Tuesday, 6th June '06
Chronicles of the Cheena Pok Part I
They read all their books but they can't find their answers.
-- "No Such Thing", John Mayer
Whee! I just had the most inspirational Chinese class of my life. Heh. Of course I had Xu Ruixing (you know him better as Benjamin Koh Swee Heng. I've never had to call him by his Chinese name in the 6 years - or 9, if you count the IRC/ICQ years - I've known him, so even that was vaguely amusing) sitting next to me making me laugh at every inappropriate moment.
I think we both agreed this was our first ever Chinese class in which we weren't dying to get out or praying for a meteor to fall from the sky to save us from our misery. I've complained time and again about how the Ministry of Education's Chinese classes are about the WORST way to teach Chinese, and I'm more convinced now than ever that I'm right. Why the heck should we be memorising 150 chengyu when we could be reading about the deals between OCBC and Allianz and feeling incredibly proud of ourselves for being now being able to say "blue chip stocks", "put / call option", "financial quarter", "audit" etc all in the course of reading one article.
I think what I liked about it was the background the instructor went into. He said something last night that gave me pause (Chinese teachers have NEVER given me pause at any point). I can't transcribe it verbatim, but he said something like: 当人家笑你的华语讲得不好，他们不是笑你不懂得华文词汇， 而是笑你不懂得华人的文化。That was maybe the most enlightening thing I've heard in a while, and that really is exactly it. That's why I've never felt like someone who's supposedly been a Higher Chinese student for 6 out of 10 years of Chinese education). Think about it - Higher Chinese students are supposed to be people who can take "Chinese as a first language" - i.e. I'm supposed to be as proficient in it as in English, but anyone who knows me well enough knows that's very far from the truth. In fact that's probably true of most Higher Chinese students. And then you have the students who take Chinese as a second language, but can actually use it to get around in life. Why? Because they LIVED the freaking language. They have their dinner conversations with their parents in Chinese, they watch the news in Chinese and they even speak to their friends in Chinese. So when the instructor asked me if I took Chinese as a second language and I said no, I was a Higher Chinese student, and he then asked me which school I was from, and I said "Raffles", he nodded at me like I was Everything Wrong With the Singapore Chinese Education System.
Which, of course, I am.
Every little bit of Chinese I know is effectively self-taught, vocabulary memorising. And that really came out when he made us read a couple of finance related articles out loud. I could pronounce just about every single word in that article - because the 10 years of mugging saw to that. You know, like "this symbol means you make this sound". But he complained I couldn't read it in any fashion that made sense. I think what he meant was that little speech and drama thing I can do so well in English. To read the passage like it means something and it's not just a collection of words. To modulate and add pauses. Which was also right because sure I could read the whole thing - I just didn't have the foggiest idea what it was SAYING on the spot. Reading it a few more times might do it but certainly not the first round.
And then there was problem that I call "working in reverse" - 10 years of Chinese, even by my standards, means something. So usually when I look at a certain vocabulary in Chinese I know what it means in English. I just can't look at an English word and tell you what it is in Chinese. I couldn't tell you "spinach", "pasta" or "certified public accountant" (haha, Ben). So you get how understand how inspirational it is to suddenly be taught the Chinese equivalents of "ExxonMobil" / "General Electric" / "Microsoft" / "Honda" / "Toyota", the real world ways to talk about percentages (say, the subtle differences between 打九折 and 九十巴仙 and 九成, and what the hell “吃饱了没有“ really means when you ask someone that.
I'd take that anyday - I REALLY never needed to know phrases like 对牛弹琴 or 画蛇添足, if you see what I mean. It was just so great to finally meet a Chinese teacher who saw the systemic problem with the way I've learnt Chinese all along and had finally taken the effort to develop a method of teaching that recognised and hopefully addressed the problem. And that he recognised that persons like us wanted a Chinese education that would be useful anywhere in the world, so he'd take care to explain the differences in usage of certain terms in China, HK, Taiwan and Singapore.
And he didn't have that fear of digression that seems to limit school teachers. They're so afraid of leaving the syllabus. That was something I loved about Canada, and this dude seems to get it too. Lastly, he didn't have that aversion to English that all Chinese teachers in school seemed to have. They'd never let you learn translations in English during Higher Chinese, but this guy told us not to worry about expressing an idea in English if we couldn't do it it Chinese - which is really the whole point, isn't it? We want to be able to express in Chinese this idea that is essentially one that I learnt in English - how can I do that if you don't let me tell you what I want to say in English in the first place. The student starts to shortchange on the idea or say something else just so that the Chinese part sounds right. But that's not effective communication because you really just DIDN'T say what you should have said. So it was with such relief that when Ben wanted to explain the concept of Class A (Chinese nationals can invest) and Class B shares (only foreigners can invest), he let him do it in some English-Chinese mix and then taught him how to say it properly in Chinese. Becasue the whole point is that we learn these things in English, and there are very specific accurate ways to put the idea across.
As Ben said, we should just make him the bloody head of the MOE Chinese Department lah.
[well, the pictures aren't going to take themselves!]