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The Octagon

International students remember the wackiest stories in their ESL textbooks

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Read more stories on both the Chinese international students in the UC Educations organization and world-language textbooks in the print edition of the Octagon, Tuesday, Dec. 5. 

(Photo used by permission of Chen)
The student edition of the 12th volume of an English textbook series that started in first grade. According to junior Rita Chen, this was the first of two books she used in sixth grade.

For many international students, English class in their home country means the same as Spanish class does to us.

And with any foreign language class comes textbooks. Lots and lots of textbooks.

When junior Jacqueline Chao attended school in China, she had two sets of textbooks for learning English: a basic one that the school district used and an advanced one from the University of Oxford.

The former consisted of a group of students who would appear in a cartoon and have a conversation in each unit. There would then be additional practice with grammar and vocabulary, according to Chao.

But Chao barely used those textbooks, she said, probably because the teachers thought they were too easy.

“We would go over the vocab and have tests on it, but we never really read over the conversations,” she said.

Additionally, she said those textbooks had very boring covers: poorly drawn, stick-figure-like characters and “English” written in Chinese and English.

On the other hand, the second set included readings about trendy singers and important historical events, Chao said.

“The book was just generally better designed,” she said. “It had graphics and cool photographs, and the layout was not so uniform and boring.”

This set of textbooks helped Chao much more with her English.

“The first set was just like, ‘Oh my God, we learned this in third grade!’” she said.

Like Chao, sophomore Shimin Zhang had different sets of textbooks that she used in China: one for her school in Beijing and one for a class she took outside of school.   

The textbook she used in Beijing followed a cast of recurring characters: a group of students and their families.

Those characters had names in both English and Pinyin (a system for writing Chinese using the Latin alphabet), according to Zhang.

“(They were) pretty old-fashioned names – something like Lily, Sam, Jack,” she said. “Their names spelled in Pinyin (like Li Lei and Han Mei Mei) are also old-fashioned.”

Most of the readings in those textbooks were conversations among characters, which, Zhang said, were often boring.

She preferred the textbooks she used in New Oriental, a private educational company that offers courses outside of school for students in China. Her private class was more advanced than the one in her school and had more complicated readings.

Junior Rita Chen also learned English in China. Her textbooks featured two Chinese students, Lingling and Daming, who went to an international school in Britain, and their British friends, Amy and Sam.

Amy was like a “little adult” who wanted to control Sam, the sporty troublemaker with not-so-good study habits, Chen said. Lingling, on the other hand, was good at everything, and all the teachers and students liked her. And even though Daming played computer games every day, he still got good grades. (He was horrible at sports, though.)

China wasn’t the only place students learned English as a second language. In Rwanda, junior Brandy Riziki started learning English in pre-K.

The textbooks she used consisted of one focused on grammar and one on reading comprehension.

The grammar textbook, while being relatively small, included nearly everything to do with grammar, Riziki said.  

In the reading textbook, each chapter would start with a story, followed by comprehension questions.

One such story was the “Magic Porridge Pot.” According to Riziki, in the story, a mother and daughter lived in a poor village and didn’t have enough to eat. Then they were gifted a magic pot that, if they said, “Cook, little pot! Cook!” would make unlimited amounts of porridge. To stop the pot, they needed only to say, “Stop, little pot! Stop!”

Thus, the mother and daughter were no longer hungry, as the pot didn’t need any resources to make the porridge.

But one day, the girl was making porridge and forgot to stop the pot. The porridge flooded the house and the village.

“Whenever a person wanted to go to the village, they had to eat their way back because (the porridge) was all over the village,” Riziki said.

—By Allison Zhang

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