Intonation, stress, and my Godiva chocolates

Posted on May 10, 2009. Filed under: American culture, celebrations, language, nonverbal communication | Tags: , , , , , |

I was woken up this morning with a lovely breakfast in bed for Mother’s Day. Actually, I had been up for about 10 minutes, and really wanted to pee and brush my teeth, but I thought it best to fake sleeping until I heard the rattle of the breakfast tray being carried down the hall by my beloved children, so as not to ruin their “surprise”.

One of my presents was a box of Godiva truffles,  which, by the way, I plan to finish before the end of the day. As I opened them, I saw Carlita looking longingly at the box.

“Would you like one?” I asked, with rising intonation, typical of a question asked in English. She smiled and took the coconut cream.

I looked at my husband. “Would YOU like one?” I asked, stressing the word you, because he doesn’t really eat sweets, and I wasn’t expecting that he would take it. ” Maybe later” he said.

Finally, I looked at Calvin, my teenage son who is capable of  inhaling the entire refrigerator at one sitting. “Would you like ONE?” I asked, stressing the word one, to let him know this was my candy, and I wasn’t giving it all away.

I had asked 3 people the same question, but each time it carried a very different meaning. Stress and intonation in English carry the bulk of the message, which is why English language learners often miss the subtle nuances in conversation. They tend to focus on the vocabulary and grammar. As native speakers, we all understood the differences in meaning  without an overt explanation. They also understood, without overt explanation, that they’d better not touch the raspberry dark chocolate one.

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Chinese teachers and American students

Posted on February 28, 2009. Filed under: American culture, Asian culture, chinese culture, cross cultural, education | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , |

My company ran a number of beginning Chinese conversation classes for one corporation, with locations in 5 states. While I was at first concerned about coordinating the multi-state program, what turned out to be the biggest challenge was working with Chinese teachers.

The differences in teaching styles, as well as expectations surrounding classroom management, were enormous. The instructors were not very familiar or comfortable with a communicative approach to language instruction (emphasizing interaction and real life communication; not grammar focused).  The Chinese instructors were used to top-down instruction, and were not as skilled acting as facilitators.

The American students (all adults) expected to be active participants in the class. They wanted teachers who were knowledgeable in the subject area, dynamic, creative and energetic. For the Chinese instructors, being dynamic and creative were not as important.

Our beginning level language classes use a great deal of  Total Physical Response (TPR). TPR is a fast-paced activity that helps students develop listening comprehension skills and increase their vocabulary. In TPR, students follow the teacher’s instructions to complete certain actions over and over. (think Simon Says). Commands grow in length and complexity as the course continues. Students can feel immediate success without having to produce utterances.

All of the Chinese instructors were unfamiliar with this technique, which is standard in ESL, and had to be coached. They found it very useful, but I was stunned at the lack of creativity and spontaneity. After a few class sessions, I got calls from some teachers asking if they could purchase flash cards of different pictures to use for the TPR lessons. They said they had “run out” of things to talk about. Run out!  That’s the beauty of TPR–you can’t run out. Even if you use every single noun in the room with every possible verb, you still have pronouns to run through, not to mention all those prepositions. And all of these, in an endless variety of combinations. Run out?

All of the teachers were committed professionals. They were eager to learn new teaching methods, and were willing to try out new techniques. At course completion, they all recieved excellent student evaluations. I wonder if the results would have been the same if they had not been coached in American teaching methods and student expectations?

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