Preceding The Meatless

“To realize dream of announcer I am preceding the meatless.”

You may be scratching your head at that, I know I was when I read it.  As an English teacher in Korea, I come across a fair bit of total gibberish when I’m grading essays, but this sentence doesn’t fit that pattern.  Instead there is something almost comprehensible about it.  The student is a bit advanced, so it’s unlikely that she just completely missed the mark, and from context clues it was obvious that she was trying to communicate that she wanted to be a T.V. personality.  But when it came to this line, nobody in the office could make heads or tails of it.

The confusion rests almost entirely on “meatless”.  What the hell does that mean?  We asked some of the native Korean speakers if there was a construction in Korean that would shed light on it, maybe a turn of phrase or a word that had several meanings that might get mistranslated.  Alas, to no avail.

The interesting thing is what my response to this sentence was, as it’s something I’ve been more aware of doing since I got to Korea.  After a few minutes of puzzling I began trying to model the student’s state of mind, asking myself questions like “what might she have been trying to say here?”  I was running a simulation in my head of a non-native English speaker with limited knowledge of the vocabulary she was trying to use.  What thought was in her head which, when translated into a language she didn’t know well, would’ve come out as “preceding the meatless”?

Humans perform this sort of mind reading all the time, there is a whole fascinating psychology behind it.  That I was doing it isn’t noteworthy, but that I’ve become so much more aware of it is.   Experiences like reading this student’s essay are further supplemented by my day-to-day encounters outside the classroom.  My Korean is passable but I’m far from fluent, so in many of my interactions I’m forced to piece the message together from both nonverbal and environmental clues.

As a fairly articulate person who has been surrounded by other articulate people for most of my life, this is a skill that needed to be sharpened a little bit.  These days I feel like my awareness of subtext has heightened and I have a richer vocabulary for modeling other people’s mental states.  The trick will be holding on to what I’ve learned when I’m in a situation where everyone speaks English, especially if they are also articulate.  Bonus points if I can smoothly integrate it with my preexisting verbal agility.

Leaving aside the linguistic consideration, there is also the more general point that teaching requires a lot of metacognitive sensitivity.  That my students are non-native English speakers adds an interesting twist, but I think all teachers have to do this to a certain extent.

If you’re a math genius turned engineer, your job is to take your high-octane math knowledge and build a bridge or a space shuttle.  But if you’re a math teacher, your job is to take knowledge structures in your brain and transfer them to another brain.  Not only do you have to understand math, you need a secondary knowledge of where the sticking points might be for someone else.  It isn’t enough to know what an integral is, you need to know why someone else might not be able to make sense of it.  This is something about the profession I didn’t appreciate until I became a teacher.

While I don’t have any empirical evidence for it, I’d be astounded if teaching didn’t beef up a person’s empathy and ability to model mental states just a wee bit.  At any rate it’s taught me a lot about how my own mind works.

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