Tackling ESL Myths

– As a bona fide news junkie, one of my favorite magazines is Foreign Policy. Each dead-tree issue has a section called “Think Again” in which a writer analyzes a series of assertions about a particular subject, say, the Israel/Palestine situation, and offers a slightly contrarian take on what many consider to be conventional wisdom. Let’s … Read More »

Learning Chinese: Does Location Matter?

– In my time in China I’ve come across several people who have wondered whether studying Chinese in Kunming–where I live–was really worth the effort. After all, the locals speak Kunming-hua to each other, not Mandarin. When they do speak Mandarin, they do so with a local accent that differed greatly from the kind heard on … Read More »

Turning an Injury Into a Study Opportunity

– Last Saturday, while negotiating a steep mountainous downhill on my bike, my front tire suddenly fell into a rut. Suddenly, I toppled over my bike and landed hard on my right arm, causing severe pains to my forearm, wrist, and elbow. The ensuing soreness-which a doctor reassuringly said was not a bone fracture- has severely … Read More »

Shenzhen and Mandarin

– Greetings from drizzly Shenzhen, where I find myself this fine morning sitting in a Starbucks and experiencing culture shock. If the purpose of a chain cafe is to produce the same atmosphere in any unit in the whole world, Starbucks has succeeded; this one here in the Shekou district could be airlifted and dropped in … Read More »

Disturbing Violence in Kunming

– China has a well-deserved reputation for being safe, and violence directed towards foreigners is usually very rare. In the four and a half years I’ve lived here, I had never encountered abject hostility from Chinese people toward me or anyone I knew due to our laowai status. Two weeks ago, though, a violent incident occurred … Read More »

The English Teaching Blues

– I know of a man in Kunming who, after teaching English here for a period of about seven years, assumed a managerial position at a friend’s company. The job didn’t go well, as the new manager regularly turned up late, failed to fulfill contractual obligations, and did a poor job managing his staff. Eventually, he … Read More »

On Having Favorite Characters

– Recently a friend of mine from Australia recently confided that while he likes learning Chinese, he still fails to see the utility of characters. “I still don’t see why they just don’t use pinyin,” he said with a shrug. I began to explain why characters are, in fact, useful, beginning with the sheer number of … Read More »

Inflation of Egos in Taxis

– Nothing boosts one’s ego in the early days of learning Chinese as conversations with taxi drivers. I’m sure we all have had this experience; you step into a cab and spit out your address (carefully memorized, of course), the cabbie subsequently nods and tells you how good your Chinese is. A bit later, once you … Read More »

Playing the Mandarin Card in Hong Kong

– I recently spent four days in Hong Kong as the final stop of a brief Southeast Asian trip, and as usual I found the language situation there somewhat mystifying. Hong Kong, as we know, has three official languages: Cantonese, Mandarin, and English. Because I don’t speak the former, I was reliant on the latter two … Read More »

A Modest Proposal

– I first became aware of the enormous language gap in China three weeks into my first year, when I taught English at a public high school in northern Jiangsu.  One afternoon, feeling slightly homesick, I hopped into a taxi with a simple mission: to go to McDonalds.  Being completely unable to speak Chinese at that … Read More »

How Much Does Natural Ability Have To Do With Language Acquisiton?

– I recently learned a neat new word in Chinese: 语感, literally “language feeling”. In English, a more common translation might be “language intuition”, a mysterious ability that some seem to possess and others do not. When I tell people that I speak three languages, I often hear in response, “oh, you must have an innate … Read More »

Crossing The Line

– Recall the old expression: teachers are to act in loco parentis. This means, if my high school Latin still serves me, that during school hours the teachers are responsible for assuming the role of parents in the lives of their students. Yet as anyone knows, this doesn’t really work. As teenagers, the last things we … Read More »

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