Remember when back in April, I was all gung-ho to begin English conversation tutoring with a Chinese physicist who was at Princeton University’s Plasma Lab for a year as a Visiting Scholar?  I even got two posts out of the introductory materials I was given to get started with.  (“Hints on English Pronunciation for Foreigners” on April 18, and “Bonus for Foreigners: Why English Is So Hard” on April 19.)  I should have known better than to count chickens, or even count on one chicken, before the hatching.

Li-li and I met, by email prearrangement, on a Saturday about five weeks ago at the Princeton Student Center.  Li-li is not his real name. Also there are many Chinese Visiting Scholars at the Princeton Plasma Lab (“PPL”). So I’m not compromising him with anything I write here.  I’m also certain he will never read this post.  (He can read English, with some difficulty, but prefers not to, if it can be avoided.  He can also write it, with some errors and much consulting of dictionaries and grammar books in two languages. But I tell you this after five hours of attempted conversation with Li-li. I knew nothing about him when we began.)

Fred, the director of the volunteer tutoring program, had suggested we meet at the Student Center because Li-li has no car.  (Fred is not a real name either, although the person to whom I refer as Fred was entirely supportive and helpful throughout my Li-li experience and probably wouldn’t mind if I accurately identified him. But still.  I used to be a lawyer. I’m careful.)  Meeting at the Student Center was all very well for Li-li, because the university bus from PPL to the main campus runs every half-hour and stops just outside the Student Center.  But for me to reach it, I first have to park in a town garage a block and a half from campus (not free) and then walk up and down campus hills for what feels like about ten minutes although may be somewhat less. (I’m not a mountain goat anymore.)  Once, it rained. Nonetheless. I had no idea how old a Visiting Scholar might be, and perhaps an aging Chinese scholar might have more aerobic or orthopedic difficulty with Princeton’s up-and-down paths than I.

Li-li was able to identify me because there was no one else who looked more than twenty-five anywhere around the Student Center. He himself was slight and I guessed about twenty-two, although he turned out to be actually twenty-eight.  We met once a week for about an hour and a half, for five weeks. I gradually moved the meeting place closer to where I park by explaining (slowly) with the help of a campus map that he was young and I was old and therefore it was only fair that he meet me at least halfway or somewhat more than that.  (Don’t the Chinese have great cultural respect for the old?)

Our last two meetings took place at Panera, across Nassau Street from the university, and therefore actually in town.  With some hesitation, after I had (slowly) read the offerings on the board aloud to him, he chose a lemonade which he did not drink but carried away with him past several garbage bins, presumably to take home on the bus. The next time, after I had again done a (slow) recitation of the board, he chose a mango smoothie.  He knew the word “mango.”  I asked (slowly) if he knew what “yogurt” was (because that was the base liquid for the smoothie) and he said yes.  He even eagerly tasted it. But he definitely didn’t like it,  Was it too sour? He didn’t know what I meant by “sour.”  Too “sweet”?  He wasn’t sure what that word meant either.  Too” thick”? He looked at me in puzzlement.  But he carried the barely tasted and apparently disfavored smoothie away with him too.  Was it that men didn’t eat or drink with women where he came from?  Did he feel it was impolite to partake of anything during a kind of “lesson?”  But by the afternoon of the mango smoothie, I had stopped wondering.  I wanted out.

The thing is, you couldn’t converse with Li-li because he couldn’t really speak.  He had a minimal recognition vocabulary and an even smaller one available for speech.  Moreover, his pronunciation made what he did try to say incomprehensible. I was not supposed to be tutoring him in acquisition of the English language. We were only supposed to be conversing together, during the course of which I expected to have to correct pronunciation or grammar.  And I do understand that English has several consonants difficult for the Chinese tongue to pronounce.   But Li-li mangled or swallowed vowels and diphthongs as well as consonants, and also inserted vowels of his own making between syllables of words and between sentences — which made his speech musically interesting to listen to but virtually impossible to understand. Example:  I asked him where he was living in Princeton.  “Near Macclefield,” he said.  I had never heard of Macclefield.  Eventually, he printed it out for me on a napkin.  He was trying to pronounce the name of a nearby shopping center:  “Market Fair.”

He had arrived in September and would go home the following September. He had entered the free tutoring program at the end of April — after seven months in Princeton.  “Why didn’t you sign up before?” I asked. He was ashamed of his English, he said.  “So why now?”  His supervisors at PPL had sent him; they couldn’t understand what he was saying about the work he was doing.  It turned out, after I asked, that he couldn’t really understand them, either. “So have you learned anything during your time here?”  Not very much, he admitted.  When I asked how that would affect his progress towards his doctorate  — which he expected to earn in China in May or June 2016 — he said it wouldn’t.  His year in Princeton didn’t count; it was just a way of getting a pre-paid year off in another culture.

I don’t think he initially came with such fraudulent intentions. He probably had actually thought he knew enough English to survive a year in an English-speaking university, and probably China did too, because they bankrolled the whole thing.  A Visiting Scholar is not enrolled at any level at Princeton and is not evaluated. He’s not a Princeton graduate student or a post-doc. He is simply an advanced student, working on a foreign doctorate, who is allowed to be at Princeton and to work for a year in his field under supervision, on recommendations from faculty in his own country. Li-li must have been an outstanding Physics doctoral candidate in China to have qualified as someone for whom his government was willing to pay transportation, Princeton tuition, and $1600 a month living expenses. (Princeton provided a room in a student house for $800 a month. Naturally, the other occupants of the house were Chinese.) But you cannot learn if you don’t understand the language.

I tried.  He had an iPad, which he could switch from Chinese to English. When we first met, he said he wanted to learn what he could because he hoped to return, after obtaining his doctorate, as a post doc, and post docs have to teach as well as do research. So I went beyond the parameters of the volunteer “job” description.  I invested hours on the Internet locating and printing out pages of consonant exercises for “r” and “l” and “s” and voiceless “th” and voiced “th” for him to practice between our meetings.  I found a lovely English lady on YouTube who spent fifteen minutes of Internet time on “lalalala” and “l” words.  I told him about wordreference.com. We located a thesaurus on his tablet. (These last two measures were intended to help enlarge his vocabulary.) When he came back the following week, he hadn’t practiced a thing and had even lost the websites I’d found for him.  I suggested viewing reruns of TV programs, listening to radio, speaking out in stores instead of pointing.  But he went on hanging out with Chinese grad students, Chinese post-docs, and other Chinese Visiting Scholars — and never spoke or listened to English at all, except with me.

He went to New York on weekends — with other Chinese.  He accompanied a Chinese friend on a scam of a bus tour run in Chinese for Chinese that used up seven hours on the road getting them to Niagara Falls (apparently a big deal for inland Chinese), where they had a morning on a boat for photo ops. Then more bus-riding to Boston, where they drove quickly past MIT and Harvard before getting on another boat for a half-hour tour of Boston Harbor and the waterfront.  Then back on the bus for seven hours more of looking at interstate highways. On his phone, he showed me small photographs of the Falls taken from a distance, of which he was very proud.

He was currently spending quite a bit of time studying for the knowledge test to get a New Jersey driver’s license. Then he would be able to learn to drive in the car of a Chinese friend and also pass the driving test before going home.  “What do you need a New Jersey driver’s license for in China?” I asked. He very haltingly tried to explain that if he had a New Jersey license to drive he could just exchange it for a Chinese one for a small fee.  But to learn to drive in China was 6000 yen, or about $1000.  And then it cost even more to actually get the license after you passed the Chinese test.

“But Li-li,” I said.  “What good is a Chinese driving license if you don’t have a car?  You’re still a student.”  It wasn’t going to be a problem, he assured me.  After he got his doctorate, he would get a job and in a few months of savings have enough for a car.  “New?  Or used?” I asked. “Oh new,” he assured me.  Everyone he knew bought new.  Poor Li-li.  He didn’t know I remembered everything he’d ever said, or tried to say.

I put early loose talk about heart-felt hopes for a post-doc in America together with later revelations of his clear intention to buy a new car in China — which he would be licensed to drive — as soon after he got a job as he could.  To this I added (1) his disinclination to follow through on any suggestion or any result of internet research I had offered; (2) the cost of parking in the garage every week; (3) the value of my volunteer preparation time and time with him in a mutual agony of incomprehension; (4) and the fact that Princeton in the afternoon was getting very hot and would get hotter as we moved into summer — and suddenly decided I had had enough.

I sort of liked Li-li, despite really not knowing him at all.  But whatever his original intention had been when he applied for a year in America, he had soon seen that not much learning was going to happen, given the state of his English, and (it seemed to me) had begun to use his time at PPL as a sort of cover for just hanging out with his countrymen in a foreign culture, thereby occupying space and consuming teaching time that Princeton could have offered to another — and ripping off the Chinese government as well.

I emailed an SOS to Fred.  He knew exactly what to do.  Here’s the responsive email he sent me:

Hi Nina:
Sometimes it happens and it’s not your fault. I suggest you tell him that unexpected new plans will require you to be away for extended periods of time for the foreseeable future and you can no longer continue tutoring — and perhaps I can find another tutor for him. After you do that, let me
know. If he contacts me again I shall unfortunately not have another tutor available who can tutor during the summer months. Probably this is best: no hard feelings.

Thank you for your gallant efforts!  It wasn’t a failure on your part.  Frankly I don’t care to assist someone trying to rip off the systems on our  dime. Hopefully I can find a much better match for you come September. Have  a great summer.

Best regards,

Disappointed to learn I immediately followed Fred’s suggestion?  (Chicanery at an illustrious American university?) I’m disappointed in me, too.  But Li-li will survive the loss, and hopefully also pass his driving test, so that he goes home with something he didn’t have when he came. I mean, you have to draw the line somewhere.  Sauve qui peut.  (Save yourself if you can.) Or, less selfishly put, you can’t win ’em all.

Maybe, as Fred suggests, I’ll have better luck next time.



[I take no credit for what follows.  It’s part of a package of materials I was given last week after I volunteered to do one-on-one tutoring in English conversation for the Davis International Center at Princeton University. My international student for the next five months will be a visiting scholar from China, who has come to work at the Princeton Plasma Physics laboratory.

International students at the University must read and write English at an acceptable level or take a remedial course.  Being able to speak so that others can understand is something else.  And then there are the idioms!  I’m meeting my student for the first time later this morning, and so won’t know what his conversational problems may be until then.  In the meanwhile, however, here’s something for you to enjoy.  We anglophones are so lucky!]


I take it you already know

Of tough and bough and cough and dough?

Others may stumble but not you,

On hiccough, thorough, laugh and through.

Well done! And you wish, perhaps,

To learn of less familiar traps?

Beware of heard, a dreadful word

That looks like beard and sounds like bird,

And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead —

For goodness’ sake don’t call it “deed”!

Watch out for meat and great and threat

(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt.)

A moth is not a moth in mother

Nor both in bother, broth in brother,

And here is not a match for there

Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,

And then there’s dose and rose and lose —

Just look them up — and goose and choose,

And cork and work and card and ward

And font and front and word and sword,

And do and go and thwart and cart —

Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!

A dreadful language? Man alive!

I’d mastered it when I was five.

T.S.W. (Only the initials of writer are known)