Drama in the Not-So-English Classroom

Article excerpt

Good morning, Mr Smith.'

'Good morning, Banana. How are you?'

'Fine. Oh, I've changed my name.'

'Really? What to?'

'Big Boy.'

Three months in to my Hong Kong teaching experience, and at long last, my students have unwittingly succeeded in sending me into uncontrolled giggles. There have been so many close calls. Names have been an endless source of hilarity; each of my students has an English name to use alongside their (very difficult to pronounce by most Westerners) Chinese name, but having met few Westerners in person, and having only a sketchy understanding of 'fashionable' names in the West, they sometimes make some unusual choices. 'Eros' is one of my favourite students, as are 'Milki' and 'Creamily'. I teach a 'Dickens' and a 'Byron' in the same class--how very literary. And having kept a straight face the whole time while meeting oddly-named students, I'm somewhat annoyed at myself for collapsing in a heap when the already-rather-unusual 'Banana' announces his new title. I refuse to call him Big Boy, not least because it happens to be the name of a Hong Kong brand of condoms.

Hong Kong's primary national language, Cantonese, is so far removed from anything even vaguely resembling an Indo-European language that I find it miraculous that my students can understand me at all. But understand me they do and with aplomb, thanks to years of intensive tuition and the 'language-rich-environment' that the school works so hard to create and maintain for its students. Mine is unusually forward-thinking as schools in Hong Kong go. I am one of seven Westerners employed by the school, and part of my role is to oversee the running of 'Day E', an entire day in which students right around the school speak to staff members and to each other in English, participate in English-speaking activities and are given insight, albeit in a rather tokenistic way (someone plays 'Eternal Flame' by the Bangles over the school tannoy) into British and American culture. Having been a British colony for 150 years until the handover to China in 1997, Hong Kong's curriculum bears a pleasing familiarity to the one I was teaching at my old school in the North West of England a few short months ago. Apparently I am fated never to escape the ruddy writing triplets, no matter how many miles I travel from QCA headquarters.

However, one class pushes me right out of my comfort zone. It's actually the class to which Banana, a Year 9 student, belongs. On a weekly basis I teach them drama in a small-ish classroom on the third floor (of eight; my school, like everything else in Hong Kong, is 'high-rise'), the aim of the exercise being to improve their confidence in speaking English. This class are 'CMI'--Cantonese as a Medium of Instruction--meaning that apart from English and Mandarin, all their lessons, from Maths to Geography, Science to Art, are taught in the local language. The student body is divided, roughly half and half, into CMI and EMI (English as a Medium of Instruction) and the gap is enormous. Those nice cushy classes to whom I teach English are all EMI; but having a much poorer command of English, the CMI kids really struggle with drama. Well, you would, wouldn't you? I shudder at the thought of having to memorise and deliver pages of script in a foreign language--'Etre ou ne pas Etre: c'est la question. …