Revising Windsong and teaching English

            As winter passed into spring something changed.  That change was stimulated by Peter Pei, who would become a good internet friend.  Peter lives in Shanghai and has his own internet based translation business.  I had been using the www.ok-english.net website for some time as well as www.dioenglish.com.  Peter had contacted me asking if I was a medical doctor and if I was interested in editing medical research papers.  He told me of a company, Edanz, which edits scientific research from Japan, China, and many countries around the world.  That’s another story!  I’ll say more about it later.

            My editing work, which would begin in earnest in April of 2010, also led in another direction.  Julian Luo, the owner of www.ok-english.net, encouraged me to start teaching English on the internet.  Sometime during the winter of 2009–2010 I started teaching.  I didn’t know what to use for teaching materials, and initially tried to develop my own English teaching materials.  Almost immediately, I found this too time consuming.  I tried to start writing a book to use, but found my own writing too complex for my students.  I didn’t want to use Moose Creek because I wanted to sell the manuscript.  So, I took the next logical step.

            I decided to use Windsong, my autobiography, to teach English.  From the start, the book was a hit with my students.  The stories of my childhood told of life in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s and the students drank in the stories.  I found a perfect match.  The English, while not dumbed down, was challenging to many of the students.  Some found the reading too advanced for their skills.  But they found the stories very interesting and enjoyed my use of idioms and writing style.  Soon, I was waking up every Saturday morning at 7 a.m. in summer, and later 6 a.m. in winter, to teach English.

            The lessons vary, but typically follow a pattern.  I know the students want to hear and speak natural spoken English, learn new words, and want to practice pronunciation.  I had no desire to teach English grammar and I found the students had plenty of exposure to grammar.  They thirst for a chance to hear and understand spoken English and to improve their English speaking skills.  I quickly settled on a pattern.

Teaching English with Windsong

            First, for 30 minutes, I read the story.  This gives the students a chance to hear natural spoken English and with the text in front of them, they can read along with me.  This helps the students understand what they hear.  I’ve learned to keep my paragraphs rather short so the reading does not go on too long or get too tedious.  I don’t want the students to get lost in the middle of listening to long paragraphs.

            Then, for an additional 30 minutes, I allow the students to read. Now, they have the opportunity to listen to each other read more and while they are reading I write downwards on the screen that we can practice later. The students really seemed to enjoy this format. It gives them the opportunity to both listen to natural spoken English and to get a native speaker to listen to them speak. As they hear others reading it often gives them confidence that they can read out loud in English too. Many of them have never practiced spoken English with a native speaker, especially outside of the classroom.

            But that's not all. No matter who is reading, at the end of each paragraph I will ask, "Any questions?" I tried to not dumb down the manuscript and read at an even natural pace. With the written words in front of them, the students can follow along as I read and the more advanced students will pick out words and idioms that they don't recognize. Since we have no pressure to finish a particular section on a particular day we can spend as long as necessary explaining the materials we go along.

            In addition, I've written down other words so we can practice pronunciation. Sometimes, these are words that the reader mispronounced, words that I know Chinese people have difficulty pronouncing such as the names of the states in the United States like Kentucky or Florida or Arkansas, or words that others asked me to help them with. Often, the students will come up with pairs of words that they have difficulty differentiating. Often, we will practice several pairs or groups of similar words such as bin, been, and bean, wren and ream, Lynn and lean, or sin and seen. Sheila loves the sentences I come up with to practice the use of those words such as, "Have you been in the bean bin? Lynn leaned over the bean bin and has seen the ren in the bin."

            Many of the students are very shy at first. Like me, they are uncomfortable speaking in front of her group. But I have noticed that these shy students will sometimes listen to the class for 2 to 3 weeks before they get the courage to speak themselves. Once they see that the environment is very welcoming and that they can join in the conversation without fear and have an opportunity to practice English they are delighted.

            The students come and go over time. In 2009 and 2010, Hattie and Jackson Lee tended to ask the most questions and be the most eager to read. But they have moved on to other things and in 2012 my favorite student has become Danny. Any initial shyness the students had disappeared quickly. They asked excellent questions about specific words or phrases or entire sentences that confuse them. Many of the students are quickly disappointed by how fast an hour disappears. Often, because we're in the middle of a topic we will continue the lesson for an extra 30 to 60 minutes. After the lesson ends we sometimes talk for an hour or two with an open discussion. What starts out as a one-hour class often last for two or three hours if you include everything we do.

            I have an ulterior motive aside from enjoying teaching English in providing these classes for free. It gives me an opportunity to proofread my book. Also, it gives my Chinese friends a real insight into American life from the 1950s forward. I can imagine they may have many misconceptions and think that life in America is easy for everyone. Last weekend (late March 2013), for example, I discussed not having running water or an inside bathroom when my children were toddlers and Gail and I lived in Kentucky. My book tends to tell about American life like it really was for me. I enjoy letting the students know that everyone has difficulties no matter what their station in life is. 

Chapter break

You're becoming Chinese

            "You're becoming Chinese," Sheila would often tell me in this period of my life, 2009 to 2012. Indeed, both our lives were changing as a result of my efforts to learn the Chinese language. At this point, in early April 2013, I expect even more changes are in the works. My mastery of Chinese was quite limited at that time I was still unable to hold a discussion in the language.

            I did reach the point where I could start a discussion with my Chinese friends, but as soon as they responded my reply was, "听不懂" meaning, "Hear not understand" or “I hear what you're saying but I don't understand you." During this time period I received a one medium length paragraph-long e-mail from a new Chinese friend who called himself Fang. It took me four hours to carefully decipher it. But my efforts to learn the Chinese language have never slacked off since I started in February of 2004.

            I continued to listen to my language tapes and began to use QQ to practice writing and reading in Chinese. QQ became my newest tool in my arsenal of learning techniques. I had suddenly found a way to do what I intended to do when I started studying Chinese. I began to communicate with people in China directly.

QQ

            QQ is a Chinese social networking site that is a combination of Facebook, Twitter, and MSN or Yahoo instant messaging. I use it primarily for instant messaging because the background of the software is still primarily in Chinese for doing things like designing a webpage or uploading pictures. I have plenty to do just chatting with people and learning Chinese and later would begin to use other websites for other purposes such as blogging in Chinese and posting photographs.

            As I had already learned through other social media I was instantly extremely popular. I've taken on many roles on QQ but the main one is English teacher rather than Chinese learner. I'd like to spend a few minutes describing what happens when I first meet people on QQ. Each has their own agenda and each approaches me in a different way. Here's the first and most typical approach.

Making new friends in China

            "I'm so glad I met you. You are the first foreigner that I've ever talked to. I'm just delighted and very nervous because I've never talked with an American before. I have a wonderful idea. You and I can talk for 15 to 30 minutes every day. I can improve my English and you can improve your Chinese. This is going to be just great." I disappointed so many of these people. I have to tell them that two to five people make this discovery every week. I simply don't have enough time to spend 30 minutes a day with 100 or 200 different people. There are many more people in China who are studying English then there are Americans who are studying Chinese. As a result I'm in high demand. Now, the second category of people.

            "Are you married?" This question usually comes from a middle-aged woman, divorced, 35 years old, who is looking for an American husband for any one of several reasons. Some want to become American citizens. Some have been disappointed in their romantic relationships in China and want to try life with American. And some are simply seeking romance in any way they can find. Again, I have to disappoint them because my first response is always, "Yes, I'm very happily married." A few will even offer to become my Chinese girlfriend despite my marriage, the fact they've never met me, and the fact that we are half a world apart. I still disappoint them. Such is life. I'm too happily married to even consider other options for a moment.

            "I'm in second grade at the University. My major is business." I have a considerable amount of fun talking to Chinese college students, high school students, and rarely elementary school students. Many are seeking advanced degrees and want an opportunity to improve their English. One of my goals in learning Chinese was to begin to communicate in Chinese with Chinese scientists. So, when I meet these budding students we have a lot in common. I know the problems of professors and colleges, parents and boyfriends and girlfriends, being away from home and having roommates, and dealing with life's problems is a young person. We enjoyed talking to each other. Again, the problem is there's not enough of me to go around and they are often disappointed that we can't talk every day.

            "I'm the only one my company who uses English and I want to practice my English with you." Again, these college graduates or high school graduates are anxious to talk to me and improve their English. Both single and married people want advice on their relationships and I find myself becoming Dr. Phil and even trying to prevent suicides. It can be mindnumbing at times, but as young person in college and my young adult life I often had no one to turn to. So, I get a lot of pleasure in helping direct young people as they struggle with their young lives and let them know that my life was not always a piece of cake and that theirs will probably improve soon.

            "Are you gay?" I suspect I disappoint these people just as much as the middle-aged Chinese women who are looking for a husband. "No," doesn't usually in these conversations as quickly as, "I'm happily married" when I'm talking to a young woman. "I have gay friends, but I'm not gay," I tell them. I can only imagine the difficulties gay people have to contend with on the internet so I try to be friendly with everyone.