英語と私 KANG, CHIA-WEI
English and Me: From A Buddhist Monk to An English Teacher
“I was a Buddhist monk for 20 years.”
I often use this line to start my self-introduction with my students, and this atypical background may also suggest that I have a different learning journey from many others.
Joined a Zen Buddhist monastery in Taiwan at the age of 15; I was just a junior-high student. Instead of receiving general education from the public education system, I was trained in the monastery to learn various general aspects of Buddhism and develop a particular knowledge of Zen Buddhism. At that time, I never thought of being an English teacher in the future; I even once thought of pursuing majoring in Chinese literature.
However, a trip to the United States in 2007 changed my attitude toward learning a new language, English. It was a trip to work as a photographer to accompany the headmaster from the monastery to give lectures in California and Texas. During the trip, even though my lack of English proficiency prevented me from understanding others and expressing myself, I could totally feel the warmth the participants emitted. On the flight back to Taiwan, I told myself that I wanted to learn English, and in the same year, I got assigned to work as a meditation instructor in a Zen center in Silicon Valley, California.
Flying to California for the second time marked the starting point of my English learning journey. I would like to share with you the stumbling blocks I have encountered and the personalized strategies I implemented to leap forward before teaching English in various contexts.
Language School: Improve
Walking into my first English language class with low English proficiency was nerve-wracking, but a female teacher, my first English teacher in the U.S, welcomed me with her warmhearted smile and patient teaching style minimizing my worries.
At this stage, I was building the foundations and my confidence in English. While doing that, I could tell I was building my vocabulary words and getting to know more about various grammatical points; meanwhile, I realized there was a gap in terms of how I use English in class and outside of class. Even though I thought I understood what I had learned in class, I still could not utilize them in my daily life, which led to avoiding using English outside of class.
Instead of using the word, breakthrough, I would use improvement to describe my way of overcoming this difficulty. Bridging the gap between class and my daily life became my top priority. To verify if I fully understood what I had learned, I analyzed English materials from different sources in addition to textbooks. For example, while learning the present perfect tense, I used newspapers as my study material. I marked every single present perfect tense used in the newspaper to understand the logic of using this verb tense in various contexts. After implementing this method, I realized I started to try to use what I had learned in my daily utterance, which people would be able to give me feedback on if I was saying things right or wrong.
The lesson I learned from this experience is to learn a new language, and I have to evaluate my learning process instead of passively receiving information actively.
At this point, I felt that English for me was like a stairway, and I was moving upward a step at a time.
College and University: Step forward
With the English skills I had built during my six-month time in the language school, I entered college to further sharpen my English skills and develop my English literature knowledge for two and a half years before transferring to a university. This period was the most challenging period in terms of learning English, but it was also the most memorable and valuable time I have had.
In college, my confidence in English was soon being challenged by the college-level and content-based courses, and I was also overwhelmed by the amount of reading and writing assignments. However, during this time, I was able to leap forward in various aspects of my English and studies. In college, students had to write down their answers in timed exams, so writing fluency became one of my challenges. Writing fluency is directly affected by the thinking and translating process. To avoid the process of translation, I trained myself to think and compose my thoughts in English through journal writing. I described daily incidents and expressed my opinions in English by utilizing what I had learned. I wrote 325 entries in one year. After that training and the college education, I received that year, I could fully contemplate and compose my concepts and opinions in English, and the journal writing also trained me to compose my ideas through more complex sentence structures, which also assisted me in apparently improving my verbal delivery. This ability allowed me to digest complicated and sophisticated readings and lectures effectively.
In addition to academic English, during this time, I was able to significantly acquire colloquial English because I was, fortunately, able to have a diverse group of close friends from my English literature circle, providing me with a lot of chances to listen to and learn from their unique experience and perspectives, and I could also express my opinions and ask any questions to them. We would spend time before and after our courses talking about English literature.
At this point, I felt that languages were different lenses that could let the users observe the world from different focal points.
Graduate School: Realize
Making my transition from university to graduate studies was also a turning point for me to decide to pursue a career as an English teacher instead of a Buddhist monk. I was thinking that teaching was a rewarding career, and I could incorporate the English learning experience into my teaching.
At this stage, the challenges I encountered were mostly about utilizing and integrating the methods, strategies, and theories in teaching. Thanks to my English learning journey, I was able to take them in as a teacher as well as a learner. My graduate studies opened my eyes to different ways to analyze English teaching and learning. For example, I learned various the theory of speech acts, and each of the speech acts is an utterance that serves a particular function in communication. When we offer an apology, greeting, request, complaint, invitation, compliment, or refusal, we are performing different speech acts. In teaching English, we can introduce different speech acts of a target language to the students, so they can understand not just the linguistic aspect of the language but also the contextual side.
Another way to consider while teaching a language is the Poliness theory proposed by Penelope Brown and Stephen C. Levinson. This theory factors a person’s self-esteem and social values in social interactions and communication. Each individual has two faces (positive and negative), and you can understand the concept of a face is one’s image in public. Simply put, a positive face is one’s desire to be liked, admired, ratified, and related positively. On the other hand, a negative face can be characterized as the desire not to be imposed upon. By using both speech act theory and politeness theory, I realized that teachers could as students compare the structures of the speech acts in English and their first language, and at the same time, instruct students to also pay attention to potential factors that may threaten someone’s face in cross-cultural communications.
I still remember one of my professors, Dr. Kumaravadivelu, B, once said to us, “after completing this program, you can consider yourself an educator instead of just a language trainer.” He was saying that an educator aims to motivate students to learn, activate students’ autonomy, and enable students’ critical thinking mind through the means of a language lesson.
At this stage, English for me was a reflective tool that allowed me to think and rethink my language learning experience and teaching philosophy.
Working as an English teacher in the U.S: Put into Practice
After obtaining my Master’s degree in TESOL, I worked in two language schools in California. One of them was a school to prepare international students for entering universities in the United States, and I worked with Japanese business people and engineers working in Silicon Valley.
The challenges of teaching at this stage were how to create a learning environment and how to create an effective lesson plan for students. In this period, I realized that communication between teachers and students could be important. In my class with the international students, creating a “safe” learning environment was the first priority, and the word “safe” meant that in class, it was totally fine to make mistakes, ask any questions, and express any opinions in English. By doing so, my students felt comfortable participating in the lesson and were willing to communicate what they were thinking to me. With my corporate clients, listening to what they want to achieve was essential. However, providing professional suggestions was also necessary from my side to assist them to achieve their goals more efficiently.
I can still remember the first day to work as an English instructor at the language school. I walked into the school and saw a familiar face, the first English teacher I had had when I just started learning English. She was also working for the same language school. After she knew that I became an English teacher, she introduced me to her class by saying, “He was my student and a Buddhist monk 7 years ago, and he is here working as an English teacher, and we are now colleagues. How wonderful!”
Looking back, instead of talking about challenges and breakthroughs, I think only considering them to be different outlooks on the journey of climbing the mountain of learning a new language, English. I just kept my steps forward, and on the way, I have seen various things and reflected on myself personally and professionally through the lenses of different languages I have been using. At this stage, I really appreciate how much learning a new language can open different doors for me to experience, and I really found joy in learning something new.
Now, let me introduce myself to you here again. “I was a Buddhist monk for 20 years, but I am an English teacher now.