Don’t Worry = WORRY!!!

An oddity I have noticed is the difference between how Westerners and Chinese communicate warnings.

A common phrase I heard, (in English) was. “Don’t worry.” often accompanied by a firm handshake or a friendly hand upon the shoulder. I soon learned that when I was told to “Don’t worry” to transpose that to “Worry like hell.”

A big reason for this oddity is that the Chinese want to protect the Westerner from events they believe he is unlikely to be able to control. Thus the shielding of the foreigner from the reality of an impending disaster is viewed as a kindness. However, it can also mean, “Good luck Buddy. You are so screwed.”

Another interesting turn of phrase is. “You can try.” I was once fixing the wiring on a 220 volt wall outlet in our building. I needed to know if the electricity was off for sure before starting work on the wires.  I asked a Chinese Teaching assistant to go check the fuse box and tell me if the fuse was power off. Her answer, “You can try.” I explained to her that her answer was unacceptable and sent her to find the building manager and get a definite answer. Fifteen minutes later, she returned and reported, “The building manager says you can try.”

The Chinese have a different view of disaster preparedness. During my break on my first day teaching at a new branch, I conducted a safety inspection. The fire hoses had been cut off inches from the  metal fire hose bibb. The only way to evacuate the students in the case of a fire blocking the only stairwell would require tossing the students out the window, across a three story gap onto the roof of an adjacent building.

When I brought my concerns to the Chinese manager, she responded, “We don’t think like that. We just go ahead and hope for the best.”

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Consecutive Days Off


Coming from the West, you might think having two consecutive days off, like Saturday and Sunday, are the norm everywhere. However, it is not. Many foreigners have accepted jobs in schools offering “two days off” only to discover the days off are Monday and Thursday or Tuesday and Friday, etc.  You need to nail down for sure that your days off will be consecutive, if you want that. If you want that promise to be more likely than not to happen, have it put in the contract. Don’t accept that contracts “cannot be changed”. Even if true, an addendum can be written and attached.

Now, this is not necessarily being deceptive, it is often just that many headmasters come from a culture where one day a week is considered the norm. Any day above that is a gift horse that should never be looked in the mouth. There is a different idea about levels of service, things that Westerners take for granted.  Some examples:

Repairmen – Imagine being woken up on your day off, at 6:30 AM by your school FAO, with a repairman in tow. They arrived to fix the noisy toilet you reported six weeks ago.  The “repairman” arrived with a large flat tip screwdriver; and nothing else.  Your FAO says he’ll be going back to school, the repairman will let himself out.  A few minutes later, three more “repairmen” arrived. They each brought 1/2 meter square of cardboard to squat on. They circled outside the bathroom door and offered advice to the repairman with the screwdriver, while they lit up and furiously chain-smoked cigarettes.

Eventually, the repairman finished and it worked, kind of. He and his comrades left. Behind them, they left three 1/2 meter squares of cardboard littered with cigarette buts. In everyone’s mind, except yours, this was a successful repair job.

Food Orders:  I once went to a “Western style” restaurant and ordered a burger, fries and cola.  I was hungry. After about ten minutes, my fries arrived.  After another ten minutes I ate the rapidly cooling fries.  Yet another ten minutes later, my drink and burger arrived.  When I complained, the restaurateur was dumbfounded and upset. I had ordered a drink, fries and a burger. He had delivered a drink fries and burger. How dare I complain?

Landlords: A landlord’s role is to rent out an apartment, collect the rent and disappear. Nearly all of the landlords our school rented from were either abroad, or planning to go abroad before the ink was dry on the contract. Whether any actually were abroad is open to debate. They often left as their representative a relative who met the duties of being a landlord about as well as one might expect Paris Hilton to meet the duties of  being a nuclear sub captain.

We rented an apartment from a landlord. We met her ten days before the move-in date. The apartment had unpainted bare walls. The rooms were completely empty except for kitchen cabinets. The ceiling light fixtures were all two bare wires.  We repeated our requirement that the apartment be fully furnished.  The landlord assured us it would be in five days. Five days later we arrive to find the apartment essentially the same as before. “You told us this apartment would be fully furnished.” I said. “It is.” she replied, pointing to the walls. “I had the walls painted so it is now fully furnished.”  This same landlord also, in front of us, and our foreign teacher, proposed to hire our foreign teacher and open a school. This was during move-in. Unsurprisingly, the relationship deteriorated over time.



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Why We Use TPR

Why We Use TPR at our school





At  our school. we use TPR a LOT.  You will see it used in pretty much every younger class. That’s because it works. The connection between vocalizing while using big motor muscles to pantomime the command just works. An example: I saw a student, about four years old, exit a class saying “esc-ca-la-tor,  esc-ca-la-tor,  esc-ca-la-tor ” while pumping his legs up and down. Now, simply teaching that term without TPR would have taken much longer.

TPR was developed by Dr. James Asher during the 1960s. It is used world-wide.

TPR is based on the premise that human beings are biologically programmed to learn languages, and that this programming works essentially the same for adults learning a foreign languages as it does for children learning their native language. Asher claims that just as young children hear large amounts of linguistic input before they begin speaking, adolescent and adult language learners also benefit from a “silent period” to internalize the patterns and sounds of the language, and that they will eventually begin to produce utterances spontaneously. He emphasizes that students should not be forced to speak before they are ready.

Asher also claims that one-third to one-half of the linguistic input that young children hear is in the form of commands (e.g., “Don’t make a fist when I’m trying to put on your coat!”). Children respond to these commands physically, activating the right hemisphere of the brain, which is associated with motor movement. The right brain is thus able to internalize the new linguistic elements immediately, without a time-consuming analysis by the left brain, which is normally associated with language use. According to Asher, “most of the grammatical structure of the target language and hundreds of vocabulary items can be learned through the skillful use of the imperative by the instructor” (1977, p. 2-4).

Asher emphasizes that because TPR taps into natural language learning processes, the stress associated with mental analysis of the target language is reduced, and learning becomes a more enjoyable experience.

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Asher, J. (1977). Learning another language through actions: The complete teacher’s guide book. Los Gatos, CA: Sky Oaks Productions. (6th ed. 2000)