Monthly Archives: September 2007

Why We're Here

While substituting in a 4th-grade class this morning, during Math block I kept feeling a tug on my sleeve, and one student (whose parents were, I believe, from China) asked me to read a word problem to her. During the course of the class, she insistently asked me to read and explain every single problem to her.

At one point, I made an offhand, meant-to-be-encouraging comment like “Sure, I don’t mind explaining that for you… these are tough problems”. The student became quite indignant, and with arms akimbo and a big frown said: “No! Problems easy! I just can’t read them!” And she was right.

The problem was a ten-line mess of English which involved students playing several games of chess, then predicting how many more games they would require to be tied. But the actual problem was 7+2=9. Once I read it aloud, the student knew the answer within milliseconds.

I reflected to myself that I had unconsciously made the mistake of conflating math ability with linguistic ability, and taken her clear need for language help as a sign that she needed some degree of math help. She didn’t. In my role as an ESL teacher, I need to fight against the snap judgment that surface comprehension of one particular language indicates something about the skill of a student to comprehend what’s actually being asked. They weren’t hard problems; she just couldn’t read them.

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Language Acquisition

In order to be a good language teacher, I figure you must also know something of what it’s like to be a language learner. I’ve always enjoyed learning about different languages, and I like to think I’m pretty good in German, French and Italian. But Thai will be a challenge.

Since I get embarrassed speaking nonsense to strangers, I like to try to learn language by reading. In the past, I’ve begun German studies by slogging through Grimm’s fairy tales, and learned rudimentary Spanish by proofreading translated 401(k) brochures at work. In order to help me learn Thai, I looked around for a book that I knew well enough already so that I wouldn’t be confused by the plot. I found The Return of the King by Tolkien, an ideal choice in terms of my familiarity with the material, but probably about a thousand pages too long for my purposes. Undeterred, I bought it and started right in. Let the grand project begin!

The Thai version of the series title is, oddly, the same as the English one; it actually says, more or less, LORD AAF DAA RINGS in Thai letters. You’d think they could have come up with their own version.

The book also came with a removable map. Thai pretty much looks like some kind of mutant Elvish already, so seeing Tolkien’s map actually in Thai letters is fascinating. Those big letters say GONDOR.

I just spent about an hour translating the first sentence. Thai has no spaces between words, and the vowel notations are a bit obscure to me at this point, so to my untrained eye, after figuring out what I thought the letters were in English, the first sentence in the book looked like this:

PPPNMNGLDAAKMAJIJTSAKLMKANGKNDLF

Not very promising. But wait! PPPN? KNDLF? I know those rascals! Things snowballed from there, if snowball is the right verb to describe an hour of agonizing dictionary research. Soon I had produced the following translation:

“Pippin watch pass through out come from under dressing gown of Gandalf.”

Not exactly a masterpiece of lucid prose, right? I must have gone wrong somewhere, right? Nope! It’s pretty much on target. The English version is:

“Pippin looked out from the shelter of Gandalf’s cloak.”

I was close! Apparently, I can translate Tolkien from Thai. One sentence down, many, many thousand to go.

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