At the moment, I am in the middle of a six-month teaching English as a second language stint in China. While it has certainly been an interesting experience, living in China does have its moments, especially when speaking English with the Chinese.
The Chinese method of teaching involves a lot of wrote memorization. This means that for every subject, including English, students memorize a set of responses for given questions. While this may work for science and math, it leads to stiff formal English that doesn’t sound natural at all.
For example, this is a standard (by which I mean literally everyone who speaks English says it) greeting in China.
“Hello, how are you?”
“I’m fine, thanks. And you?”
While this is by no means incorrect, it is certainly formal. Native speakers of English have many different ways of saying hello, many ways of asking how are you, and many ways of responding to that question. “Hi”, “Wazzup!”, “What’s up”, “Yo”, and “Good morning!” are just a few examples of the phrases native speakers use with ease. It is quite strange to hear this formal exchange constantly – from my students, from people on the street, from my colleagues. It’s everywhere! There is no flexibility and change.
Aside from the fact that this exchange is very formal, it is memorized. It is the only way that the Chinese know how to say hello. They literally freeze and can’t speak when faced with any variation of the phrases they have memorized. And this is what frustrates me the most. Language is very fluid and flexible. Words have many connotations beyond their denotation. Slang enters and exits any language quite quickly and constantly changes. Students of any language must be willing to be flexible and learn as they go. Learning a language requires speaking and trying and even making mistakes so that native speakers can correct the mistakes. Wrote memorization doesn’t actually help anyone speak and interact with native speakers. It may help when reading texts, but it doesn’t help spoken communication.
So to sum it up, it is important to be flexible when speaking a language. Flexibility is key, especially when two people don’t know the language at the same level. Sometimes you must describe something when you forget a word. Sometimes you must describe something in order to explain it to someone who doesn’t know that word. Slang influences and changes everyday communication. The reasons are nearly endless… but be flexible! Don’t just memorize a language to get a good grade on an exam. Engage with it! Interact with it! Explore its nuances and intricacies! Oh the joy of flexibility – it brings a language to life, and a rich life at that!