Updated Dec 2018
Toby is in his second year at University College, Oxford, studying Linguistics and Philosophy, having achieved very impressive results in his first year exams. He has also found time to run and play on-going D&D campaigns, and he has written two expansions for the game which are available to purchase for a small sum.
With the help of the profits from his selling his first expansion, he managed to travel to China this summer, sightseeing and teaching English. Here is a report he wrote for his department about his experiences, together with some of his photos from his travels.
The trip consisted of four stages: a first week of training and cultural orientation in Beijing, followed by five weeks of teaching across two 10-day English Summer Camps (with travel days between), and ending on a week of debrief and preparation for re-entry into Western culture.
From the beginning of cultural orientation in Beijing, I was able to experience Sinitic languages in a native speaking environment, which allowed me to observe some striking differences from the Indo-European languages with which I was previously familiar. However, due to my own lack of Chinese, the most fruitful observations I found were in cases of evident impacts of language and cultural contact. One major but simple example of this is in changes to the direction of writing in the Chinese writing system: historically written in vertical columns, the vast majority of public signs are now written simply left-to-right on a horizontal line, akin to Western writing systems. Whilst I do not know the exact history of these developments, I would hypothesise that this is evidence of the influence of cultural interaction between Chinese and Western society.
This was followed by the two 10-day residential summer camps. In both camps, teaching English as a foreign language, I was able to see first-hand, through the language of both our Chinese co-teachers and our students, both the progress and the interaction effects of second language learning. From a linguistic standpoint, I was struck by the particular errors made by children and co-teachers alike, and how these related to differences I was aware of between English and Sinitic languages. (For example, all native Chinese speakers I spoke to occasionally struggled with the gender assignment of he/she, and many students struggled with the case assignment of he/him, she/her. Given many varieties of spoken Chinese lack gender distinction, and all varieties of Chinese lack case distinctions, these difficulties are unsurprising.) Having been long intrigued by second language learning and multilingualism, especially with regard to its impacts on linguistic theory (which is widely formulated with only monolingual speakers in mind, in English and American linguistic traditions, despite such speakers being in the minority), it was most intriguing to observe these effects “in action”, and I intend to further study these subjects in light of my observations.
Of the two camps, the second Summer Camp has left a greater impact. The traditional criticism of Westerners running “English Summer Camps” in China is that these, being often expensive and situated in more affluent schools, only cater to privileged Chinese students, and not to those genuinely in need of English tuition. Of our two camps, the first may fall afoul of this criticism – for it was at a very successful, and I imagine affluent, school. However, the second was a new camp, situated in a tiny rural village in the mountains of the Fujian province. Many of the children were farmers or “migrant children” (those whose parents had travelled to a distant city to work), all very disadvantaged. It felt to me that this camp was genuinely doing some good, quite aside from any academic benefit.
This trip gave me the longest period of immersion in a foreign language I have experienced, and whilst it may have convinced me that I may not be fully cut-out to be a field work linguist as my speciality, it has provided me a unique insight into Sinitic languages in a native speaker environment and the process and interactions of second language learning, which will be greatly beneficial in my further studies.