comme ci comme ça

29 Apr

Tomorrow, I’m going to a primary school “in the countryside” to give a guest lecture to 100 8-year-olds.

The whole thing is just so screwy, because this countryside school is apparently 200 meters from the school where I teach (“you can see it from the 5th floor windows,” I was told). I’m not 100% sure how that works, but I’m starting to get a hazy impression that when they say “rural school” or “countryside school”, what they mean is that it’s a school where the farmers’ kids go. As opposed the school where the factory workers’ kids go. I had been assuming that “countryside” and “rural” were descriptors that have to do with location.

Anyway, the class I’m teaching is going to be outside because the school doesn’t have a room big enough to hold 100 students. It’s supposed to be 93 degrees tomorrow, so that should be fun. I have no idea what kind of English skills these kids will already have–I’ve been told that they >may already know colors and body parts, but they may not.

Of course, I’m not smart enough or organized enough to have prepared a lesson plan early enough to do a practice run with my kids…although if I tried to make my 6th graders sit through 40 minutes of “Heads, Shoulder, Knees, and Toes”, they’d probably mutiny.

Basically, I’m sitting here and it’s midnight, and I don’t feel prepared. I have a lesson plan ready, and I think it’s good. But I’ve learned to never, ever, ever trust a lesson plan the first time through. (I perpetually feel bad for my Monday classes, because they never get my A-game. I’m always fresher and have more energy, but the lessons are always rougher.)

I decided to teach a lesson on “hi, how are you?” because whenever I ask anyone that question here in China (which is about 13 times a day) they ALWAYS respond with, “I’m fine, thank you, and you?” 99.99% of the time, that’s the response I get, like a robot. Or a class full of 48 robots.

I understand how this happens; “I’m fine, thank you, and you?” is the response that they are taught from day one of their exposure to English. And, no matter how fluent I was in French, even at my most fluent, I’m not sure I ever stopped responding to “Ça va?” with “Ça va bien, et vous?” Some things just get drilled into you.

Also, as a native English speaker, I happen to know that I respond to “how are you?” with “I’m good, thanks,” about 95% of the time, myself. In fact, on occasion I hear myself saying things like, “I’m good, thanks. Listen, I’m calling because my car broke down and my dog just died and I have the swine flu, so I was wondering if I could get an extension on that paper.” Clearly, I’m not good, but I say it anyway.

The words do become rote.

But it’s frustrating in foreign language classes because I feel like the kids aren’t really aware of their other options. It’s not like they’re familiar with the full gamut of potential responses and are choosing “I’m fine” because it’s part of their natural communication pattern, the way a native speaker might. I suspect that they’re answering with “I’m fine” because it’s what they’ve been told they should say, not because it has any real meaning to them. And, also, with my kids, as their teacher, I’m always looking for any chance to get a toehold with them. On the rare occasion when a kid does answer “how are you?” with “I’m bad” or “I’m so sleepy”, it provides an opening for a real conversation with a real exchange of information. Even if it’s stilted, even if it’s short, it’s still more genuine communication than “how are you?” “I’m fine, thank you, how are you?”.

As a side note, you might think that the people most likely to buck the trend and answer with something more original that “I’m fine” would be my waiban, or members of the English department at my school. Nope. They always answer with “I’m fine”. The people most likely to give me a real answer are my loudest, most rambunctious boys, who think it’s amusing to wait until the rest of the class has finished chorusing “I’m fine, thank you, how are you?” to burst out with a huge, dramatic, “I’m very, very terrible!”

Tomorrow, I’m going to work with the rural students on some alternate answers to “how are you?”. Hungry, tired, sad, happy, thirsty, great. Easy words, and I think there’s a good chance they’ll know most of them already. A few short activities, a song, and hopefully that will keep them engaged for 40 minutes.

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2 Responses to “comme ci comme ça”

  1. Kathy April 29, 2011 at 3:49 am #

    Fine is one of those words like nice, a non word. I like your answer with a “feeling” word. I feel happy, sad, confused, excited, scared, tired, makes much more sense to me, I have a list of about 100 feeling words..
    btw..I feel less mad than yesterday, more tired and hungry:)!

  2. Jessica@Team Rasler May 8, 2011 at 10:41 am #

    This is so true. In fact, when I was getting my ESL endorsement, we taught the kids a song that we also sing now in Sebastian’s library storytime: “Hello, hello, hello, and how are you? I’m fine… I’m fine… and I hope that you are, too.” It’s cute, but definitely drills the “I’m fine” response from a young age.

    So how did your lesson go?

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