Sunday, 9 November 2014

ESL Kids

Well, I grew up in a pretty diverse place called Hong Kong. I consider myself pretty lucky in the sense that I got to learn and practise three languages - Cantonese, English and Mandarin - simultaneously during my school years. Although I still struggled with learning English in a Chinese society, I think my language encounter is less choppy than some of the ESL kids I've come across in my teaching. 

I think children who speak English at school and another language at home are easy to fall between two stools. It is hardly a problem for them to fit into the English-speaking environment – i.e. they have little problem making daily conversations with their peers, but they may experience difficulties in English reading and writing, hence poor school performance. Worse still, they may become distant from their mother tongue, which is receding to become a language of their parents' generation.

From my experience, the extent of the problem varies from child to child. In serious cases, children may do badly in all subjects. It is possible for them to lose motivation in studying because they are not able to express complex ideas properly in writing. In mild cases, which are also more prevalent, children do badly in only one subject – English.

To help an ESL kid catch up with English, to put it simply, we can give them extra guidance outside school hours. They need someone to follow up their homework and read texts with them. They need positive encouragement. Some parents are totally capable of doing all those themselves, but not all of them have got the time and abilities. For those who juggle their professions with family duties, or those who do not have a good command of English, they may choose to hire an English tutor.

And here is a million dollar question:
Should you get a tutor who speaks your child’s first language?
My answer would be: It depends on what kind of issue your child is having. 
Case 1: 
If your child have problems following the teachers' instruction at school, a tutor who speaks your child's mother tongue may be able to “translate” things for him/her, but it is debatable as a long-term healthy solution, as kids may soon develop reliance on the tutor/translator. They maybe getting through exams, but their incentive to improve their English remain unchanged. So, I think even the kids have poor listening skills in English, it is still a better bet to allow the tutors to speak to them purely in English, but in simpler sentences and slower pace. 

Case 2:
If your child's only weak at reading and writing, it may not be an issue what the tutor's first language is, as long as they have good written English and can motivate your child to read. Reading and writing is a rather common issue actually even for non-ESL students, so you really don't have to panic. Some tutors may chat with you and you kid regarding the family reading habit. More often than not, a house with books raises children who enjoy reading. For an ESL family, it is a subtle issue when it comes to encourage kids to read more texts in English as well as in their first language without putting too much pressure on them.

Case 3:
Funny enough, some parents choose to hire a tutor to help their kids with their first language. They must be feeling powerless trying to make the kids use their mother tongue. Well, knowing how to use a language does not mean you know how to teach it. If the ESL kid is moving towards refusing to continue using their first language, getting a tutor could give them some freshness in the subject.

It is always nice to have more than one language in your pocket. Especially when you are born with one, try not to lose it - it will come in handy one day. I went for a short trip in Taipei with my family last September, and I was glad to have kept up with my Mandarin. It saved us from getting lost...

Monday, 20 October 2014

There is a good tool in your pocket for studying IELTS

I always advise my students to download the ABC app onto their phones and use it as an IELTS studying tool. Why?

REASON 1: Practise reading 

This is so obvious. You can read the news using the app. There are local news, world news, sports news, education news, technology news... We all know reading the news in a foreign language is good for building your vocabulary. Your high school English teachers told you that, didn't they? They are right, and the app makes it convenient. You can always highlight a word and "web search" it for the meaning.

If you have read the news about the riots in Hong Kong over the last week, you probably would have learnt the words "melee" (n.) meaning disorder, disturbance, and "scuffle" (n.) (v.) meaning a short, confused fight.

Having said that, the Prime Minister of Aussieland also said a pretty unusual English word last week which sent many people (ESL and non-ESL backgrounds alike) to run for their dictionaries. Tony Abbott said he would "shirtfront" the Russian President Vladimir Putin. Don't you want to know what "shirtfront" means? Luckily, since the PM's choice of word is so special, even the news on the app includes a link to tell you the meaning. It's a movement, so it is easier to grasp with a video.

According to Wikitionary, "shirtfront" is a head-on charge aimed at bumping an opponent to the ground. In AFL, it is supposed to be against the rule, and the term is considered outdated already. Voila!

Actually, you can use the ABC website on your computer instead, but for reading the news, I do recommend using the phone, because it has a smaller screen. We are supposed to be reading faster from a narrower column, so you can train up your reading speed by reading from your phone. In IELTS reading tests, they always arrange a passage in two columns, so they are actually helping us to read faster. Aren't we grateful?

REASON 2: Practise listening

Well, apart from reading, you can listen to the radio and watch TV through the app. I personally don't enjoy watching videos on my phone, but the radio function is good. You can live stream radio or select programs in their archive. Just explore! Many students find IELTS listening challenging because they are not reacting fast enough when the keywords come up. By listening to the radio more, you will eventually get used to the way native English speakers talk, their tones and sentence patterns, which allow you to predict when the main points will come up. So, you won't be surprised when a piece of information pops up.

REASON 3: Collect materials for speaking

I've observed something interesting from tutoring IELTS speaking. Many students find it hard to answer questions regarding aspects of our lives, such as, sports, mass media, the internet and arts. Here are some of the typical questions:

Part I:
What's your favourite TV/ radio program?
Which types of news do you read most often?
Which types of music do you listen to?

Part II:
Describe a useful website.
Describe a movie you dislike.
Describe a piece of electronic equipment.
Describe a kind of sports that you want to try.
Describe an artwork.

Part III:
How do newspapers attract readers?
Which one do you prefer: reading magazines or newspapers?
Should there be more educational TV programs?
What do you think about advertisements?
Should arts be made part of school curriculum?

Perhaps some students are not interested in some of the subjects, that's why they don't think about them much, and so it is natural that they don't have an idea when they are asked those questions. Or, they are actually familiar with some of the subjects, but they just don't have the words to describe, which is really sad :( Whichever the reason is, I think listening to the radio and watching TV more often can widen your scope of knowledge and vocabulary, and give you more ideas for your speeches.

Since I have mentioned music, I want to say I do listen to old Mandarin pops. Here is one of my favourites. P.S. It is a KTV video, so we can sing along =)

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Under the Ultimatum

Who can imagine one of the world's safest cities was issued an ultimatum by its ruler? 

Being in Hong Kong last month, I witnessed the brewing of discontentment over Beijing's decision, which overrules Hong Kong's right to exercise universal suffrage in the next chief executive election. I had already been back in Melbourne when the whole thing boiled over. I follow the petition over the internet. Day after day, the strikes in the CBD, tear gas, conflicts and street violence shocked me. It has been a long and exhausting week. Then, an ultimatum came.

As I am writing this post and counting down to the deadline, I am genuinely worried about the safety of the petitioners. We all know very well the authority would resort to force if the students refuse to retreat by Monday morning. "Monday morning, government officials have to  be able to return to the  headquarter and restore their function," said the ruler.

Theme songs are wonderful things; they bind a chain of actions together. Here is the theme song for what has been happening in Hong Kong over the last week. We are yet to know what's going to happen next. While the ultimatum is still in effect, let me purloin this English teaching blog of mine to publicise the song. All for my love to my hometown.



靜坐人海 你我非不怕會畏懼這樣下去怎辦但是人生 到了這一晚更怕未表白內心呼喊

站在前方 勇氣驅不散卻信越怕命運更黯淡但是誰想 要看穿荒誕卻會在催淚下睜開眼 一起舉傘 一起的撐一起儘管不安卻不孤單 對嗎一起舉傘 舉起手撐一起為應得的放膽爭取 怕嗎任暴雨下 志向未倒下雨傘是一朵朵的花不枯也不散

為著明天 要記得今晚你我用鎮定面對憂患若是人生 錯過這一晚 怕再沒機會任意呼喊

To the selfless contributors who stood bare in the rain except for their umbrellas, all those who have contributed to the fate of our city, those young people who risk their future willingly and all those who make Hong Kong more beautiful that night, or at countless nights. You are not alone.

Hold up Your Umbrella

Sittin’ in this sea of crowd, it’s not that we’re unafraid,
Afraid of what’ll happen if we carry on like this
But to live until tonight
I’m more afraid if my cry will be unheard
Standing at the front, courage can’t be dispersed
For fear will only diminish life. Who is willing to see through the absurd?
And who – through the smoke of tears – is willing to keep her eyes open?
Together, let’s hold up our umbrellas
Together, we may be uneasy, but we cannot be alone, right?
Hold up our umbrellas, hold up our hands, holding on
Together, we’ll be brave, fight for what’s ours, right?
Let the brutal rain fall, our spirit has not flailed
Each umbrella blooms like flower
They don’t wilt, they don’t disperse
For the sake of tomorrow, remember tonight
We calmly face our worries
If you miss tonight
You may never have the chance to cry out freely again

Note: This is an unofficial English translation of the lyrics. I edited it a bit.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Announcement 通告

Mary won't be available to teach in Melbourne from 22 Aug to 19 Sept 2014 because I have to make an overseas trip. Yay! I can be reached via email during this period.
I will resume teaching when I come back.


Wednesday, 6 August 2014

The Interpreter of The Grandmaster

Two weeks ago, an important figure in Hong Kong history 鄭仰平 Cheng Yang-ping passed away. 

Who's he? He was one of the two interpreters who bridged the communication between Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping. It is said that late Mr Cheng didn't talk much when he wasn't interpreting, even though he spoke superb English, Cantonese and Mandarin. He was also a strict follower of an interpreter's professional conduct - he had never leaked a word about the historic negotiation.

The news probably has got into my head. While I was watching The Grandmaster 一代宗师 the other day, I wondered how they can possibly interpret the complex Chinese imagery uttered by Ip Man 叶问 and Gong Er 宫二. The scene below is especially perplexing. Sadly, I can't find a clip of the scene with English subtitle, but I found the official English subtitle script. I've marked four places which are worth ruminating upon. So, let's do an odd thing - play the video and read the script at the same time. 

English Subtitle:

I was lucky to meet you in my prime.
Sadly, my time is running out.
To say there are no regrets in life,
is just to fool yourself.
How boring it would be without regrets.

Mr Ip, to tell you the truth,
I cared about you.
I don't mind telling you that.
It's not a crime to love.
But that's all it can ever be.
I never said that to anyone before.
Seeing you tonight,
I don't know why, it just came out.

Let's say we suspend this game
of chess between us.
Take care.

In life, as in chess,
a move once made stays on the board.
What we have
is simply fate.

Your father once said,
never give up the faith.
Keep the light burning.
I hope that one day
I'll see the 64 Hands once more.

I hope you enjoyed the scene - I like it a lot. I want to talk about four things about the translation.

1) I cared about you. 
The original Chinese is 我心里有过你, a literal translation can be "I have had you in my heart". Of course, it doesn't sound that natural. Thinking about it, to have someone in your heart allows quite a flexibility for interpretation and choice of words. I like their choice "cared about" which is subtle enough for Gong Er as a woman in that era, but it also contains ample meaning just like the Chinese original. 

2) Let's say we suspend this game of chess between us.
The original Chinese is 就让你我的恩怨像盘棋一样保留在那儿, a literal translation can be "let's keep the resentment between us there like a game of chess". Having said that, ”resentment“ can be replaced by "scores", meaning all those wrongs one has done to the other. At this point, it becomes obvious that "a game of chess" actually can symbolise tension, fights, resentment and scores. That's how smart this translation is - why to repeat two similar things when you can use one to embed the other.

3) What we have is simply fate.
In Chinese, the line is 我们之间本来就没恩怨,有的只是一段缘分。Well, this is indeed a big challenge for the translator. Again, a literal translation can be "We have never had any scores between us even from the start. What we have is just fate." I don't see why the first line is omitted in this case. I find it a pity not to have it, as if something has gone missing in the rhythm.  Another thing is about the word "fate" which seems to be the only English counterpart for 缘分 but never quite fits. Simply put it, while the pair means the same thing, "fate" sounds heavy but “缘分” has a softness in it. Can't blame anybody I guess.

4) Never give up the faith. Keep the light burning.

Lastly, 念念不忘必有回响,有灯就有人。These two are very poetic lines, a superficial meaning is "If you hold on to your thought, it will resonate. When there is light, there are people". I think Ip Man's interpreter has captured the gist of the lines precisely, though I kind of like the second line more literal.

It's not easy to be an interpreter indeed. You rack your brain just to get messages across, and they are not even about you. Poor souls :)