Today was English Corner, and the foreigners put on a narrated Christmas play, which was kind of nice, because then we didn’t have to learn any lines. After the play, we were discussing holidays with our students, and I had a group of Intro students. These are the same students that I teach phonics to once a week, and two of them live in the same compound that I do.
No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get them to interact with the questions. They were simple questions, like, what is you favorite Tibetan or Chinese holiday? What do you eat during this holiday? How do you celebrate this holiday? What is your favorite American holiday? etc. I finally told the students that they could answer in Chinese or Tibetan, and I would help them learn a few English words. Still with no reply, I asked them, “When you were young, what kind of punishment did you get if you did something wrong?” The answer was that they were usually hit, or they would have to write something repeatedly. One young man said that his grandmother would make him write ten pages of his Chinese and Tibetan characters when he did something bad. So that is why his characters are so good! OK, at least now I am getting some responses. So then, “If you did something good, how were you rewarded?” Most said that they got some type of praise, and they all said that they got money for doing good things. And, they all were punished more often than rewarded. Then, it came out: they were afraid to give me an answer in English, because of being raised with so much punishment and not wanting to make a mistake. (Not punishment from me, probably more saving face with me). But I see language learning differently -- when learning another language, I see that making mistakes along the way is really how we learn (in fact, I do this all the time!) So, I told them the story of about Thomas Edison, and his use of positive rewards instead of criticism to train someone, which I had just read in Sheryl’s blog right before I went to English Corner, and I talked to them about how much better we can learn through success and compliments rather than by criticism. Then the discussion really got going. And I learned a lot about the students’ favorite holidays: Tibetan New Year (usually in January or February), and the Horse Festival in July. I learned about the celebrations, clothing, preparations, and foods associated with the festivals, etc. I didn't know that Tibetans always have to eat bread on Tibetan New Year because the Tibetan word for bread, balo, is similar to a word that means good fortune.
Then tonight we had a party with the same group of students (plus a few foreigners). We played two games, and totally had a blast. The students learned a few simple phrases, a few more nouns and verbs, and all in a fun atmosphere. People do learn from their mistakes, and they learn so much more in fun, positive surroundings than through criticism. It was rewarding for me to be with them tonight as we laughed and played silly games. If the students can make great gains by learning English in a positive environment, I can hardly wait to see the success these young folks will have outside the classroom!
Read more about punishment and reward.