English Programme for Children: That was a Funny Thing I Did
Having survived twelve weeks and twenty four classes of the English Programme for Children I am ready to put it behind me and search out the humor in the experience. The “Program” involved teaching a class of twenty Chinese kindergartners an assortment of English terms (random in my eyes but no doubt the favorites of some Hangzhou entrepreneur) complete with misspellings, poor grammar and words as stereotypical as “Coke” and “Apple Pie” (click on images above to enlarge and follow the link for a previous post with more information).
It would be going too far to say that the kids were scarred by the materials. In fact, the entrepreneur seemed to know his/her audience well. The students ate up words like “Eagle” and “Milk Shake” despite never having seen either nor having been taught the more basic concepts of English such as the alphabet or numbers.
On the other hand, as purveyor of this gibberish, I had issues and discomfort throughout. For example, a unit called “In McDonald’s” introduced the children to important food types such as “Hamburger” and “Sundae” before they had a chance to learn any types of fruit, or cultural staples such as rice, noodles, or even water. Ironically, the kindergarten is located in perhaps one of the only prefecture-level cities left in China that does not yet sport the Golden Arches (a lack that has been noted and is soon to be remedied, much to the excitement of my high school students, who ask me weekly when it will be opened [oh omniscient foreigner!]). Another side-note: It makes you feel like a monster when you have to explain to a five-year-old that he is not right after he confidently shouts “ice-cream” at the flashcard that reads “sundae.”
Another major problem I had was with the videos. A large portion of the teaching materials consisted of songs and chants and a correlating VCD. The kids loved twirling their arms and tilting their legs and mimicking everything else the Chinese women in elf-like outfits did on the TV. Though I’ll admit that some days I found the accented English voice-over that accompanies the dancing in the videos amusing (“stuh duh soup in duh pot!”) the English was so entirely inaccessible that what should have been the loudest activity during class became the quietest. Often the lyrics were new words, barely related to the unit to which they were attached, so instead of having a fun chance to use the words they had just learned the students were dancing to poorly pronounced new vocab. For the few that tried, the strange noises were not as easy to copy as the strange dance moves.
Setting aside the video half of the class and considering the progress of the students over the semester, I can’t help but be impressed. Most of the students retained every word I taught them, including difficult words like “umbrella” and “restaurant.” One can only imagine that this spring, when McDonald’s finally opens and these kids order their French Fries and Apple Pies in English, confusing the other people around them in the crowd (my high school students included) who were never so lucky as to be graduates of the English Programme for Children, and as the parents of these kindergartners are forced to translate, their pleasure creeping tangibly through their smiles, it will seem that something, however trivial, was accomplished this fall in those twenty four sessions of cultural awakening. Perhaps I’ll even be there to witness it, happily ordering ice-cream by it’s proper name.