This story isn’t about Cantonese specifically, but is a reminder for me that there are stages to language learning. And no amount of trying, crying, shouting, or beating will let you skip those steps.

During my first year of teaching English in China, I had to give placement tests for each incoming student. This could sometimes be a very stressful experience for the students and parents, who wanted placement in the most advanced class possible.

I totally understand the feeling. Even for classes that I’ve taken as an adult, I’ve felt compelled to get into a more advanced class. But from the perspective of a teacher, this is ridiculous. Students should be in classes where they’ll learn best–not where they’ll just have to work hardest!

One student sat down for the interview–I’ll call her Julie. Her head was down, and her arms and neck were totally covered. Her English level was fine for her age, and she obviously belonged in the intermediate class, not the advanced class.

When her mom found out that she wouldn’t be in the advanced class, she yelled at her for a long time. I didn’t know Chinese at that time, but I’m sure she was telling her how stupid and lazy she was.

My Chinese colleagues looked embarrassed, and we all did our best to assure the mother that her daughter was very smart for her age. But, she would learn best in the intermediate class.

After I finished all the placement tests, I left the tutorial center and walked to my apartment. I saw Julie and her mom walking nearby. I waved and smiled, but I don’t know if they saw me.

I stood there and watched as Julie’s mom pushed her against a wall, yelled at her, and slapped her. She walked away, furious, leaving her daughter helpless and crying.

I’d like to say that I came up with a great plan to intervene and help Julie. I didn’t.

I wanted to say something to the mom, but I didn’t know any Mandarin, and she didn’t know English. I wanted to say something to Julie, but thought that it might cause even more problems with her mom. I didn’t even call the police, because I didn’t they would care. And I knew the tutorial center wouldn’t have been willing to get involved in a sensitive family matter. Because, well…how many people actually are? It’s messy, right?

That’s my excuse, anyway. So I stood there until they were both gone. And I walked back to my apartment and cried for Julie.

When I saw Julie in class each week, I paid attention to her and wrote glowing notes on her work. And the few times that I saw her mom, I told her how great Julie was in class. Her mom angrily denied it.

After three months, Julie finished her class. One day, I saw her mom on my way to the supermarket. I don’t think she saw me. But I saw her face. She was walking along by herself, wearing an expression of unnerved rage.

I think about that story sometimes, when I see people blaming themselves (or their children) for not being able to handle a language level that’s too difficult for them.

This article isn’t a criticism of parents pushing their children to do their best. And it’s not a criticism of pushing yourself outside your comfort zone with language learning. But it’s a visceral reminder for me that there are stages in learning, and it’s a long journey. We don’t need to criticize ourselves (or others) for not being at the stage that we “should” be at now.

 

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