Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Boy, do I have a proposition for you!

I learned a new piece of English grammar last week. This might astound you as I've taught English for more than a third of my life, and am revered as "a grammar guru" and nicknamed "Professor" in two different centres. But yes, I learned something new, something lurking right under my nose, and yet something that apparently most Chinese students learn at University. It hadn't come up as a question, not in normal materials and textbooks. So it remained unlearned and unexamined until now. It's called a noun complement.

It all came about when my other half presented me with a student sentence and asked me to explain why it was wrong. Here, you have a go: "There is a phenomenon that children are doing too many exams and not learning enough real knowledge." It clearly is wrong to the ear by a small margin but why exactly is it wrong? Both of us could quickly fix the problem using "where" instead of "that", and in fact that's exactly what she'd said to the student, but the student, as some student tend to do, said that he wanted to use a noun complement. What is this thing that the student was bent on using (wrongly)? Well here are some examples of noun complements: "It's a fact that he is corrupt.(1)" "There is a possibility that New Zealand will also win the cricket series against India.(2)" All of these are logical sentences and they look very similar to the wrong sentence. The noun complement (in italics), however, is not all it seems. The key idea is that a noun complement is a proposition and the noun in front of it (e.g. fact, possibility) shows the author/speaker's attitude towards proposition. Got it? So in sentence 1 and 2 the author is commenting on an idea by stating it's a fact or a possibility. And going back to the student's sentence, stating that something is a phenomenon is not an attitude, it's an observation or a description. It doesn't fit the mould, no matter how much our student would like to use some fancy pants grammar. "The student won't follow that explanation." Well, that's there own fault: if you can't understand my explanation don't use grammar that you're using just for ego. Don't play with fireworks; you might get burnt!

But the idea of a proposition is a fascinating one. Suddenly I wondered whether I should read a book about logic to find what it means in philosophy (it is a philosophical term), but my eyes dried at the thought. Yet here embedded in language is a device which sucks the substance out of a statement to reduce to a proposition and hoists it by a ropey noun of the author's choice. I like it. And I like that I know it.

Neither an attitude or a proposition, I became an uncle for the second time with the birth of my brother-in-law's first child. I actually became an uncle when I got married (I gained a 12 year old niece-in-law) and now I have a nephew, my wife's younger brother's son. Her younger brother is the only son of the family so the only bearer of the family surname that continues patrilineally back to the ancestor who came to Qingyuan so many generations ago. Now with that procreation all done and diapered, my mother-in-law is looking at us to further the family... Suddenly I start to look at it as some kind of proposition.


A millisecond

New Zealand this week won a test series in cricket. It's something I still managed to celebrate from a distance in Guangzhou, discreetly watching on the screen at work. It was a comprehensive series win that could have, should luck been better in the first game, have been a 3-0 whitewash against a team ranked higher than us. Cricket is a game of milliseconds and reactions. If a bowler can get the ball to you a millisecond faster than you can get your bat down, you're out. If they deprive you of an extra millisecond to react to a spinning ball as it rears off the pitch, you might nick it into your pad and have it float into a murder of vulture fielders. But if you can react that millisecond earlier as a batsman, then even if class bowlers place the ball in the right place, you can react in a way that can accommodate the movement, the pace and the direction.

My Cantonese listening has made a similar breakthrough: I've gained a crucial millisecond in processing speed in the last two months. Don't know where it came from. But again it is a small amount that makes a huge difference. As mentioned in previous blogs, Cantonese has rather extensive connected speech (especially the Qingyuan dialect although probably all of the more rural dialects of any language). This extra millisecond means I don't need just observe the phenomenon but catch the meaning in stream. I can even sometimes process and guess words I haven't heard before in the flow of speech. Of course, I'm still far from an acceptable level (in my eyes) but it is nice to have achieved perceptible progress. Perception is everything when it comes to motivation and confidence!

It's a millisecond but it is the gap that I need in conversations I'm not a part of in order to take part. Previously it wasn't the case: When it's just a conversation with me and another, I can get what they're saying, and they can generally get where I'm coming from. However with another speaker, suddenly the conversation would course out of my grasp as language is clattered out and burbled back with just some key words popping out to keep me in the game. Now it's different: I can follow many of the turns and topics that pop up in a conversation and respond and even, when the mood and language co-occurs, interject a thought of my own. It's that ability to interject that this millisecond has bought me. And I'm so glad.

Time of any sort is an interesting concept. I read a few days ago that a University friend of mine passed away. Her death is a bit of a mystery from what little I've got from the Herald online and other items. Perhaps, the case is not being followed. She's probably the third person who has had association with me growing up that I've heard the passing of. Sadness and loss mixes with an awareness of life and that of death. The first friend I knew who'd died was a primary school friend Robert. He lived just opposite school. I hadn't seen him for many years when I heard that he'd died in a car crash, he driving, before he got to 20. Board 2 (soon to be board 3 with my arrival) of the Massey High's chess team was Michael. I hadn't seen him for a few years after graduation when I heard he'd tried to drive a van around a railway barrier and got taken out by a train. Now Ying's passed. I'm trying to remember something clearly more than the multitude of vague memories where lots of people were around and a lot of people were talking. Two memories last clear as bell: She arranged a weekend away on a marae, which I was to present some sessions (probably culture shock or Maori language, which I somehow decided to teach). I remember the passion and the energy (which is what most remember so clearly). She was in China when I arrived too, in Shanghai doing something interesting. We chatted often by skype, and then she had her identity stolen bar her skype number so I tried to help ensure all her friends knew that she requests via gmail and facebook were from an evil source. That's all left in my head of a life. 

I guess this will only become more common as I age, and it's quite astonishing that with all the people that I have known since primary school I only can recollect three dying.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

The Contest

"You must be Daniel," a young voice squeaked from behind me. I replied in the affirmative as I turned to face a dark skinned  pixie-esque child and answered a few more questions. "I was born in Tennessee," she said out of the blue.
"Really? When did you come to China?" I enquired with a solitary raised eyebrow.
"When I was four."
"You've had an interesting life. Good luck for today."
She thanked me and perhaps even at her young age knew it was the time to take her leave and leave me to my solitude at the judges desk.

It was the Guangdong University and High School English Speaking contest semi-final and I was one of the five judges. The other four judges eventually arrived confirming what I'd already worked out from the name plaques: I was the only native speaking judge. I got on quite well with the judge next me an editor at Guangdong TV. Reading the instructions and materials I realised why I may have been a choice for this role. Most of the materials, names, event choreography were all in Chinese. And the instructions themselves already gave me a fair indication of the kind of speech competition it was. To get through to the grand-final a contestant might only need to speak at total of 1 minutes and 5 seconds of English spread over 3 "events". But I won't get ahead of myself! Let's listen to the contestants.

The first round, self-introduction, was about to begin at break-neck speed. After the cheerleader dancers had dispersed the contestants marched on stage to express themselves in 20 seconds and be scored out of 20 marks (judges can't score beneath 80% so the bottom score was 16). With barely seconds between each introduction judging was intense. "Performances" were a mixture of an American style "Oh my god, let's get this party started, I'm gonna, like, blow you away with my talent. See y'all soon!" to more strait-laced restrained self-introductions. Naturally being the creme-de-la-creme of the English speakers in schools and unis, there were some extraordinary kids with extraordinary backgrounds that can come through the contest criteria. Young Tennessee, for example. Other kids claimed in their multilingualism with pride: "I'm Jason and I can speak four languages: Chinese, Russian, Spanish and English. I'm a master of tongue twisters. Listen to this: Binbinblamblambinblambalmbirnbin. Yeah!"

Then we tumbled into the talent contest section where candidates could sing a song, dance, dub a movie or do a fashion show. This was allocated 30 marks of the 100 total score. While some contestants did use English in their performance (there was an outstanding male performance of Rolling in the Deep, and even Shakespearean sonnets read), most were not. You might wonder why they have a talent section in a speech contest, but it's for TV and most of the viewers wouldn't understand the speaking side if it were just English, right? We had a human beatbox, magic, latin dance, tradition Uighur and Thai dance (from non-ethnic Chinese competitors), even a rendition of that famous 70s band A-bee-bee-A and a 12 year old belted out .

Then we went onto the next course, the meat of the competition, the 50 point Travelling in English section. In this 45 second performance, participants would look at a screen to be shown a place name and picture from which they need to start a story for fifteen second, before another image comes up on the screen of an everyday object which they have to merge seamlessly into the story for another 15 seconds of speaking, before another image comes up, that of a movie star who also needs to be part of this continuously created improvised story which then should end on the 45th second. Don't try this at home. Most in the contest struggled, whether it is just a ridiculously difficult challenge or they didn't really understand what was being asked of them. Most performances were descriptions: "This is Great Barrier reef in Austria. It's a famous place. I like it and I want to g- Oh, and this is a time bomb. This is very dangerous and I hope there isn't a time bomb here toda- And Jackie Chan is a great man from our China..." "Time up!"

And then the smoke cleared briefly. Of the 20 students in each of the two sections, 6 students were advanced to the final (on a later date) and another 6 were knocked out of the competition based on their scores from the whirlwind first three rounds. The final 8 had to PK down to four contestants to advance. How do they do that? Well, the higher scoring of the eight can select an opponent from the rest and then act as the Affirmative side of a debate topic that would come up on the screen. They'd have 30 seconds to state their case; the other would have the same to match their argument; then their would be an unmoderated "free debate" section, in which one person could dominate if they liked. After that further 1 minute of spontaneous language generation, each judge would need to raise "Win!" signs to signal that they believe the affirmative side was stronger; no sign raised would signal that the negative side was stronger. If three or more judges support one side, they progress and the other person is knocked out. Simple enough?

Topics were often out of the worlds of the High School students. "Golden Weeks be cancelled" (Golden Weeks are the government defined periods of time that almost everyone has off work; it includes compelling companies to move the office weekends to form long holidays for the workers. It causes travel chaos and for that reasons people think that it should be abolished; but many people, with some basis reject it because without the government making it uniform, evil companies will exploit the lack of simplicity to deny their workers of holidays. It's an interesting topic.) The students talked about playing basketball and study. And of course they have barely seconds to think and then elaborate. The classic one was for the university students was: "We shouldn't keep our national identity in the age of globalisation." Try elaborating your thoughts on that in 30 seconds.

And then it was all over. Girls in air hostess uniforms with really short dresses marched on stage to give the certificates and two boxes of crackers to all participants, and then oversized flight tickets were given to those going to the final. They don't need to fly though: the final is in Guangzhou as well. I got given a whole gift set of crackers to take home. The advantage of being so mean with time was that 40 students in total competed in four hours. I was exhausted afterwards. I may be up for the final, but as an English teacher, god, I hope finally actually get to speak.