Friday, April 25, 2014

Thoughtful risings

Mornings can sometimes blend into each other in our memories. They are, after all, ritualised phases of our days with the habits that we've acquired to successfully clear the sleep from our eyes, much of a muchness. I'm a very regular waker - I usually boast that I never need an alarm clock because I'll get up about the same time every day. And my Chinese risings follow a fairly strict yet unoriginal schedule: coffee, e-mail and then some sort of reading and a late breakfast. 

The wake-ups I can remember specifically in my life are few but they are there. They aren't marked by things that happen usually but by things I'm thinking about that cause me to stir much before the body clock is otherwise set to ring, thoughtful risings. Today is one of those mornings. A previous blog about Xiaogang park is one of those too. (Probably more than one blo post.) I can remember a thoughtful rising like this in Taiwan.  

(Actually I can remember a lot of tramping mornings, too, but they are a class of their own with their own distinct quality, but at the same time with similarities to this kinds of wake-up, one of which I can hear right now: birds, even in Guangzhou, audible from the 26th floor.) 

This morning it was thoughts of a more logistical nature that caused me to stir, or at least render me incapable of returning to blessed sleep. The unknown of residence visa processing times, of human psychology and biology, of finance and fate were on my mind. Uncertainty is that demon that not only steals sleep from the front end of your rest but can deduct it from the end too.

I'd always regarded myself though as an early riser. Adult life, especially my life in Guangzhou, has changed that, but it has always been true that I have clearer thought in the early morning. A normal wake-up is good for reading. A thoughtful rising is good for writing. It's a good time for thinking about friends and writing to them. 

I pause between paragraphs and stare outside my half-open sliding doors to the overcast hazy morning and the buildings opposite. And I type to the sounds of birds. Once at our first apartment together, I remember going out on the balcony with a chair and table. A small birds landed on our kumquat tree, pondered for a few moments and then flew away. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014


43 days ago I fell on some steps and from that day till yesterday I hadn't bent my left knee. But then yesterday I went to the physiotherapist for the first time and my knee was made to start bending, and even got to bend it myself for now. The tendons are still rather tight and the muscle much less than it was. Even with the physio's help, I could only bend it 85 degrees, and when measured my left thigh was 6 centimetres smaller in circumference than my right. Clearly I have all the work ahead of me.

But there is a bright side: yesterday, I also took my first steps without crutches and slept for the first night without a knee immobiliser off (a weird feeling indeed). I still need to keep the immobiliser on during the day, so I walk with one leg straight, but the fact that I can now hold hands or put an arm around my wife as we stroll makes it all OK.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Are you listening?

Listening as a skill is something we rarely think about. In a rudimentary sense, a native speaker of a language should have good listening skills. After all, they understand all or most of the words in use, the grammar is naturally comprehended, we have broad exposure to different accents, and this is so much so that even if a phone line isn't clear, we'd still be able to get the gist of what someone said on the end.

But does that mean all native speakers with normal mental development have complete learning skill? If you think "yes", it's worth posing a few questions to you the reader. For example: Do we understand someone speaking in legalese? What about financial news? Do we follow a story written from another culture when we hear it? (Imagine listening to, say, a religious myth from India explained in English.) Perhaps not as easily. Even in our own language, learning skills can be genre/register specific. This is even truer when learning another language. 

In my own learning situation, when involved in a conversation, I can understand 95% of Mandarin and about 65% of Cantonese; I can understand 85% of the news in Mandarin and about 15% of Cantonese; listening to a story, I can understand understand 90% of stories in Mandarin, but only about 10% in Cantonese;  listening to an opinion monologue, though, I can understand about 90% and 80% of Mandarin and Cantonese respectively. This can show that the Cantonese skill is not correlated much to the Mandarin ability. The range of situations that I've practiced Cantonese has been much more limited and their are many "holes". It is a common student misunderstanding that one form of practice, say, watching movies, will help them in another context. 

As mentioned in the last blog, I mentioned my entering of the smartphone era. Podcasts are now delivered to my phone on a daily basis (a Cantonese opinion monologue being one of them); as much as these are nourishing, they aren't always that complementary to other forms of listening. Listening to my novel in Cantonese as an audiobook is similarly problematic to other skills. Right now the news in Cantonese is playing. And none of this is helping me (much) with listening to people speaking to me. Last night I called my parents-in-law and handled the conversation quite well but with a couple of moments when I froze when I missed what they said. 

During my convalescence, I resumed my diploma project work and re-directed one of the three section on to how we teach listening comprehension in class. It is a great topic that also makes me think deeply about me, who learns Cantonese outside of the classroom, about the kind of experiences my students and I need to strengthen my understanding of what I hear.

Anyway, it's week five since my kneecap splitting fall. My leg is no longer in a cast... it's in a knee immobiliser that does the same job but can be removed and attached more easily. I'll need it on for another three weeks. Rehabilitation starts in one week. Fortunately I'm back at work and at least getting into the swing of things. It's been obvious that a lot of the communication has not been well handled with me at home. There was a lot of "I thought you knew", when it's obvious that there were no e-mails or phone calls that would have got the message to me. In a cross-cultural office, with people of different levels of professional habits, it was always going to be hard to keep in the loop being at home for so long. For now, it's good to be back!