This is the first rule of the classrooms in which I teach. They are labeled according to letter (A, B, C, D, E, F), and are painted simple colors like red, yellow, and green. We take off our shoes before we enter the classroom. At first I assumed that this was like what I’d heard about Japan and mosques; that it is a necessary sign of respect to remove one’s shoes before entering someone’s house. But here it’s done because you don’t want to dirty the floor. So I wear dark socks on my feet, and the children are either barefoot or share my sock-clad state.
“English Only!” They are supposed to speak English when in the classroom, but of course it’s very difficult for them, especially because they have gone from regular school to cram school (which they call Buxiban, which sounds like “Boo-she-bahn”) and have very few free hours. “What did you do this weekend?” “My homework” is generally the answer. Some say that the phrase “English only” is better because after all, kids love to challenge the spirit of the rules by finding loopholes, so if they start speaking Taiwanese, they’re still breaking rule #1. Rules #2 and 3#3 are “Be nice” and “Listen to teacher.” It’s always “Teacher [first name]” here. I’m Teacher John.
Most of the kids don’t even know what country I come from. England is usually the first guess, and sometimes Canadian is the second. Most foreigners in this city are Canadian, and are often very proud to be Canadian (I don’t have a good guess as to why). The school’s audio materials use British English, and the posters in and outside of the school suggest that the kids will be getting a British-style English accent. But they won’t, at least not with my help.
Some of the kids have picked up bad habits from having been taught by non-native speakers. In just about all cases, kindergarteners say “orangey” instead of “orange” and it’s hard to correct. This is because they have to transition into using words which are spelled non-phonetically, which is an endless, impossible, and frustrating journey. Some of the kids are too tired after school to play games. Others have been unable to run around all day and want nothing more than to play baseball or dodgeball for the duration of class time. Still others will always want exactly the opposite of whatever I have planned for the lesson.
I don’t really think of the kids as Taiwanese when I’m teaching them. I know that they are, and of course they’re different people, but they’re sitting at desks, using books, pencils, and bookbags, whispering to each other when they think [the] teacher can’t hear them, and so on, which was my experience too. Ultimately they’re kids, using Western-style names (“English names”), and for the most part they act and think like kids anywhere. The classroom is a space which does not feel authentically Taiwanese or Asian, and that’s part of the way it markets itself; by selling this perception of real immersion with a native speaker.
I’ve taught adults a couple of times now, and I make two primary errors: 1) Using words that are too big, and 2) Speaking slower than necessary, as if their English is going to get better if I talk like they’re idiots. It feels more like speaking with locals when it’s with adults, because the conversation can expand beyond repetitions of “Can you swim?” into opinions, ideas, and life experience.
Kindergarteners are learning a foreign language before they can even read in their own. In their A few days ago I had the responsibility to ‘name’ one of my students at the beginning of class. It was her first day, and I don’t think she knew a word of English. As long as she keeps it, it could be the name she uses in English class, with foreigners, abroad, and on social media for the rest of her life. Some of the kindergarteners cry when they’re separated from their mom. Some of them have never seen a non-Asian before. A Taiwanese girl told me that when she was little, she thought that Europeans came from fairy tales and that Africans had dark skin because they worked in a chocolate factory all day. A seven year old student asked me: “Teacher, how come your eyes is blue and our eyes is black?” Not having the time to digress into hereditary biology during the lesson on “What sports do you like,” I said “because we were born that way,” or something similar.
But should I have gone into a lengthy explanation? Should I go into other subjects and permit their growing minds to explore and connect multiple topics and thus tear down unnecessary barriers which result in the triumph of standardization over the multi-talented, intellectually curious and creative Renaissance man??
In the moment there was no time to ponder this conundrum, for another student was jumping off his chair, pretending to be Spider-Man.