Saturday, 12 August 2017

All-rounder training (Singapore / UK)


When I’d passed my Highway Code test at age 17 and booked a driving test date, my mother came up with a plan:  that I should learn to drive for free by chauffeuring her on her post-natal-care rounds, which were necessary anyway.  When I was good enough at on-road driving, we’d then pay for a professional instructor to teach me test techniques such as parking, reversing into a minor road, uphill climb, etc., which would only be a handful of lessons, thus saving a lot of money.  (This is advice I now dole out to young people wanting to learn to drive.)

For the first trip out on the road, I was wearing sandals.  To get a better feel of the pedals (it was a manual-drive car, automatics being a little way off yet), I shed them.  My mother said, “No, don’t do that.  You should learn to drive with whatever footwear you’ve got on, be it platform shoes, high-heeled shoes, clogs, sandals, flip flops or gym shoes.  This way, you’ll learn to adjust the pressure you apply on the pedals accordingly, so that it becomes intuitive and you don’t have to think about it.”


This reminds me of something my brother said in 1999 when I was helping out my sister-in-law at the canteen she was running at a 24-hour factory.  His comment was, “Westerners have this amazing array of knives, big and small, with practically each one dedicated to a particular function.  The Chinese just have the one — the meat cleaver — which can be for hacking a whole chicken to smaller pieces, for mincing pork, for peeling a potato, or for cutting ginger into small thin slices or strips.”  Same principle:  it's the control over the way the hand holds the cleaver and applies the pressure.

I’ve since applied this to my teaching of text analysis.  Students are often deliberately not given the context, or are just given the middle paragraph of a piece, or even only the second half of a sentence.  This way, they’re forced to rely purely on, say, their knowledge of Chinese grammar to do the parsing:  e.g., how do you know it is a Verb here rather than a Noun (e.g., 发展 fāzhǎn is both a Verb [to develop] and a Noun [development]).  

And of course, what I’ve called “Guessology skills” (“Guessology” is my coinage from the 1980s): the logic of one version versus another (whether it makes sense there), etc., without resorting to any assistance from their knowledge of the subject matter in hand.  Which is very likely to be the case in real life when they have to read or listen to a piece in Chinese that might have no universal equivalent.

It works very well, because my students approach their texts using their knowledge of grammar (they can all do grammatical justifications in their sleep, so frequently-drilled they are) rather than just hit-or-miss, unsubstantiated guessing, relying on the teacher to confirm that they’re right.


(Singapore early 1970s & 1999; UK)

History repeating itself (UK / China)


I was doing a Skype lesson with Ed in Shanghai.  He’d chosen an article which was an interview with an American CNN journalist who had covered the 4th June 1989 Tian’anmen Square Incident.  

At one point in the interview, the journalist was talking about the difficulties they’d encountered broadcasting live.  The Chinese government had clamped down on live satellite broadcasts the day after Gorbachev left, so they had to do them via the telephone.  The video tapes had to be smuggled out of Beijing to Hong Kong or Tokyo, to be broadcast from there, thus incurring a lapse in real time of a few hours.

It was when we were reading this bit of the article that the sound quality on Skype started to experience trouble, so I suggested that we use FaceTime.  The sound quality was good on FaceTime but there was no dialogue box for me to send the text over for Ed to read and translate.  We resorted to me sending the text to the dialogue box on Skype for Ed to read, but using FaceTime for the verbal element of the lesson.  Then Skype wasn’t transmitting the text I’d inputted into the dialogue box, so I had to use FaceBook Messenger for that.

It suddenly occurred to me that we were experiencing the same thing as the CNN journalist back in 1989, having to use different modes to send material out.

Spooky or what?


(UK / China, 2017)

Clever parenting (UK)


In the ‘70s, home students doing university courses could get a government grant which covered their fees and all living expenses.

Ben, two years below me at SOAS, was living at his parents’.  His mother told him he’d have to pay for his room and board, since he got the money for it from the government.  He thought at the time that his mother was a bit heartless, but paid up all the same.

Four years later, when he graduated, the mother handed him a bank account passbook.  She’d been depositing the money over the years on his behalf.


(UK, late 1970s)