Beginner

Sorry, but I can’t resist offering you another extract from Xiaolu Guo’s wonderful A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. It’s her description of her first day at her new language school in London.

Beginner n a person who has just started learning to do something.

Holborn. First day studying my language school. Very very frustrating.
Chinese, we not having grammar. We saying things simple way. No verb changes, no tense differences, no gender changes. We bosses of our language. But, English is boss of user.

Mrs Margaret teaching us about nouns. She saying nouns have two types – countable and uncountable.‘You can say a car but not a rice,’ she says. But to me cars are really uncountable in the street, and we can count rice if we pay great attention to a rice bowl.

For me this was an eye-opener. It was a while since I’d been given such a clear insight into how differently learners might be seeing English compared to how we see it as ‘experienced’ professionals. And the problem is that if you don’t know what’s going on in their minds, how do you connect to it?

I remember quite early on in my days as a secondary school science teacher in Newcastle, being thrown when my 12-year-old students regularly reported that ‘on gentle heating the green powder turned dark brown’. ‘Can’t they see?’, I thought. Everyone knows that green copper carbonate turns to copper oxide on heating, and that copper oxide is black, not brown. So for my first year at least, I dutifully corrected their observations, crossing out ‘dark brown’ and putting ‘black’ in its place.

The problem was that my students were accurately reporting what they had genuinely seen, because a laboratory bunser burner isn’t strong enough to complete the reaction, leaving a dark brown mixture of green copper carbonate and black copper oxide. In other words, my diligent correction was denying their accurate observations of the facts, and, inevitably, stifling their natural curiosity.

I wonder how many times I’ve inadvertently done this in English classes since I came to Spain. I wonder how much natural curiosity I’ve smothered to death with standard explanations of countable and uncountable, of the present perfect and past simple, of the difference between simple and continuous, the future, changes in reported speech, and so on, and so on, and so on. I wonder.

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