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I have had the opportunity to pursue many of my dreams and ambitions in life together with other people, sometimes with long-time friends, sometimes with new acquaintances. With time, I’ve gradually become aware that there seem to be two things that separate myself from many of the people I’ve met. I think that I have a very healthy attitude towards failure, progress and competition that helps me achieve what I want, usually with support from people around me.

I don’t claim that this is a unique ability or even that it’s special, I just feel like writing about it because what seems obvious to me apparently isn’t obvious to some people. In this way, I hope that I can shed some light on how to think about people who have acquired a skill you think is exceptional in some regard. I will also say something about inspiring others.

I couldn’t do X when I was born

It’s absolutely astonishing that people really seem to believe that skill X is something innate that the performer could do it when he or she was born. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people say “How can you do that?”, sometimes followed by the optional “That’s impossible!”. This can be said about anything, but I usually hear it about Chinese, diving or some basic gymnastics feat such as performing a solid handstand.

This question might look innocent, but I think it hides a ton of prejudice and negative thoughts that is stopping you from achieving whatever it is you want to achieve. To be blunt, the question is inane and the answer is obvious: I’ve practised a lot. It’s as if the person asking this question thinks that I could perform two and a half somersaults when I was born or that I could speak Chinese fluently since the age of five. This is wrong. I started learning both these things when I was around 23.

Yeah, yeah, but perhaps people are just asking this because they don’t know what to say? It’s more of a rhetorical question than a real question, you might say. I think that’s wrong. Saying “How can you do that?” implies that the connection between practice and end-result isn’t obvious, because then you would say something else. If I see someone who can do something I can’t and do it extremely well, my first reaction is curiosity. I might want to know how he or she practised or what kind of skills it involves.

People greatly overestimate the difficulty of most of the feats they consider to be impossible, and they greatly underestimate their own capacity to learn. Unicycling is a very good example. I think an average person can learn to keep their balance and move forward with reasonable confidence within only a few hours of practising.

This is not impossible. In fact, it’s really easy compared with some other things which really take time to learn. Are you surprised when you go to the hospital and the doctor is accurately able to say what’s wrong with you? Do you marvel at the fact that a bridge doesn’t fall down when you drive over it? Do you feel awe when someone repairs the plumbing in your home? Probably not. You know that the educations needed to make these things work take years to finish. No one is a born a doctor, an engineer or a plumber . If you really wanted to and had the time and the opportunity, I think most people could learn that as well.

The point is that no-one knows anything when they’re born. We learn things and we keep on learning things after we’ve grown up.

I can’t remember who said this, but someone thought that they shouldn’t broadcast the Olympic Games on TV because we never get to see the tens of thousands of hours of training that lie behind each gold medal. We watch these superstars on TV and marvel at their skill, without appreciating what it took to achieve such a high level.

Although a bit contrived, I think there is some truth in this. By watching only the perfected end-result, we create an insurmountable wall between ourselves and them. They become untouchable. They are amazing. They can do the impossible. In fact, there is no wall , just a gradual steeper slope. Everyone can’t be a sprint champion, but most people could learn to run really, really fast if that’s what they want to do.

This leads me to the second part of this article, namely how to regard people who are better than you are, how to look up that slope without being daunted by the distance you have to climb to get to a certain level. Some people look up the slope with envy, some with awe. I would argue that both of these are destructive attitudes. Curiosity and an open mind is what you need.

Learn from your superiors, teach the rest

I’m not a big fan of Confucius in general, but one sentence in the Analects is quite powerful: 三人行必有我師焉. It means that in a group of three people, there is bound to be someone who can be your teacher. In other words, Confucius says that everyone has their own set of skills and experiences that should be valued and that others should strive to learn. No-one is the grandmaster of all situations, of all trades and all walks of life. I can teach you how to learn Chinese, what can you teach me?

This illustrates a major point in how I regard other people. If I meet someone who can do something I can’t, but that I want to be able to do, I try to keep this person as close as possible, realising that this is a potential teacher. This time, I’m going to take learning Chinese as an example. When I lived in Taiwan, I usually studied with people whose Chinese was a lot better than my own (I call this the “kamikaze approach to learning Chinese“, click the link to read more about my first experiment with this). Some people wouldn’t dare to do that because they would feel bad, inferior and so on. Every time they talked to other, superior classmates, it would highlight shortcomings and failures.

Sure it would. You would never be the best in your class, but if you turn it around and look at it from the other direction, you suddenly have not one teacher in your class, but a whole group! Keeping these people as closely as possible, you learn how they learn, you study how they study. And you improve, probably much faster than they do, because they only have one teacher. Perhaps you might not feel that you’re improving that much, because you will still be far behind, but measured against some more objective benchmarks you will know that the distance is rapidly decreasing.

Learning Chinese like this is perhaps a unique situation, but I really think that Confucius hit the nail on its head with the above quote. As soon as you see someone who is superior to you, you shouldn’t see a competitor, an enemy or a rival, you should see a teacher. Perhaps he or she won’t be your formal teacher, but in your mind, think of your superiors as your teachers and everything will be a lot easier. Use them as sources of inspiration and knowledge.

Of course, it works the other way around, too. If in a group of three someone can be your teacher, it also means that in the same group, you can be the teacher of others. Teaching is an exceptionally powerful way of learning, but I feel that it’s slightly outside the scope of this article to delve deeper into that question. Just realise that in any situation, you can learn and you can teach. You can be inspired, but don’t forget that you can inspire others, too.

To be inspired and to inspire

I’ve said what i wanted to say already, but I’m going to sum things up before ending this article. Teaching and inspiring are two closely related things. If you can see all superiors as sources of inspiration and knowledge, you will advance faster than if you view them as rivals or opponents. Similarly, realise that you have your own strong sides that inspire other people. Don’t hesitate to teach others if they want to be taught. Inspiration is cyclic in its nature and should flow freely in all directions.

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This is the seventh of the posts in which I explain and motivate the items on my 101-in-1001 list. The list itself can be viewed here, where you can also find a list of all posts related to the list. If you want to follow my progress in more detail, you should check my profile page at the Day Zero Project.

It seems likely that I will be some kind of teacher at least for a part of my professional life, so even though this category is not meant to include everything I plan to do, aiming for a teacher’s job is realistic and functions well as a working hypothesis.

Read ten interesting articles about second language acquisition

This will probably be part of the term paper I will write next semester, but I still want to read more scientific research regarding second language acquisition. I have lots of ideas, obviously, but it would be nice to back them up with some solid research. Of course, language learning is difficult to research, because learning conditions and languages vary so much, but there should be interesting articles out there.

Perceived difficulty: 2/10
Estimated time needed: 15 hours
Progress so far: 0%

Learn and write about the five top origins of migration to Sweden outside Scandinavia

The goal here is to learn more about home countries of big minority groups in Sweden, in order to better understand students from these countries. This is of course not only related to teaching, because I feel that I know way too little about some countries that are both quite important in the world and which people now also have become a part of Sweden.

Perceived difficulty: 2/10
Estimated time needed: 15 hours
Progress so far: 0%

Create a system to record and keep useful classroom activities

Now and then, I stumble upon various useful exercises or activities, but since I have no systematic way of archiving them, I feel that most of them just pass me by. I might remember some of them, especially those I’ve tried myself, but the idea with this goal is to create a system that can catch whatever interesting ideas I read or hear about. It will probably involve digital scanning of texts, a functional file structure for sorting the data and some kind of summary/overview. My guess is that it will take some time to set up, but should then run smoothly once in place.

Perceived difficulty: 2/10
Estimated time needed: 5 hours
Progress so far: 0%

Get 2.0 on the Swedish Scholastic Aptitude Test (need not be formal due to the cost)

I’ve never needed the Swedish SAT (Högskoleprovet), because my grades have always been enough, but I want to take the test anyway just to know what it’s about. This is partly because I’m curious, but it’s also because the test is very important for some students. Understanding what the test is about will perhaps also enable me to better understand what they are facing. Achieving the maximum grade is of course just to make it a bit challenging, but I don’t plan to do this formally, because each attempt (I will probably need more than one) costs a couple of hundred crowns.

Perceived difficulty: 5/10
Estimated time needed: 20 hours
Progress so far: 0%

Take one extra evening or summer course

It might sound odd, but I’ve actually never taken more than the normal number of credits per semester. I want to try that and see what it’s like. It’s quite probable that I won’t find it worthwhile, but I’m going to try it at least once. I have heaps of academic credits, but adding points in language related subjects would probably be a good idea nevertheless.

Perceived difficulty: 4/10
Estimated time needed: 100 hours
Progress so far: 0%

Evaluate myself as a teacher with the help of mentor(s)

Other people sometimes work as mirrors which we can use to better see what we are doing wrong. At some point, probably during the final semester of my education, I want to really think this through and discuss it with my mentor (or other involved teachers). I want to know what I can improve and what I’m doing well as it is. Involving students in this might also be a good idea, but that depends on the circumstances.

Perceived difficulty: 3/10
Estimated time needed: 5 hours
Progress so far: 0%

Formulate a teaching manifesto for English

As I said in the introduction, I think it’s highly likely that I will teach English for at least a part of my career. I know what I want when I study English and I generally try to understand what students want when I help them personally. Having a teaching job is something quite different though. It involves heeding regulations and being clear about where I want to lead a group of students rather than trying to help a few individuals. A manifesto which clearly states what I think is important and how I want to achieve it will force me both to think through what I think about teaching English, and how to go about it.

Perceived difficulty: 4/10
Estimated time needed: 10 hours
Progress so far: 0%

Formulate a teaching manifesto for Chinese

Same as above, but for Chinese. This will be slightly more hypothetical since there are no clear guidelines or regulations as far as I know. Still, thinking through what I want to teach and how to achieve that will be useful.

Perceived difficulty: 4/10
Estimated time needed: 10 hours
Progress so far: 0%

Write a CV and have it commented by someone knowledgeable

Actually, I’ve never written a CV in my life. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to find part-time (and full-time for one year) employment anyway. In the future, I will need to be clear about what I know and what I can do well, especially if I plan to move beyond teaching (perhaps doing something solely based on languages, either Chinese, English or both).

Perceived difficulty: 5/10
Estimated time needed: 10 hours
Progress so far: 0%


Well, this goal is quite obvious. Regardless how much I like studying, I need to graduate. I need this because that will allow me to study more at higher levels, but I also need it because I will run out of money sooner or later (in a couple of years, just about when I graduate). Graduation in this case means graduating from the teachers’ program, hopefully with Chinese and English as my subjects. See this post for more details about my plan.

Perceived difficulty: 4/10
Estimated time needed: Silly to count
Progress so far: 0%

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One of the reasons for my recent inactivity here on this website was the fact that I’ve moved house, but another reason, which is at least in the long run a lot more important, is the changes I’ve made to my education plans. It would be false to say that I have changed direction entirely (as I did when changing from psychology to teaching), but if everything goes according to plan, I will graduate three semesters earlier than the previous estimate (after the autumn semester of 2011 instead of after the spring semester of 2013).

This is a major change, and although things look good, nothing is guaranteed. The worst case scenario is that my education is prolonged another semester instead, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Bye-bye Swedish, 中文你好

In short, what I have decided to do is to stop studying Swedish and use Chinese as my second subject (English is my first). Looking at actual language level, my Chinese is already good enough, at least if we consider how many academic credits my language ability corresponds to in the Swedish system, but there are three things that are missing.

  • My ability is not measured in the Swedish system since I’ve been studying abroad
  • I need some practical teaching practice in a classroom
  • I need some more theoretical courses related to teaching Chinese

These things are all possible to solve, assuming that the university allows me to include Chinese in the first place. If they don’t, I might have to change to another university, but I hope I won’t be forced to do that.

The following three semesters

This isn’t a detailed plan, but I’ve thought about it a lot and spoken to enough people to make me feel that it’s quite realistic. If something goes wrong, it might delay my graduation a bit, perhaps even an entire semester, but that still enables me to graduate a year earlier than I originally planned.

  1. Autumn 2010 – I just changed from studying Swedish to studying English. Since the other students have already studied for a few months, there will be things I can’t do because the courses are already completed. There is also one element, the term paper, which the others have already started doing, and I don’t think I have enough time to do it properly this semester. In addition to finishing as much as possible of my remaining semester of English, I will also take some kind of course to prepare myself for the spring, but I don’t know any details about that yet.
  2. Spring 2011 – If everything goes according to plan, I will be able to study Chinese for one semester in Lund (hopefully through some kind of distance learning; I really don’t want to move to Lund). That will give me four semesters worth of academic credits in Chinese, which is both good enough to start a master’s degree later and enough to teach. At the same time, I will finish the English term paper and some other things that might be left over from the autumn. Also, I will complete the teaching side of my Chinese education before the summer.
  3. Autumn 2012 – Final courses in what’s called “general education”, which includes a thesis and a long period of continued internship. There should also be time here to complete courses that for some reason have been impossible to finish earlier. It’s not very likely that that’s the case, but there should be enough time if the need arises.

Towards a brighter future

So, what will I do after graduation? The most significant difference between the plan I’ve described above and the original one (which removes the Chinese and adds two years of Swedish studies), is that it takes less time. This means that my financial situation will be a lot better, allowing for more flexibility and more options after graduation. Here are some possible future developments:

  • Finding a job teaching English and/or Chinese in high school – I realise that Chinese is a minor subject, but I do think that some courses will be available and that even more can be created. This would be a way of earning some money and some experience, but it’s also evident that I really like teaching, so this is the most likely development, albeit that it might not be permanent or long-lasting.
  • Returning to Taiwan to study for a master’s degree in teaching Chinese – I know I want to do this at some point, although it depends on my social and financial situation. If granted a scholarship at some point, it’s very likely that I will go back to Taiwan to take my Chinese to a level which is professionally useful outside the classroom.
  • Advancing my Chinese or English studies in Sweden – The goal here would be to take master’s degree in either subject, or possibly something related to education science, enabling me to apply for a PhD later. I’m not saying this a realistic opportunity, but doing research relating to language learning, focused on either Chinese or English, is something I can imagine myself doing five years from now. This can be combined with teaching Chinese.
  • Having achieved more academic credits in general, finding a teaching job at a university would be desirable. Of course, this depends a lot on what happens in the near future, but right now it seems very likely that this will related to Chinese in some way. Teaching university courses in Chinese is something I definitely see myself doing in the future, although there are too many unknown factors to hazard a guess when that might happen.

As you can see, this is a major change not only in my career, but also in my life in general. Most of the change has not taken effect yet, but things have been irrevocably set in motion, so the plan above is what I will try to follow.

I’m convinced that I’ve made the right choices, now I just have to see them through and hopefully things will turn out to the best!

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Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolete. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.

Today was the first day for the students who start the same education as I did three years ago. This time, I  have the opportunity to teach the introduction course together with a friend (Per), which means 20 hours of teaching this week. I might write more about this later, although it’ll probably be in Chinese, but what’s relevant for now is that I’ve taken some time to go through the Chinese section of my website to make sure that things are up-to-date.

Usually, everything related to Chinese can be found by clicking the Chinese category in the menu to the left, but here is a summary of what you can find there:

Learning Chinese – Tips, tricks and reflections
Tools – Software, hardware, gadgets
Asienkunskap – Exams, vocabulary, resources
Studying in Taiwan – Resources, reflections
My Chinese studies – Taiwan, progress, blog
Reviews – Textbooks, literature, film
Related posts – Everything I’ve written about Chinese

There have been no really big updates, but I have made sure to convert the world lists from Short-Term Spoken Chinese to Anki. If you find anything that Isn’t working as intended or if you think something is lacking, please let me know, preferably by commenting on this post!

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