Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Demi-Gods and Semi-Demons

Learning a language as an adult includes many challenges, doubts, landmarks, humiliations, transcendences, confusions, enlightenments and depressions. It is important to treat it as the longest goal you'll ever have because even when you've got it, you don't. Mastery is always further around the corner. 
I had another great chat with Sea the other evening (a student). She hasn't been an overwhelmingly successful student, yet she's made a sincere effort, probably the sincerest effort, to get better. Our first chat was about four months ago. She'd gone to my Current Events class, a class that I intentionally make a bit harder for strong students, and unsurprisingly struggled. She with knitted brows and a friend waited in the lounge area for me afterward and we talked for about thirty minutes after the last class of the day (until about 10pm). She'd hit her ceiling of what she could learn in the way she was doing it. I can't recall everything that we talked about but it covered how she was studying and how she could study, particularly to get a better feeling of grammar and to use and remember new words.
It is odd to think that that was only four months ago. It felt like a year ago (in my earliest draft of this blog I wrote "a year ago", until I remembered the Current Events class was on the Boston Bombing). She's since taken challenges in her English learning life, leading Lounge Chats and then from her own desire to make variety, created a Debate Club. In a fairly short time she's increased her fluency and use of vocabulary.
Yet still I found her with knitted brow and a friend in the lounge. This time she wasn't waiting for me but I like crashing conversations in the lounge so I plopped myself down where she and two others were talking about another problem: motivation. They'd all observed the initial exhilaration of learning, depression when faced with the scale of task and the speed at which they learn, the excitement of overcoming and then the malaise when they settle into a groove. She said she wasn't finding learning interesting anymore. I talked about the need to find challenge, that she had found it daunting to lead the Lounge Chats at first but now it was easy, so now she needed a new challenge. Writing, I suggested. I'm not good at writing, she warily replied. That is the point, I pointed out. I gave her a possible place the writing would go, the school magazine; suggested a possible topic. And she may possibly do it. I hope she does and I hope she feels the burn, overcomes it and then feels great about the outcome. One nice ending to the chat was when she noticed that I was using two similar words, "fluently" and "fluency"; she knew the meaning but not the difference in use. I made a model sentence for each after which she correctly stated one's an adverb, the other is a noun. This was precisely one of her difficulties in the first chat, noting parts of speech. A nice thing to praise her on to leave.
Reading novels in Chinese has been my constant challenge. I don't say "challenge" as something that frustrates me but rather something that will always be difficult but will always engage me. I read my first book, a translated version of the Solitaire Mystery, just after I finished my Taiwan scholarship. In fact I can remember doing the hard yards reading the first few pages on the plane back to New Zealand, way back in 2000. The first few pages of any book are the hardest. Every character, every place and situation has to be imagined from scratch. And the writer's style has to be grappled with too. By my count I've read seven whole novels in Chinese, and this is something I'd like to keep going perhaps with one or two books a year, finishing the seventh just this week. It was called Demi-Gods and Semi-Demons. The name doesn't reflect the happenings in the book well; it is not like a greek myth with gods fighting. But it does describe the theme well: the different kinds of people in the world, the benevolent, the flawed, the possessed and the fallen.
And just last night I was trying to help one of the flawed talk to one of the possessed. A popular, active teacher slighted a student accidentally in the centre several months ago then on social networking a few weeks later. He is the kind of person who is loved by 98% of people and finds a way to make the other 2% vehemently hate him, and this one student has gone quite toxic in her distaste for him. He hasn't done anything "wrong", and would like to rationally defend himself. My guess is that she'd been fixated on him without his knowing; he rejected her indirectly without realising it (by suggesting she shouldn't join the student council because she was too busy); then did a small thing or two that annoyed her. Now everything he does is "wrong". And he still tries to rationally defend each action, as he did on a horridly intense public "he said; she said" conversation last night on QQ. I was coaching him in a personal conversation at the same time, where with each of his attempts to cool the situation down, he dug the hole deeper. He wasn't really listening to me because he had his own "way". But he was still digging himself deeper. And there may be a line and time where I may have to move from being a friend and colleague to being a manager and make a solution. But it's important for him to learn his way out of this situation. He has to be more selective and tactful in his language, directly yet softly deal with the original "hurt" she suffered, be polite yet responsive and perhaps even withdraw slightly from some of the social networking before moving forward. 
I often say to my team of teachers that teaching exposes you to a greater range of people on a more engaged level than other careers. We get to see the full range of personalities people have. And we have to learn to deal with them.