20 April 2007

Confessions of a white American racist

I posted a message from a school in China which was looking for a teacher. Because the school director expressed a 'preference' for a female teacher in her 30's a teacher came to the conclusion that "This job is obviously from a racist school, not to mention sexist, to say nothing of age prejudice."

I found this response laughable. It's kind of a knee-jerk politically correct automoton response, isn't it? I think so. Especially since I must be, according to such definitions, such a deranged dirty hideous bloody racist. Now don't get me wrong. I won't say there is not a detremental manifistation of racism but not all racial preferences are evil.

OK, I'll just admit it. I have 'preferences', too.

First of all, he is way too old fashioned. He is living back in the days of the black-white racial strife as carried out in the USA as well as some other places. I'm one of the new breed of racists. Our breed can even indulge in 'reverse' racism.

But perhaps I am not alone. Perhaps you are one, too. Take the test with me:

You might be a racist if...

You want to eat in a good Chinese restaurant. You know nothing else about the restaurants except that one restaurant is staffed by white Americans from Arkansas but you choose the one staffed by Chinese from China.

You want to study the Torah. You know nothing about the teachers except one is a blonde blue-eyed guy from Sweden named Sven but you choose the guy from Israel named Mordecai.

You want to learn the art of Japanese flower arrangement. You know nothing about the teachers except that one teacher is a white guy from Scotland but you choose a teacher from Kobe, Japan.

You want to learn Chinese martial arts. You know nothing else about the schools except that one school is staffed by white Londoners but you choose a school that is staffed by Chinese from Shaolin, China.

You want to study Buddhism. You know nothing about the teachers except one is a white guy from Miami but you choose the guy from India.

You are intensely interested in authentic African music. You know nothing about the schools except one is in Alaska staffed by a bunch of white guys but you choose the one in Nigeria staffed by a group of native Nigerians.

I don't know how you answered those questions. Perhaps you closed your eyes and just pointed to choose an answer to ensure your sense of racistic morality. But I would vote AGAINST the white guys in every single one of those examples.

Call me a white American racist.

Teacher talk

I can often tell an upper intermediate or advanced student by their one-word reply to a simple question. If I ask a student if they speak English and the reply is "yes" then perhaps their English is quite good but more often than not it is at a lower level. If their answer is "yeah" then I know their English level is quite high.

As far as producing the so-called Teacher Speak or Teacher Talk, I learned to do this long before becoming a language teacher. Living and working in foreign language environments, I was unable to learn all the languages of the countries I was in. But I, at least, learned how to simplify my English by employing all the methods that Keith Folse described so that my listeners who spoke a bit of English could understand.

I speak slower and more distinctly. I use simpler vocabulary and shorter and simpler sentences. I avoid idioms. I try to keep the concepts simpler.

I have learned how to listen to myself speak and even to pre-listen. I can put myself into my listeners position and listen to what I am saying or am about to say. Not only trying to keep it simple but also constantly questioning myself if there is any way my listener can misunderstand me.

Often the contraction "can't" can be confused with "can" by low-intermediate students. So I will try to say "CAN-NOT" making a clear distinction between the two syllables.

Although I am speaking slow, my mind is working fast testing different words and phrases, looking for alternative and simpler ways to express a point.

My students recognize right away I am using a Teacher Talk with them. Low-level students are happily surprised that they feel they can understand everything or nearly everything I say. Upper-level students are annoyed and feel my speaking is not challenging enough. When teaching mixed level classes I have to remember to try to do both at different times.

A related problem is the language of textbooks. On occasion I come across books written for low or mid-intermediate students with advanced English not only in the examples but in the instructions to students.