This place is such a mix of the old and new worlds, always changing, but there are still traces of the world that was. It’s in the details, like the brooms they use to sweep the streets and the small fires to commemorate the dead. The last couple weeks have been busy here and the days are getting shorter and colder.
I picked up a lot of new classes, coteaching listening and speaking classes. The students are all young, mostly freshmen, and it’s weird to be in a place where I must be old because I’m twenty years older than them, but I don’t really know that I count as an adult yet. Growing up or growing old. I don’t really know there is enough benefit to either.
I have added a couple hundred people to my phone in the last two weeks. I just give my contact information to everyone. I talk to people in English, or sometimes Chinese. Some want help with homework, or projects. I’ve edited letters of recommendation, explained poetry in textbooks, and shared old music with teachers and students. The moments are short, but everything teaches me more about the country I live in.
People here like to use names while texting, but out of place from ordinary speech. Sometimes I’ll get a text, then just my name, then another text. In English, that would mean you really want my full attention. “Hey. James. What do you like to eat?” The tone of the sentence feels like it’s really important, but the words are ordinary.
I’ve been trying to explain this to some of my students, but explanations just slow them down. There is a belief that you need to understand to speak a language, that you need to start with rules and move backward, but that isn’t how we learn languages. In school in San Diego I learned the same way, repetition and explanation. But all of us learn to speak before we can even understand the concept of why. We just speak, repeat, listen, and understand. We don’t stop to translate, to check the dictionary for a word, we just do it.
That is what I have been trying to teach my advanced speakers. To feel the language, not to think about it. Just speak, don’t ask why. Most native speakers never know why they say something, and only linguists really understand the depths of a language. Why comes years after we really learn to communicate. That’s part of why teaching children is so easy. They never ask why, they just feel the emotion of the words.
When I taught in Taipei, it was easy and fun. I would say stupid things, quote movies and songs they had never heard. Any random word they said that reminded me of something, I would say. From quoting Rough Riders whenever I called my student Ryder to speak to quoting the Warriors when asking them if they want to play. I would sing the stupid songs my mother sang to me, like when students said they were hungry.
I did it because it worked. They repeat the stupid noises and words, learning accents and pronunciation reflexively. They never asked, they just had fun. English is a big inside joke, filled with cultural references, old sayings, and bits of other languages that we have claimed as our own. Trying to find out why takes a lifetime. Learning how to speak is so much easier.
That is the point I have come to. Trying to teach the students a better way to learn. Not to teach them the language, but how to keep learning after the class is over. How to find a way to love learning. I think that is the hardest concept, to feel before you ask why.