please” about 30 times in the first 10 minutes was polite, knew his stuff, and stood next to me like the grandfather I barely knew as I jumped through all the necessary hoops to get into the country.  Of course, the whole procedure took longer than any airport that I’ve been to, but it was the politeness, the feeling that someone was taking an interest, and the awareness that both of us where at the mercy of a massive administrative machine that made the whole thing much easier.

And in America, I met Seattle Bill.

Bill was fat.  Bill was big and fat.  In fact, almost everyone in America is big and fat.  I don’t mean that they are all doubly fat, I mean that for their height, they are fat.  Bill towered over me, I was eye to eye with what I imagined would be the arcing red, sweated crease in his skin underneath his last rib bone, where  – if he were shirtless – you would see the clear demarcation line between his ribcage and his unsupported intestinal tract.  He was nineteen feet in height and two  Isuzu People Carriers in width.  BP could’ve drilled for oil in his cleavage.  The unfortunate demography of his lower abdomen had forced him to buckle his trousers around his pubic bone, at roughly the point where pubic hair becomes belly hair.  His stomach muscles had long given up on keeping his gut in check, and I wondered how many steps up a flight of stairs he would need before he fell over backwards clutching his chest.

From his waist upwards, he was a big man.  From below the belthoops of his trousers, he was the stallion of a man that his wife had married thirty years, six million Happy Meals and a four million Cokes  ago.  He also had enough weaponry hanging off his low slung belt that would make Simon Mann think ‘that’s a little too much’.  When asked a perfectly reasonable question by one of the Chinese businessmen behind me – “why are there only two immigration officers?  Why do we have to wait?” – Bill pointed a chubby finger as a thick as a sausage and said through pursed lips with a John Wayne locked jaw “They’ll be ready…when I’m ready”.  He waddled off, the miniature shockwaves of his footsteps sent ripples over his tightly clad buttocks.  He presumably went to get a doughnut.

The flight from Beijing to Seattle dumped me in Seattle at 6:40am.  Thanks to the super high tech Homeland Security I made it through immigration in a mere two hours and fifteen minutes.  I had missed my flight by an hour.  The next flight that I could arrange left Seattle at 5pm, went through a time warp, and dumped me at New York JFK around 11pm.  The flight back from New York to Beijing wasn’t fun either, have been delayed for an entire 27 hours in Seattle airport.  The problem was that in America relies on people that have power but no responsibility.

Chris Rock tells a joke in his stand-up routine that he lives in an area that has house owned by Eddie Murphy, Mary J. Bilge, Jay-Z and a white dentist.  Which is exactly the same as the situation here in China, substituting black folks for Chinese, and er, keeping the white folks.  To be a white man in China, as it is in America, is to have won the lottery of life.

I live in a 68 square meter apartment that I pay 3300rmb per month for (330UKP there abouts).  I come from Manchester, UK, work as an English teacher and earn 14000rmb per month, with about 700rmb tax, I have a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology, have no intention of paying off my minor student loan, and live quite happily with few money worries apart from the dent that my annual trip to see the folks is going to put in my bank account.  I speak a little bit of high school Spanish, have intermediate Chinese  and do a little of everything from writing the occasional article in a little known magazine that nobody reads, to teaching people to speak English.  In the last years, I’ve returned home for 3 weeks, taken a 10 day vacation in New York, took a month off to visit friends in Chengdu, whilst traveling to Kunming and Lijiang, return back to my apartment in downtown Beijing, and continued working my rather dull job.  When I got suspicious about a lump growing on my lip last month I immediately went to the Hong Kong International Hospital at the Swissotel in Dongsishitiao and happily paid 680rmb to be told that I have a “lesion on lower lip” and was duly given a course of B multivitamins.

A very close friend of mine studied for her master’s degree in Manchester, speaks fluent English and Chinese, and has a prestigious position in a growing African-Chinese company.   She lives on the outskirts of town, is always looking for a roommate to help with the rent, and hasn’t been out of the country for pleasure since she graduated 8 years ago.  Over weekend she was sick, and is considering going to a doctor if she her condition doesn’t improve.  Needless to say, she’s Chinese and I’m not.

China has been taken over by the morals and values crowd, with the censorship of the Internet and the purge of pornography to create a “healthy online environment”, the failed implementation of the Green Dam software, the scrubbing of critical posts about the government and the house arrests of “subversives”.  Quite frankly, the government of China’s morals and values would have more resonance if the Chinese government actually knew what morals and values were, which I don’t think they do.  I don’t really mean that as an insult, but the belief that every Chinese person is heterosexual, that people don’t like looking at pornography (they do) and that in China don’t really knows what’s going on, or that people in China believe that an apartment in China can be rented for twelve dollars isn’t a moral or a value.  It’s just stupid.  What they’re really talking about are superstitions, traditions, fears and personality cults.  Real morals are honesty, fairness, kindness and tolerance.  The others are just bullshit issues that the Chinese government uses to justify its legitimacy.

Morals and values are choices that we make about how to treat other people.  And they can be measured.  They can be measured in the way we see people treat other people, and of course, the Chinese government, with its institutionalized torture, abuse, harassment of journalists, bloggers, and other free speech advocates, endless transparent propaganda, victimization and other downright out and out lies have shown that their morals do not include treating people like human beings.  We have found out this week, the exact extent to which the Chinese government values the basic rights that, in most modern countries in the first quarter of the 21st Century, we take for granted.  Western journalists have been openly threatened, investigations have been whitewashed, and censorship has tightened, all in the name of the Chinese Communist Party – the last bastion of rhetoric that last saw the light of day behind closed doors in 1950’s USSR.  When did you last hear a sentence that included “the masses”?  1962?  Khrushchev?  Trotsky?  Well, it was actually last week when Wen Jiao Bao made his speech to the NPC.

Chinese people have it easy.  They don’t really have to think that much.  They aren’t really taught to think that much, and anyone who has ridden any subway and has seen Chinese people bemused by the ticket machines, the thought of giving people the vote in China is a terrifying prospect.  When people offer some such pro-democracy comment thinly disguised as “power to the people”, I often find myself asking the question, “what people?  These assholes?”.  Chinese people are often the first to leap to their country’s defense, citing economic progress, healthcare, literacy, the rise in living standards, confused that they shouldn’t be angry at their country, since they have really only done things that their parents could dream about.  Angry is the wrong emotion.  Chinese people shouldn’t be angry about their country or their leadership.  The Chinese, like American people, shouldn’t hate their country – they should be embarrassed by it.

Change Ain’t Good

March 3, 2011 3 comments
High Chancellor Adam Sutler (played by John Hu...

Image via Wikipedia

“And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. And where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission.”

V, V for Vendetta

“What we need right now is a clear message to the people of this country. This message must be read in every newspaper, heard on every radio, seen on every televisionI want this country to realize that we stand on the edge of oblivion. I want everyone to remember why they need us!”

Chancellor Adam Sutler, V for Vendetta

As a fresh faced youngster in 2006, I wanted to save China.  I wanted to shine a light on the corruption, the censorship, the human rights abuses and I wanted to open the eyes of the Chinese people, and really let them see what China was, and let them understand what the western world thought of China.

Of course, it was an utterly pointless exercise.  I got my first Chinese girlfriend, a 19 year old economics student (ok, I’ll admit that I was 27 at the time), and I really thought that I’d be able to bring her around to the western way of thinking, hoping that this article that I wrote about movie censorship, or that column I wrote about plagiarism, or the things that showing her pictures of Tankman and the 1989 protests would make her see sense.  I even dragged her around the old Qianmen area that was scheduled for demolition to make her see what her government was doing to these irreplaceably historic buildings.  I got shooed off the makeshift living areas for the homeless behind the infamous “mini great wall” behind the Qianmen bus station for taking unwanted picture of the squalor.  For all my procrastinations, for all my heartfelt appeals, for all my solemn, headshaking, I didn’t make a dent.

Her father was a government lawyer, and was having none of it.  After a couple of months, I had gotten around to the idea that her life revolved around getting a manicure in Wang Fu Jing, going to KTV, and going dancing till three in the morning and coming home stinking of cigarettes and baijiu.  Occasionally seeing me, and quite possibly buying more shoes.  Things didn’t work out between us.

I like to live in a sea of information.  I’ve got Facebook open, Tweetdeck tuned to some of the top China commentators and bloggers, the TV on mute tuned to BBC News 24, and BBC World service playing via the Internet – I do all this whilst chatting on MSN, sending and receiving text messages and answering Skype calls and downloading podcasts to my iPod for later listening.  It all adds up to the fact that I know more about what’s going on in China than most Chinese people, and I barely speak the language.  All of my information about what’s going on in China comes from English news sources.  This is a source of friction between me and the Chinese people that I talk to, basically because the news isn’t always good news and Chinese people don’t believe that western news sources can be trusted.  This is a rather inconvenient situation for foreigners, because nearly all Chinese people don’t actually know that it’s illegal for Chinese journalists to work for foreign publications.  So how the hell else are we supposed to get the skinny on what’s happening in China?  What is interesting though, is that the things that I’m interesting and repost on Weibo or Kaixin, aren’t the same things that my Chinese friends are interested in.

Starved, in the first few months of my return to China from Japan, of Facebook, I signed up with Kaixin which slaked my thirst for constant new news.  Last week I disabled my account, mostly because what my Chinese friends on Kaixin were blogging about was pretty much diametrically opposite to what I was blogging and reposting about.  That and I was getting pretty pissed off with everything I was reposting as “newsworthy” was pretty much instantly deleted by the censors

And this is where we come to part one of my theory of why everyone in this part of the world defends their culture so much.  It’s a cliché, and it’s not going to be popular, but in a nutshell: everyone looks the same in this part of the world and the historical and cultural background is the only thing that can help people differentiate Korean from Chinese from Japanese.  Part two of my theory attempts to answer a question that was posted last weekend about why the Chinese government is so good at “playing the crowd” at home, but not particularly good doing it on an international scale.  Every citizen has a certain preference as to how they perceive their country.  The Chinese government has the advantage because for a long time, it’s told people how to perceive their country.

Let’s take a look at the Japanese for a moment.

The Japanese prefer to think of their country as small.  You’ll say you want travel somewhere, and they will almost faint away in shock at the very thought of the great distance you want to travel.  You’ll meet someone in Osaka, enthuse about the country to a certain extent, and hear about how small the country is.  Then you’ll mention that you want to travel somewhere like Himeji (a mere two hours away from Osaka Station on the limited stop service).  Hands will fly up in horror, girls will faint away in a swoon, sirens, klaxons and alarms will sound and Japanese special forces will abseil down from the ceiling and crash through the windows as the Japanese people you are talking to try to contemplate the great distances involved in the epic journey that you are planning and very likely may not survive.  Japan is small, but everything is Very Far Away. And Japanese like to think of it like that.  And it’s the same with China, Chinese people have certain preferences that they adhere to when they think of their country.

Chinese people prefer the idea that China has been ruled in a ceaseless, uninterrupted chain of dynasties and emperors.  The actual details of wars, in-fighting, assassination attempts, treachery and other insidious parts of Chinese history are not important.  What is important is that the rule of China as one country has been how it has been, and it is the way that things will be to come.  This is why slogans like “a thousand years of the CCP” and suchlike were so popular.  It made Chinese people feel secure that someone was actually going to be watching over them, that something would be there.  In China, there’s no corruption.  Corruption is just a means to the end of being comfortable about knowing the outcome – the accumulation of money is incidental.

Chinese people prefer to know what’s going to happen – my love life is littered with Chinese girlfriends who thought obsessively about the future – they wanted to know if I had a life plan, if they should have a life plan, if they should have a monthly or 6 monthly plans.  My most recent ex was given the advice that if she didn’t get a promotion in the next six months, she should quit the company.  That was last June, and as far as I know, she’s still at the same place.  One of my go-getter Chinese friends sits down and writes a yearly schedule for herself every January 1st.  Last year, one of my students wouldn’t even move to Xian because (amongst a myriad thousand reasons), she was afraid of what might happen.

Fear of failure is rampant in China, and it all comes from the Chinese education system.  Students are repeatedly told that they know nothing, that they are empty vessels and they need to be filled with instructions on how to carry out the simplest of tasks (one of my students in the English school I was working in last year asked me to do a class on how to tie a tie) without instruction, without clear leadership, without the feel that they are being told something that they didn’t already know, Chinese people are lost.  Into this steps the CCP, which rather than being run as a voice of the people, sees itself (and calls itself) the ruling party of the country and indeed, of Chinese society.  Chinese laws don’t so much protect individuals, but they protect social and economic stability, a legal situation, and a national mindset that goes in completely the opposite direction to the western ideals of protecting individuals first.

The Chinese Communist Party is very proud of the fact that they have “opened up China”, with their policy of reforms and, er, opening up.  In actual fact, no one actually did anything, rather, the Party stopped interfering with people’s lives, and let them get on with whatever they wanted to get on with.  The problem with opening up has been that the focus in China has shifted from the collective “China” to the individual “Chinese”, and the laws in China, as already pointed out do not take into account protection for the individual.  There are no independent courts, no due process, and very channels for legal protection for the average Joe Chun.  The people are left with one alternative: The authoritarian protection of the ruling CCP.

China’s Revolution Needs Supersizing

March 1, 2011 Leave a comment

move along, nothing to protest about here

Chinese citizens were told to shout “We want food, we want work, we want housing, we want fairness, referencing rising food and housing prices, the overqualified and underpaid ant-tribe, and massive government corruption and cronyism that has dogged the Chinese government since its inception.

While the protests in Egypt, Libya and Bahrain were gathering momentum, I found myself hoping that the same wouldn’t happen in China.  If it did, I explain on Facebook, the government crackdown would make Gadhafi’s violent response look like a paintballing outing for extremely nervous insurance salesmen.  The choice of venues (KFC and McDonalds) neatly illustrates the pampered nature of the Angry Young Men of China – we can have a protest, but we really need to go somewhere where we can get some food later on, possibly with a the local neighborhood American diplomat.

Suffice to say that the Chinese didn’t really grasp the nettle and give an all-out protest on the same scale as their Egyptian and Libyan counterparts.   A number of factors conspired against them a) they publicized the whole thing on Twitter which is banned in China, b) the Chinese authorities are stupid, but they’re not too stupid not to use Twitter to keep tabs on troublemakers c) they used Google Maps to pinpoint exactly were the protests were being held.  It was, to borrow one of Hannibal Lecter’s lines, a fledging protestor’s first attempt at a transformation, and not that great a success.  That said, at least the members of one of the world’s largest standing armies had something to other than stand.

The authorities didn’t really do themselves any favors either.  Fearing massive negative publicity, they duly phoned up every reporter in the city and told them not to go anywhere near Wangfujing or Tiananmen Square without special permission – which is a little like telling a two year old not to press, under any circumstances, the big red button with “danger – do not press” written in yellow and red letters above it.  If anyone should be arrested for subverting state power, it’s the Chinese idiots who spread news to the people who didn’t even know there was news in the first place to be spread.  It’s also given officials, as the 9/11 terror attacks in American gave the American officials, more wiggle room to collect in one place all the troublemakers, and any excuse to tighten the rules is a good excuse.

While their tactics have been quite simple, they have been quite effective – no one can argue that spraying water from a street cleaning van is a more acceptable than an M1 tank rumbling down the Wang Fu Jing.  If the dissidents get the idea that the most they have to deal with is getting a little bit wet (which, admittedly for Chinese people is on the same level as contracting leprosy) every weekend, they may get that little bit bolder.  It’s a shame that the Chinese police didn’t deal with the foreign news media.  Nothing makes a western report moist with anticipation more than a protest in China, but nothing eats up column inches like reports of Chinese police beating the living daylights out of foreign reporters and illegally detaining those covering a protest in China.