Teaching Tricks to Sea Lions

Regular Rambles readers will recall my friend Alan Kennedy‘s last contribution: RIKE ORION. In it, he recounts some of his experiences teaching English as a Second Language in New York City. He’s back this week with some more transcultural observations.

The way names move across language barriers makes for a good spectator sport. I am reminded of what my nephew Ben wrote about the English names his students chose for an English class he taught in China. The difference, for example, between Shelly and Cherry can take a few tries to work out. And I recall a conversation from long ago in which Alan told me about some frustration he had with a Russian class. Russian names require special grammatical handling depending on the context. Ordinarily an imported American name escapes this special treatment, making life for an American student of Russian slightly easier than it might otherwise be. But Alan shares his last name with a former American president, and presidents (particularly Cold War presidents) get the full name treatment. So Alan was stuck managing complicated endings for his own name. Ach du lieber Himmel!

Here’s Alan…


Teaching Tricks to Sea Lions: More Adventures Teaching ESL

by Alan Kennedy

I have written here before about my experiences as a teacher of English as a Second Language to adults. Since the previous posting I have been working at two different schools in New York City – one a private language school, and one a university.

Most of the anecdotes that have most interested my friends and family have been mined from the culture clash situation that an ESL classroom produces, by nature. The truth is, I usually find that I have more in common with my students than less, but there is often inherent humor in talking about those differences of understanding, of outlook, and of experience. I try to remind myself that anything the students say which makes me laugh is the type of thing I might say if I were, say, studying Russian in Russia. I think my students know this. So I can laugh at the two Korean students who gave me a Hallmark-style Christmas card, addressed to me only, with flowery writing that said “to both of you” on the cover. Hell, there but for the grace of my Russian studies go I.

Almost all of my students from Taiwan choose an English name for themselves to use when they are in the U.S. (in contrast to, for example, Koreans, who sometimes do, and Japanese, who never do.) Although this may mostly be because of the difficulty we Americans have pronouncing Chinese names, I also think there is a cultural element at work.

I once asked a very serious Taiwanese student named Pei Shan why she hadn’t chosen an English name.

“Can’t you say “pay shan?” she asked, deadpan.

“Yes, of course” I said. “Easily”. It’s just that most Taiwanese students have an English name…Of course you don’t need one, no student does. I was only curious…”

“Well…how would I pick one?” she asked.

I told her there was an old-fashioned woman’s name, Patience, which was very close to her name.

“Well that would be ironic” she replied (it came out more like ah-ro-nih) because I am not patient.” She chuckled. “Not at all.”

Which surprised me more – that she knew how to use the word “ironic”, or that she had a sense of humor? One thing for sure – from then on I saw her differently.

I had another Taiwanese student, a very funny guy with a booming voice and spiky hair, who was always making jokes. His name was Chang Lee but he asked me to call him Lee because “it is easier for you to say than Chang”. (Really?) He sat next to another Taiwanese student who had taken the name Fernando. “I thought was English”, he told me, “until I come America and realize is Spanish – but I like”. As an aside, Lee’s English was better than Fernando’s, but Fernando egged him on and laughed uproariously at everything he said. When Lee was eventually upgraded from my class to a more advanced level, I asked him if he was cracking everyone up in the new class.

“No – I am not” he said. “I cannot be funny without patnah”.

I asked him to spell “patnah”; I didn’t understand.

“P-A-R-T-N-E-R”, he said, and nodded poignantly.

Then there was the Korean student named Bok Min. I had in her in class for a few weeks when she asked, one day, if I would please start calling her by her “English name, Min”.

Your English name. OK. Whatever you say. “Min” it was.

The strangest English “name” I have yet encountered was a young guy named Kai Chun who asked to be called “Sea Lion”. No kidding. I repeated it several times and wrote it on the board just to make sure I was hearing it right.

“That’s the name of an animal, you know…it’s not really a person’s name”.

“Yes. I know.”

“Why did you choose that name?”

“Because it was my brother’s English name also.”

I waited for more explanation. None came. He stared at me, blinking.

“Oh” I finally said.

So I called him Sea Lion. And actually got used to it after a week.

I have learned not to assume that adults from other countries will be familiar with our icons. This is of course okay, and lends itself to interesting language lessons that dovetail with U.S. cultural literacy, which students are usually eager to get. Most can name George Washington on sight, for example. Pretty many can name Martin Luther King, Jr. Many less, however, can name Abraham Lincoln – and even less can pronounce his name right (that damn silent “L”…).

I used the Elvis Presley recording of “Treat Me Nice” once to demonstrate improper use of adjectives in place of adverbs. When I asked the students if anyone could tell me anything about Elvis, one young Korean student ventured “he looks Italian or Spanish”.

I said that he was very American in a certain sense.

“He doesn’t look American” was the response.

This got me going a bit, and I asked “What does it mean to look American?” This may have been a mistake, as the response was a class-wide vibe of downcast eyes and uncertainty.

“Does Oprah Winfrey look American?” I asked. (perplexed look from Korean guy)

“Tiger Woods?” (silence.)

“Lucy Liu?”. (Giggle.)

“Jennifer Lopez?” (possible high-five from two guys in back who like to high-five, but I can’t be sure).

“Remember, ‘American’ is not a race, not really an ethnicity – we can look like anything” was how I concluded it. General silence ensued.

A bubbly Turkish woman saved the day. “Vere in America Elviz Prezley was from?”

“Mississippi” I answered, gratefully, writing the cumbersome state name on the board to impressed oohs and aahs.

Then we returned to the lesson on adverbial clauses.

One week we were studying a unit in our textbook with the theme “overcoming obstacles”. There was a black & white photo of Helen Keller on the first page, and I asked “does anyone know who this is?”. A timid Japanese woman ventured quietly


Not sure I had heard right, I repeated “Amish? Is that what you said?”

She nodded. I wrote on the board, A-M-I-S-H. She nodded.

“I’m not sure what you mean…” I said.

“Hide from Germany.” she said. Slowly it came together in my mind.

“Do you mean Jewish?” I asked.

“”Jewish. Yes”. She nodded.

“Are you thinking of Anne Frank?

“Ahh – – yes. Anne Frank.”

“Oh, okay. No, this is not Anne Frank, but I can see why you may have thought that.”

Amish folks had been in the news recently due to a tragic killing in Pennsylvania. To her, “Amish” and “Jewish” were just words; foreign ideas.

Although I have tried to arm myself with a useful battery of techniques for teaching grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary and the language teacher’s classic “four skills” package (listening/speaking/reading/writing), I often find myself most useful to students when I can explain the things that the language books can’t. My students are always interested in lessons which deal with what linguists call pragmatics – all those things about using a foreign language which go beyond grammar and vocabulary, and have more to do with nuance of meaning, casualness vs. formality, manners, inference, etc. Why is “could you pass the salt?” more formal than “can you pass the salt?”. This is stuff they did not learn in school, and one reason they come to the U.S. to learn English from a native speaker.

Once during a lesson about asking for favors, I tried to write down a kind of continuum of different styles – from the most indirect and polite (e.g. “I wonder if you’d mind closing the window?”) to the most direct (“close the window!”). A Japanese student pointed out that the constructions which sounds quite formal to us, like “you couldn’t close the window, could you?” was actually the common way to ask in Japanese.

At this, a Hungarian student said, “well then Russians are at other side, because for them ‘close window!’ is the only way to ask!

I asked her if she though Hungarian was more polite or formal than Russian in general. She thought about it and replied “Hungarians would say “Close window. Yes?”.

I like to do a little activity where we talk about idioms in English which use color words. There are so many: once in a blue moon, a green thumb, yellow-bellied coward, seeing red, etc. Truthfully, my favorite part about this is that it prompts students to share examples from other languages. In a previous post I mentioned the different colors used for a bruised eye. We say a person got a “black eye”, but Japanese speakers say a he got a “blue eye”, and if you think about this one for a moment it’s interesting.

Here are some other examples:

“A green joke” (Spanish) = a dirty joke

“I am purple” (Turkish) = like foot in mouth; embarrassed, caught out

“He is blue” (German) = he is drunk or stoned

“He is big red and big purple” (Mandarin) = he is famous and popular

“The red room” (Russian) = a recreation and reading room in a house

and my favorite:

“It’s the color of a donkey on the run” (Portuguese) = a color which is hard to describe

My job is not exactly hard to describe – after all, most of us have studied a foreign language at some point in our lives and remember the teacher. Well, that’s me.

I do think I wear more hats, though, than the guy who taught me to conjugate Spanish verbs did. I am often forced into the role of cultural literacy instructor, as mentioned, but also New York City tour guide, history and geography teacher, technical support person, cell phone company navigator, apartment living advisor, cultural sensitivity coach, and, it has to be said, President Bush explainer. He is certainly “big red”, but these days not so “big purple”…

As for my approval rating, it seems to be OK. The other day I overheard a student saying to another “I know how to say ‘thirteen’ and ‘thirty’ differently now. Those words pronounce different. Before, people always asked me which one I was saying. Alan taught me. There is a trick. Now I know the trick!”

The ‘trick’, by the way, is applying appropriate syllable stress.

There are two ways to say “trick” in Russian: “snoróvka” and “pódvah“.

I guess I need a good language teacher to explain the nuance of difference to me. One of these days…

2 thoughts on “Teaching Tricks to Sea Lions”

  1. Another fascinating essay, Alan … Bravo! These days, I’m taking a beginner’s Italian class for fun, and hearing new and strange-sounding idiomatic expressions is a one of the best parts. One of my favorites is “in bocca al lupo.” It means “good luck” in the same way as the English “break a leg” – you use it to wish someone good luck in the face of a challenging task. But the literal translation is “in the mouth of the wolf!” The appropriate response is “Crepi” – “May the wolf drop dead!”

  2. This is great stuff. I’ve always loved languages and after reading this would love nothing better than to teach ESL. Thanks for the stories.

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