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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Learning English While Teaching English

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Turns out, to teach English in China you don't really need actual English-training-qualifications. I had to take an online TEFL course but, yeah, right. When I started, I was basically teaching English and correcting the students' mistakes based on "that doesn't sound right."

I had a lot to learn about language...

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Sometimes, the "ed" ending on a past-tense verb is pronounced like a T. Talked, worked, crashed. Sometimes it's pronounced with a D sound. Changed, opened, learned. Sometimes it's pronounced like "id". Started, waited, prodded.

Me: "Can you think of any more verbs were the 'ed' is pronounced like T?" (note: I am expecting answers like "any verb that ends in K.")

Student: "When the sound is... I don't  know how to say in English... [says a few Chinese words, whose meaning I am able to guess]"

Me: "Oh! You mean voiced and unvoiced sounds?" And I had no idea if she was right or not, but it seemed like it was probably true.

Dude I just speak English. I don't know all these complicated pronunciation rules. I never even heard of voiced and unvoiced sounds until I started studying Chinese.

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Have you ever tried to explain the difference between "I never go to KFC" and "I've never gone to KFC"?

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I was trying to explain the differences between "made of," "made from," and "made by," because some students were saying "this is made by wood" which is either a mistake, or Grandmother Willow has some awesome carpentry skills I was previously unaware of.

You use "made of" and "made from" to say the material it's made of, and "made by" to say the person who made it. Simple.

But then the students asked me, "What's the difference between 'made of' and 'made from'?"

Uhh... like, I feel like there's a difference, but I don't know what it is...

So you know, there I am trying to think of an example AND an explanation in simple enough English so they can understand. "They're a little different, but... I don't know... for the words in this lesson you can use either one..."

A student comes up with "Cake is made from eggs." Right. But you can't say "Cake is made of eggs" because then it sounds like eggs are the only ingredient. If you say "Cake is made of eggs, sugar, and flour," that's better.

But still it's very hard to explain.

Then a few of the students come up with this crazy idea like "made of" describes a physical change and "made from" describes a chemical change, and I'm like, no that's not it, I've never heard anything like that before.

But then one of my students says, "The table is made of wood. Plastic is made from oil."

And I'm like, "OH! You're right!"

But I still don't know the difference between "made of" and "made from."

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Also, dude, I'm learning more British English in China than I ever have before. Because the lesson plans we teach include a mix of British English and American English. (Any time there's some weird/wrong-sounding sentence in one of the lessons, I just tell the students it's British English and shrug.)

My favorite part was one lesson which had a game where a student describes something to their partner, and their partner guesses it. I'm preparing my lesson, ya know, reading over the words they have to guess, and one of them is "spanner." What the heck is a "spanner"?

So I went over to dictionary.com and turns out it's British for "wrench."

And in class I tried to apologize for that weird word, "spanner," but the students (who are, of course, Chinese) actually knew what it was. What.

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You know the pronunciation-guide thing, like you see in dictionaries with an upside-down e and all that? Well the students know it and find it very useful to learn English pronunciation, and most of the foreign teachers don't know how to read it at all.

I keep telling myself I should put in the time to learn it. Dude, I already learned Chinese. This IPA pronunciation stuff is way easier.

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And one more thing: If you're using your phone to text someone under your desk during class, teachers totally DO notice.

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