Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Teaching the English Language

Vietnamese Teaching Experience

Not long after the fall of Saigon I started my teaching career.  I had my credential and planned to substitute for a few years until I got my two children through junior high.  Like most plans go, mine changed sort of on their own.

It wasn’t long before I was drawn into a classroom full of sixth graders to go along with my sixth grade and eighth grade children at home.

Within two years I was scuttled over to a school smack in the middle of a settlement of newly relocated Vietnamese families.  That’s what happens to new teachers.  They get scuttled.  I started that new year with trepidation.

I knew nothing about these people and was given a crash course about their customs and their language, and tossed into the classroom.

Those. Children. Were. Brilliant.  They spoke haltingly, but they spoke English.  They had the most beautiful cursive handwriting.  They had stories.

Remember that iconic scene where people were being taken from a Vietnamese rooftop, into a helicopter?  Judging from one little guy’s story, he was one of those people. Let me tell you, I had trouble keeping up with those delightful little “Einsteins,” that year!

They were constantly teaching me about their country and how to say things in that impossible tonal language.  They would giggle at my every attempt.

They brought photographs to show me.  I stared at every detail in them.  Once I asked, “Who is this?” and pointed to a man in a picture. 
“Oh, that just a man my daddy work with.”

It was General Westmoreland.

I had to learn algebra all over again that year.  And Geometry!  How did I manage to get all the way through college without taking geometry?  I was one page ahead of them the whole year.

One fateful day a student wrote a spelling sentence about a right whale.  The spelling word was “right” and I was completely ignorant in whale-ology. 
“What do you mean right whale?” I said, thinking this was a language thing.
When he insisted that there was a right whale, I asked, stupidly digging myself further into my self made trap of ignorance,
 “Oh, and is there a Left Whale, too?”  Then not appearing stupid enough, I vowed that I’d eat my hat if there were actually a Right Whale.

The next day I brought in a cake made in the shape of a straw hat with a sassy plaid band around the brim.  We all ate my hat.  Mine tasted like crow. 

There is one more thing I learned during the years I spent teaching in this community.  English is a helter-skelter, carelessly thrown-together language. 

Oh, it is colorful, and there are a plethora of words that mean almost the same thing, for one to choose from in order to precisely convey the feeling you are attempting to portray, but seriously, People, someone needs to clean it up a bit.

Vietnamese has no tenses.  It has no plurals.  They simply say, “Yesterday we go… or tomorrow we go…”
They say, “One tree, Two tree, or Three tree.”  Simple. Concise. Efficient.

Imagine how many conversations (arguments) I had to have concerning each of these subjects. 
“Well yes, you do add ‘ed’ to make it past tense, but not ‘Putted.’  You just say, ‘I put it there before recess,’ not ‘I putted it there before recess.’ These are called irregular verbs because they are, well…, not regular.”
Each of these aberrations had to be thoroughly debated, probably due to the trust level over the Right Whale Debacle.

Then there was the “add ‘s’ to make it plural.”  Except for a whole bunch of other times when you don’t!  You’ll need to add “es” or “ies,” to some words.  And then there are deer and fish to deal with. 

I was afraid to bring up, “feet and teeth!”

They also wanted precise spelling rules.  Well, in a language where “sh” can be spelled nine different ways, there is no hope for precise.

(Oh, yes it can. There’s sugar, mission, anxious, ocean, motion luxury, tension, conscious, and machine-and probably more!)
Think about the “oo” sound in moon, and look.
Comb and bomb should rhyme, shouldn’t they?

I finally made up a story to explain how English got so messed up:

See, there were these old monks wearing wool robes tied with ropes, even when the weather was really hot.  These grouchy old monks hated children, and wanted to do something to make their lives miserable in a way that wouldn’t get them into trouble, their being monks and all. 

So they decided, as they were transcribing things into the English language, that they would make the spelling so convoluted that no kid would ever be able to figure words out on their own.

Then waving my arms about dramatically, I acted out how they said things like, “I know!  Let’s spell Christmas with a Ch instead of a K like it sounds!   Bwahhahahahah!”  And, “Let’s spell exact with an‘x’ instead of EGG-zact like it sounds!  Hah!  That will get them!”

I told this story for twenty-five years.  Year after year when we’d come to why tomb and bomb didn’t sound alike, and why there was no ‘j’ in soldier the kids would say, “It was those monks, huh.”

Coming next:  Stories (told to me by Vietnamese children over the years) that will make your hair stand on end.

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