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Teaching Topic Maps in Beijing

Posted in Technology, Personal on 2006-08-20 23:51

As I wrote in an earlier posting I was in Beijing to teach Topic Maps to the developers of a Chinese start-up. The details of their product are secret right now, but the experience of teaching Topic Maps in this environment is quite unique. This posting has been sitting around unpublished for a long time, and I just stumbled over it now, but decided to publish it.

The language barrier

The developers are a group of university students, most of which are a month away from their final exams. The biggest challenge in teaching them is really the language barrier. I usually manage to speak slowly and carefully, and illustrate everything with gestures, but when I get tired I fail, and lose the students (who are often too polite to point this out). Similarly, while they can read and understand English, this doesn't mean they can pronounce it. Often their efforts at speaking English seem as mangled as my Chinese must do to them. Bizarrely, the developer who is the best at speaking English has the least understanding of it, and vice versa.

The CEO of the start-up is well aware of this problem, and yesterday he gave them a DVD with My Fair Lady, a film based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. The play is about a poor London flower girl, who is trained to acquire upper class manners, which of course includes speaking with an upper class dialect. She therefore has to pronounce the sentence "The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain" 50 times every night. The poor developers are now not-so-subtly encouraged to do the same. They seem to find the problem (and the DVD) as funny as I do, even if it sometimes frustrates all parties involved when the same sentence has to be said four times before any meaning is communicated.

Despite these difficulties, however, we managed to cover days one and two of the standard Ontopia course in one day. Day three (the tolog course), however, took an entire day, and it turned out that one of the biggest problems was explaining the exercises! The exercises all consist of a statement of the problem in English (such as "find all people who were born the same place they died"), to be translated into tolog. These short and snappy English problem statements just created confusion, and so for every exercise I had to walk carefully through the problem. The solution they could mostly work out for themselves, as soon as the problem was communicated.

Other problems

Interestingly, politeness raises another barrier to communication. To the students I am the great foreign teacher, and they take great care to be polite and deferential. This is pleasant when it comes to fetching water and plugging in the power cable for me. However, on day four the first exercise was to study two example files and learn about how they worked from just playing around. The students spent 10 minutes in front of their computers before I asked how they were getting on. They then sheepishly had to admit they had no idea what they were supposed to be doing. My interpretation is that they were too polite to point out that I had utterly failed to explain what they were meant to do.

I found some of the problems they had both surprising (at the time, less so in retrospect) and interesting. Most western non-technical people struggle with punctuation (commas, quotes, curly braces, etc), but the Chinese developers seemed to have little trouble with these. Instead, they would misspell keywords ("form" instead of "from", "oder" instead "order") and identifiers. Foreign-looking identifiers (like "mascagni") could be a real challenge. One of them, while flipping back and forth between the slides and his code, had to try four times before he could copy this name (presumably because it's Italian).

Some of the exercises also caused problems because of a lack of cultural context. One exercise asks the students to figure out what is wrong with a query, and the problem is that in the city column of the result there are also some theatres. Well, it turns out that for Chinese developers it's not really obvious that something is wrong when a long list of partly obscure European cities contains the names of French and Italian theatres in French and Italian...

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