Our lunch was long and relaxing, but our anticipation of exploring the six-hundred year-old tree infested temple was repeatedly shattered by a young boy who kept approaching our table selling books and disturbing metal figurines with giant phalluses. I was more interested in his own story than the stories in the books he was selling (and even more so than his disfigured-figurines).
At the end of the day, our conversation with that boy left a deeper impression on me than did the crumbling Ta Prohm. I simply couldn't believe how well he was speaking English. He claimed to be thirteen years old, looked about nine, and could converse with us better than most Chinese college students. How did he pull this off?
"It's a holiday so we don't have school today."
"Where are your parents?"
"My mom is over there, she owns that restaurant. My dad is in Angkor Thom selling things."
"Do you study English at school?" I interjected.
"Yes, but only once a week on Mondays."
"Well, then how come your English is so good?"
"Because I get to practice when I sell things to foreigners out here."
I think only once in the course of our conversation did he misunderstand something we said, and his command and range of vocabulary was impressive. All in all, our conversation with him lasted about fifteen minutes, during which he handled all of our questions with deft.
This started me thinking - what the hell are we doing trying to teach English in a classroom? Here is a boy, perhaps in the third grade, who has English class once a week and speaks English at a functionally fluent level. Most students in China spend over ten years studying English before they graduate from college, and struggle greatly with the oral aspects of the language. Chinese students will be the first to tell you that "they teach us to read and write, not to speak" in Chinese schools. But when I was listening to that boy talk, I was thinking "are they not teaching Chinese students to speak, or teaching them not to speak?"
I think the importance of having a practical application for the language you're trying to learn when you're learning said language is severely underestimated. If a boy can pick up English in a few years with one hour of English a week and by selling things to foreigners on the weekends, why are millions of Chinese students slaving away in classrooms unsucessfully picking apart English grammar? Sure, not everywhere has an Angkor bursting with English speaking tourists, but there are ways to introduce practicality into the curriculum. I'm thinking I should propose to my headmaster that on Fridays the entire school cancel classes and bus the students up to Lijiang to sell things to foreigners. Just take all the time spent in English class during the week and squish it in on Friday, save for an hour or two on Wednesday and Thursday where the students will be introduced to the language they are supposed to put into action on Friday. We could call it "the Cambodian Peddler Boy Method of Learning English."
From another perspective, business is a great medium in which to study another language. When we are young, we absorb language so quickly because we need it to survive. If we can't communicate to our parents what we need or want, or understand what they are saying, our lives are at risk. If we no longer have that need when learning a second language, the process becomes infinitely more difficult. I think in many situations business recreates this need. For the Cambodian boy, his parents no doubt told him, "look, we need money, help us sell these books and ridiculous figurines." The boy needs to help his family, and the one thing preventing him from doing a great job at that is English. There is a real force driving him to absorb it.
In Phnom Penh, most of the tuk tuk drivers speak impressively good English. Many of them are in there thirties and forties, no doubt born or raised during the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror, never having had a shot at a legitimate education. Yet, their English is better than my Chinese. Many, if not most, of the tuk tuk riders are foreigners, and most foreigners speak English. The drivers need to make a living, and English can facilitate that.
You can try and "simulate" that need, which I guess is the point of an immersive language learning experience. That's technically what I was doing in Beijing, but there was always some sort of outlet, that peace of mind knowing that I wasn't not going to die or be responsible for any of my loved ones dying because I was struggling with Chinese. I suppose a much more realistic immersive experience would have been to sell all of my belongings and open a 煎饼 stand. If I didn't sell 煎饼's I wouldn't be able to make a living, and in order to sell 煎饼's I'd have to wrap my head around Chinese. Living the cushy life of a student doesn't really create that same linguistic need as does being in a situation where your well being is dependent upon learning a second language.
So, how does one create this need for a classroom of 40 Chinese students, or a country of 400 million Chinese students? We can start with thinking of situations to put students in where there "survival" is dependent upon picking up the language. (Passing a test does not count as "survival", as many kids simply don't care enough for it to be a motivating factor). The drama project we're putting on at our school is a good start - nothing like the fear of being embarrassed in front of your entire village because you forgot your English lines (or my Chinese lines, for that matter. Yikes.)