Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation

By Elizabeth Mowers

Every morning before the sun rises, I start the work day from home. I teach English online to young children in China. It's a great gig, because I enjoy the work and I'm finished teaching by the time my own children rise to get ready for school.

When I tell people about this part-time job, the first question they always ask is...

"Do you speak Chinese?"

I do not. All I can say is "Nǐ hǎo" which means "hello".

Because the lessons require full immersion in English, I don't need to speak Chinese. In fact, I wouldn't be permitted to speak Chinese even if I was able. Most of my teaching consists of holding up objects and only saying the word I want the student to learn. For example, I hold up a ball and say "ball". I pretend to throw the ball to my student and mime for them to throw the imaginary ball back. Again, I say "ball". When they pretend to throw it back, I pretend they threw it too hard. This makes them laugh. When they finish laughing, I prompt them to say "ball". You get the idea.

This is a TINY selection of my teaching props.

I have regular students I teach each week, some several times a week. I love my regular students, because I get to see their progress. My favorite student, Jane, is seven years old with pigtails, dimples and the sweetest giggle. Jane couldn't speak a lick of English when she started one year ago. Now, at the beginning of every class she tells me, "I...am...happy...to...see...YOU!" My heart melts every time.

After each lesson, I write feedback to the student's parents. Although the company I work for translates my feedback into Chinese, some of the translations have not gone well. 

For example, when I first began teaching, I would tell the parents what the student and I practiced in class. Some of the parents would write back and apologize to me. I was very confused until I learned that the verb "to practice" has a slightly different meaning in Chinese. "To practice" gives the impression that the student tried to do a good job but didn't succeed. Not quite what I meant to say about my dear little students who always try so hard.

I've learned that short, direct sentences are best. You can imagine how difficult this is for a writer!

My deepest sentiments about how much my students mean to me are restricted to the simplest words: 

"I was happy to talk to you."

"You are a good student."

"I like teaching you." 

As the likelihood that I will learn fluent Chinese is quite rare, I hope my students continue in their studies so that one day I can explain to them, in English, how much I love them. Until then, I try my best to convey my affection in big smiles. Because as a romance writer, I already know that so much love can be conveyed without muttering a single word. 💗

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  1. You are the second person I know of who has this gig. Interesting that English is still the chosen language of the world. Translations are difficult, especially with languages that rely strongly on intonation and facial expression. Sounds like the perfect job for a working mom!

    1. It's becoming a more common job for work-from-home parents. And yes, the translations are so tough!

  2. I met someone last week who also teaches English to students in a couple of Asian countries, and she also is able to be home with her kids. For all our concerns and complaints about the wired up and connected world, it's amazing in what it can do and the kinds of jobs it's created. Thanks for giving us a glimpse into that world.

    1. Thanks, Virginia. I have friends who work from home and they all do different things - recruiting, consulting, various design and computer programming. It's amazing how much things have changed in a relatively short period of time.

  3. What a wonderful job you have Elizabeth! As a former teacher, I know how satisfying it is to connect with students. Great anecdotes and inspiring. Maybe a good gig for a Heartwarming heroine?

  4. I loved this post, and I loved hearing about your job.

  5. So nice to hear about your unusual teaching job. Communication is such a wonderful thing!

  6. What an interesting job. I love hearing about your students, and your adventures in translation.


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