Sunday, June 30, 2013

Dandan Mao on 6/29/13

Yesterday was Mao's birthday! We met again for another session, but this one was very short. We chatted briefly about celebrations and the struggles of growing older. Mao said she didn't want to have a birthday at all because she didn't want to get older (and she thinks she will have wrinkles when she's 25...).

I noticed that sometimes when talking about activities she likes to do, she drops the "to" from any verb infinitives. This makes sense because "to" is purely functional in this role and doesn't carry any meaning on its own, but it's an important piece of the infinitive structure and is necessary in order to sound competent in the language.

Mao and I will continue meeting through the summer, and I feel like I understand what her strengths and weaknesses with the language are. In our coming sessions, I'll be more active in focusing on specific pieces of her speech that she can adjust as we chat, and I'll devise exercises to help her be more aware of her sentence structure.

I've really enjoyed getting to know Mao and am pleased to be developing my own skills as a tutor. At the end of our chat last night, Mao told me that I have a lot to say and would be very suitable as a teacher. Her words are encouraging and make me work harder to be a better teacher each day.

Dandan Mao on 6/22/13

Last week, Mao and I met for our second session. Unfortunately her mother had to have surgery a couple weeks prior, so Mao was very busy taking care of her while she recovered, and we were unable to meet during that time. Also, I had to find new software to record our sessions, and due to some technical issues I was unable to record my own voice or video.

We started out talking about different types of people. She explained that the Chinese word "Jai nan" describes a male who likes to stay indoors and fix things, and she thinks that I am one (and she isn't entirely off-base). I asked if it's good or bad, and she said it's neither - it's just a description. I tried to think of English equivalents - introvert came to mind but that's more of a personality type, and options like hermit or recluse generally have socially negative connotations. The distinction intrigued me and made me think of personality archetypes, so I introduced her to the word. I did this as an exercise in helping her make L2 connections, as I mentioned in the previous post. I asked her if she knew the word abstract, and she said she had learned it but didn't quite remember. So we talked about the difference between abstract ideas and concrete ideas - and how abstract concepts are things that are generally understood through other words. I explained how words like good and evil are abstract ideas that we deal with on a regular basis, and those concepts can be built on to make larger abstracts. We spoke about superheroes and villains, and the way that those two classifications are character archetypes that commonly boil down to the struggle of good vs. evil. I asked if she understood and could explain what archetype means in her own words, and she got part of it, but extending the description beyond superheroes was difficult for her to express.

I admit that this was a very difficult exercise for her, but I wanted to see where her abilities lie. In a class on the principles of second language acquisition, I learned about Vygotsky and the Zone of Proximal Development, a tool used between tutor and pupil to assess the pupil's level of skill in a certain field. After this session, I feel that I have a much better understanding of Mao's English skills and what our ZPD encompasses, and will use it to better communicate with her and hopefully teach her more in the future.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Dandan Mao on 6/1/13

On June 1, I met with Dandan Mao, another student from Shanghai. Mao communicates with a classmate of mine and was looking for more English speakers to practice with, so I was very glad to speak with her. Mao was much more open and expressive than Qingxian, and we were able to talk at length for an hour and a half. She has a wonderful grasp of English which made for a very natural conversation. There were a few miscommunications, but the majority of them were due to the imprecise translation of movie and book titles. Pop culture and media titles often consist of idioms and expressions that don't translate directly. A change in a single word even can cause trouble in understanding.

For example, Mao tried to tell me about a movie that she watched. It was a Japanese film that she said was called City in the Sky. She tried to explain what it was about, but it was difficult to describe and I thought that I just hadn't heard of the movie before. Eventually, I went to google it only to discover that she meant Castle in the Sky, a film by Hayao Miyazaki, a director that I love. I asked her if she'd seen Spirited Away, another of his movies, but she said she hadn't. Soon though, she was describing another one of his movies and eventually looked up a translation and typed the title into our Skype chat. To my surprise, the words "Spirited Away" appeared, but Mao didn't know how to pronounce it or what it sounded like so she hadn't realized that I was talking about it before.

The above clip is a small piece of our conversation about pets. It shows that despite her strong grasp of the language, she still makes some small errors that are similar to the ones I noticed from Qingxian. Again, plurals and word agreements are not always correct (as shown: "dog is very noisy..." rather than "dogs are very noisy"), and she sometimes confuses articles. At another point in our conversation, she mixed up "the" and "a" regarding a video she had seen. I tried to give her a simple explanation in English, in hopes that a description using the L2 will help her to make connections in it. Being able to understand the L2 as it relates to the L1 is necessary to start, but experiential connections must be made in the L2 to reach fluent production. Mao seems to already be thinking in her L2 rather than simply translating, and that is a great accomplishment and large step closer to mastery of the language.

Wu Qingxian on 4/19/13

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

This recording is of my first session on April 19. I met with Wu Qingxian, a student in Shanghai, at 10pm (10am the next morning for him). We were supposed to meet at 8, but he arrived two hours later... just as I was about to close Skype and shut down my computer. Historically, I'm not much of a morning person so I sympathized with him. 

He spoke very little. It seemed mostly because of his uncertainty of the language, as he apologized numerous times for his poor English. Almost all of his utterances were one of two alternatives: a short, straightforward question, or a quick, direct answer to a question of mine. I tried to ask him some open-ended questions, but he had difficulty following, and I wasn't sure how else to elicit longer responses from him. I tried to elaborate in some of my answers, but that didn't help him feel any more comfortable. It made the session feel like a disjointed game of 20 questions.

It seemed like he had prepared certain sentences that he wanted to say ahead of time, which isn't necessarily conducive to natural conversation. L2 production is often lacking for learners of a foreign language, because they don't get much practice using the language in a practical setting. It was especially apparent here, when he sounded like he was reading sentences from a notebook. The only real solution is to use the language and make mistakes.

At 2:22 in part 1, there is a good example of what sounds like a prepared sample. It gives examples of some of his consistent errors throughout our session: pluralization, number agreement, and auxiliary omissions. "Chinese food have* eight major dish*" is comprehensible, but incorrect. His tendency not to pluralize is probably L1 interference, as Chinese does not directly pluralize words, but rather indicates numbers explicitly if necessary, and whether something is single or plural is largely based on context. His backwards pronunciation of the word "major" is also odd, but it isn't uncommon for pronunciation of words to be off if the word is unfamiliar and being read.

All in all, I felt that he had some good foundations that could be developed with regular practice. Unfortunately, after this session Qingxian never showed up to any other sessions, and didn't respond to emails or messages trying to contact him. He said that learning English was "important and interesting" to him, but he didn't seem to act on it.

Sunday, June 16, 2013


Hello! This blog exists as a log of my interactions with international students as an English language tutor via Skype. I'm a linguistics student at Montclair State University and I hope to teach English overseas and explore ways to improve second language learning. In the age of the internet, global communication is instantaneous and easier than ever, making our language one of the only barriers between folks from all over the world. Being able to communicate directly with foreign speakers is a great opportunity and I'm thrilled to help them improve their English skills. So far, I've met with two students for one session each, and will be continuing with one of them for the next few weeks.

The sessions are essentially just long chat sessions. We cover a wide variety of topics over the course of ~30-90 minutes and have the opportunity to get to know each other. If necessary, I make corrections to their speech and help to improve pronunciation.

Sometimes, however, it doesn't cross my mind that a mistake has been made... As a linguist, I lean closer to the descriptivist camp than the prescriptivist when it comes to grammar. So when one of my students says something that I can comprehend - even when it might not necessarily be correctly formed - it's a correct utterance, because the message was conveyed successfully.

As a future teacher, this is a necessary habit to break and I'm glad that I'll be learning as much from these sessions as my students.