My Road to Language Learning and Teaching

Jing Tian, Chinese Instructor, University of Idaho Confucius Institute

English was, and is still a compulsory course in schools in China. Many kids hate that. I did. But now, after learning English for 23 years and teaching both English and Chinese for 15 years, my suggestion for my son is still “try to learn at least one foreign language very well”. That makes him hate me for a while, like I hated the president of my middle school.

I started to like learning English since I started to read and watch movies in English in college. I even got to talk with teachers from English-speaking countries. Suddenly I felt I was overblown with how big the world is and how different the peoples are. I laughed a long time when my British teacher told us that she quit smoking because her boyfriend was not willing to kiss an ashtray. I felt sad for a long time because my American teacher refused to use the coat that I offered when she was wearing short sleeves and it turned freezing cold outside after the class. Later I started to understand more. And I found myself more joyful, more understanding and more peaceful. I wanted to spread this feeling. That’s why, in addition to the fact that teaching language is considered a decent job in China, I started teaching languages.

I thought I was good enough in terms of both language and culture, because I was well-received by both my Chinese and foreign students and I could work as an interpreter very efficiently, until I began to teach Chinese here in the US.

Jokes, games, songs, soap plays and famous persons’ pictures were used a lot in my classes. My students loved them. So I tried the same here in the US, but failed, more than once, because the same picture or the same joke triggers different emotions in my American students. I thought a specific combination of materials would be very funny and can stimulate learning, but those materials were unknown to the students, let alone make them laugh. I started to ask around and do more researches. It turned out that I actually don’t know so much about the American culture. I began to change the strategy. I eliminated some pictures and began to ask students to put more funny ideas in the class. And the classroom began to be more harmonious, and I began to know more. It feels much better to see students enjoy the class while learning things.

There are more examples of how the cultural differences shocked me but made me a better person, and how I changed myself and thus influenced others.

I believe it is the same with the world outside the classroom. If we open out hearts, the world around us would be better, and there would be more light into our hearts.

I’d completely stopped hating the president of my middle school, actually I began to appreciate what he did, because without him pushing the students to learn English, I could never be me. And I hope I could also make a difference by teaching languages, even though what I do is just a tiny part of what’s happening in this enormous and diversified world.


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