Thirdhand English and Chinese Writing Rooms

PIO’s a great organization. They’re not perfect, of course, but they’ve got a lot of really great things that makes them stand out from other orphanages and private schools in Phnom Penh. One of my favorites is how they bribe families to let kids come to school by offering rice at wholesale prices (in addition to giving the kids lunch). If they didn’t do this, a lot of families might think they’d be better off having their kids do some kind of work during the day. I’ve heard PIO is actually the top Cambodian-run school/orphanage, at least of those that STAR Kampuchea works with.

And yes, I have problems, some of which I’ve talked about in my progress report posts. But they’re normal educational problems; one of the other volunteers said she went to her orphanage one day to find the floor was missing (cause the corrupt caretaker had rented it out, or something). I can’t imagine something like that happening at PIO.

Thirdhand English

But there are two problems with this whole “volunteers teaching English” system in general. See, volunteers come from all around the world, or at least from “developed” countries all around the world. But the most openings are for teaching English, at least in Phnom Penh. And while all the volunteers I meet speak English1, not all of them are native speakers. Sometimes that’s fine; the two Danish volunteers currently at PIO speak English pretty much natively, and with a fairly light accent.

But sometimes it’s not. In my second week I met a Chinese student who had gone to high school in Singapore and had just finished volunteer-teaching here—teaching English. And while his English was pretty good, and fully up-to-snuff for all communication purposes, there were still those small grammar mistakes that might get passed on to primary school kids who don’t know any better. Another volunteer at Nina’s school has such a strong accent that I have a hard time understanding him.

It’s not just volunteers, either. Ms. Davy, the head teacher at my school, speaks English very well, but she still gets the details wrong…actually fairly often. Since she’s mostly teaching (a) younger students, and (b) from a book, when she teaches English at all…well, it’s not really a problem, but it’s not ideal, either. She’s taking English classes herself, in her free time, and she’s shown me some of their materials…and they’re wrong too. (Actually, they’re worse than the mistakes she makes, I think.)

Our student teacher, Mr. Chantrea, is a little better, but still not a native speaker by any means. Even my host brother has trouble sometimes, and he works for the UN and has been abroad.

There’s nothing wrong with this; after all, my Khmer accent is horrible, my vocabulary is pretty limited, and English grammar is almost ridiculously more complicated than Khmer grammar. Not to mention the fact that English spelling and grammar are both horrible in terms of consistency, practicality…and learnability.

But it creates a dilution effect—when someone tries to teach something they don’t really understand, chances are their students will do even worse. When you have Cambodian teachers who learned English from non-native speakers, you’ve got three degrees of separation between the students and, well, English. As a linguist, I say it’s fine to have a dialect of English that’s not “standard”—there is no such thing anyway. As an English teacher, I’m sympathetic to those having trouble with all the seemingly arbitrary rules.2 And being practical, most Cambodians won’t need perfect English in their lives. Being able to read, listen, and converse might be enough even if you can’t write an essay. It is a second language.

But if even Piseth has trouble writing a formal letter sometimes, is the thirdhand English these kids are learning really going to help them in any serious way?

…Yes. Even though it’s not ideal, it’s almost certainly still better to have mediocre English than none at all.

(And then there’s the whole British vs. Australian vs. American accent issue, but I think most of these kids are going to have a Khmer accent first anyway—meaning “zed” wins and it’s really not important that they actually pronounce the “r” in “scissors”. Although our Tonle Sap Lake tour guide (from my trip to Siem Reap with Jaclyn way back in October) had a definite Australian accent under his Khmer.)

The Chinese Writing Room

The flip side of the problem, though, is that most of the English-speaking volunteers, even the native speakers, have never had any training in education. I was fortunate enough to have a little experience and one small how-to class, from being a TA back in university for four semesters.3 But I certainly don’t consider myself trained in education.

Still, I’m better equipped than some volunteers, who’ve never taught everything before…and even at PIO there’s not a well-established program to follow for the volunteer English teachers. It took me a few weeks to grok how much I really need to slow down and repeat things, trying many different angles, to get everyone to understand the new concepts. It’s a lot different on the other side of the desk, and usually not easy to tell whether students are following what you say or not. And for volunteers who are only here for two to four weeks…well, they might not realize this at all until it’s too late.

Sorry, Grade 4. Sorry, teacher-class. I think I’m doing okay in Grade 6 and Grade 7+.

The Chinese Writing Room is a thought-experiment proposed by John Searle in the context of Artificial Intelligence. Imagine a room in which a person is sitting. Letters come into the room via a mail slot (or nowadays, perhaps over WiFi)—but they’re in Chinese, and the person doesn’t understand Chinese.4 The person looks at the letters, consults a large set of rules about how to respond to each chunk (sentences), and writes a reply by carefully copying responses out of a book. Then they put the reply back out the mail slot and wait for another letter.

From the outside, then, a Chinese speaker feels like they’re having a perfectly sensible, intelligent conversation. The problem is…where is the knowledge about Chinese? In the room? The books? The person copying responses?

One answer I’ve heard is that while none of the pieces are intelligent, the system is as a whole. I don’t buy it. Actually, like Searle I don’t think there’s any intelligence at all, which neatly sidesteps the whole issue. Sure, with a lot of casual conversations, and probably some deeper ones, you can see the rules of our society and our own personalities dictating our responses, if you look for it. But human intelligence is being able to choose the responses, sometimes going against the rules…and being able to generate new responses for situations that aren’t in the rules yet.

An AI system (no pretense now) that learned could be said to be intelligent. And we have learning chatbots now…they just don’t learn very well. But then again, humans learning a first language learn ALL of it: the accent, the cadence, the grammar, the vocabulary, the set-phrases, and the direct link between word and meaning. There are few filters when a child learns a language—first they have to learn what to filter.

(What does that mean? Well, for example…in Khmer, “s” and “sh” are allophones, meaning that you can replace one with the other and it’ll just be a different accent, if the listener notices at all. In English, though, they’re totally different sounds. On the flip side, Khmer has two sounds /u/ and /ʉ/, the former being a “usual” u-sound, and the latter being actually very much like a Californian-accented “u”. Which I’ve actually had problems with.)

And to be fair, children learning their first language generate a fair amount of garbage too.

A second language is different, though. Now, almost everything is done through translation—even when you’re in an immersion environment you’re probably still mapping things back to your real language. And if you can’t manage to translate, and you can’t figure out what something means without going through your first language…then it’s a Chinese Writing Room.

And I’ve seen it happen. Back with Grade 4 I tried to teach “before” and “after” for a week, but progress was very slow. I wasn’t sure what was going on—I had put up lists of what was “before” and what was “after”. I asked questions like “what day is three days after Thursday?” and a fair number of the kids could do it, though a couple of them mixed it up with “before”. What was going on?

I finally asked the class if anyone could translate “before” and “after” into Khmer, something I had been staying away from for multiple reasons (a future blog post). And not one student could do it. Not the ones who raised their hand for every question, not the different (and smaller) set who got every question right, not the students who sat in the back quietly or the students who sat in the back loudly. No one.

All right, that was fail.5 And since I didn’t know the words for “before” and “after”, I couldn’t even renege on my usual “no-translations” policy and just tell them. It bothered me that the kids weren’t thinking here.

They were thinking, a little, because most of them got “three days” and “Thursday”, and did something sensible with those two inputs. But the important piece, the new piece, got totally lost when they did that.

I had a redux of that experience when I was teaching relative clauses to Grade 6. English relative clauses are pretty bad, reusing the question word “who” and the determiner “that” as relative clause markers. Khmer, more sensibly, uses a single word “dael”, which does not have any other meanings that I know of.

So, when my kids managed to build relative clauses, I was suspicious about whether they knew what they were saying, or were just pattern matching against the examples on the board and the rules I had them copy down. This time I had deliberately asked my Khmer teacher to tell me how relative clauses worked in Khmer, so I could actually ask my kids to translate something simple. And sure enough, they did a word-for-word translation…and used the question word “nek naa” for “who”, instead of the relative clause marker “dael”.

(On their test I gave them a curveball by having Piseth give me two simple sentences in Khmer and having them translate them to English. I’m not sure that was fair because we hadn’t practiced that in class, but it is something you might want to do.)

When teaching, you have to see if people really understand, or if it’s a Chinese Writing Room situation. Which, you know, is still better than nothing…but it’s not the same thing as learning a language.

Postscript: Math

With a language, it’s fairly obvious that there’s a Chinese Writing Room problem. Okay, maybe it’s not obvious, but it makes sense. What I think a lot of people don’t realize is that the same applies to math, and to a lesser extent science, economics, and anything where you might be tempted to “just follow the rules and you’ll get the right answer”.

If you have that attitude, I’m guessing you don’t like math. Now you know why: you never actually learned math. You just learned a bunch of rules that give the appearance that you understand math. This is partially the fault of your teachers and professors, and partially the fault of you.

And yes, it’s okay not to like something, but I’m taking a guess that this is why you don’t like it. If you study math by trying to understand it, you’ll find that it’s not just easier to remember and do, but it’s more fun as well. If you’re a math teacher, make sure you realize that this is what you should be teaching.

(And besides, math certainly makes a lot more sense than English spelling.)

  1. There’s a sort of anthropic bias here, of course: if they don’t speak English, I’m a lot less likely to meet them. ↩︎

  2. Most of them are not arbitrary, but the reason still isn’t a good one. And some really are arbitrary. ↩︎

  3. I highly recommend John Holt’s How Children Fail, which was required reading in that “how to be a TA” class. Even if you’re not thinking about education it’s interesting. ↩︎

  4. Chinese being a prototypical language that’s not just unusual for Westerners to know, but isn’t even written in a similar script. In the original formulation of the problem, I don’t think they even bothered mentioning that the person doesn’t understand Chinese. ↩︎

  5. For those who don’t hang out on the internet, “fail” has been an adjective for a while now. Though it is ironic that I use internet-slang in a post about teaching proper English. ↩︎