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A few weeks into teaching in the Philippines, I finally got the chance to give a writing assignment to my students at the Eastern Visayas State University. I wanted to know what they could write. I wanted to know what they could think. But most of all I wanted to fill up the final minutes of a class session which my co-teacher had sprung on me moments before students arrived. Their assignment was this:

Respond to one of the following questions. Please make your responses at least 20 words long.
1) Describe one thing you learned in class today
2) Ask me a question on any topic
3) Tell me something about yourself

My students dutifully took out their quarter sheets of paper (in the Philippines, teachers specify assignment length by page fractions) and set to work. Twenty minutes and forty furrowed brows later, I collected the responses.

I sat down to survey the literary landscape of these sixteen-to-twenty year olds majoring in Information Technology (which in the Philippines means you plan to work in a call center). And yes, the English teacher in me was quick to note that all of the responses contained grammatical errors.

But then something odd happened. Because when you move past that, when you realize that none of these errors affect comprehension, when you remember that for these students English is indeed a foreign language, well, you start to notice other stuff.

First, all the responses demonstrate a clear comprehension of the prompt. Well all except one, which I’ve got to share first for the sake how purely and inimitably bizarre it is:

Sir, do you have any idea about multi-level marketing? Can you be one of my friends? Can I ask you a favor that I can meet you in a certain place and talk about networking?
[Later, after class, this response was clarified when the author approached me and gave a spiel about the pyramid-scheme network marketing vitamin company he was working for.]

But as I read through the rest of the responses, I noted a few things. Like this: many responses showed abstract, hypothetical and/or interpretive reasoning. And so many belied an avid curiosity, particularly toward personal– in some cases, very personal–matters. Also: few or no responses involved self-expression. That is, no students had chosen to answer the question “Tell me some detail about your life.” Did this reveal some facet of the Filipino weltanschauung? Or did my students simply not understand the question? I still don’t know, but it sure got me thinking.

Here are the rest of the responses:

  • I learned today about, how to pronounce a word and how to make the proper way of saying it and the proper grammar, and a lot more.
  • I learned about the correct pronunciation of the different kind of words.
  • One thing I learned today is how to pronounced the words correctly, and how to use it in the sentence.
  • One thing that I learned today is how to pronounce the word, speak and I learned also to used it in a sentence.
  • If you are given a chance to become a regular teacher in the Philippines would you accept it or not? Why?
  • How do you know when u miss someone?
  • Is it really true that people always change after no many years in time?
  • Do you believe that there are no accidents in life?
  • You told us lately that you came from California. Did you hear the song “California Girls” by Katty Pery? Do the things she says in her song are all true about a Californian girl?
  • Did you enjoy staying here in the Philippines?
  • Are you enjoying the Filipino people teaching with them?
  • What was your greatest achievement in life?
  • As the years pass by and you are good model to people. What is your unforgettable moment in your life.
  • At your age, why is that so, that you are not married yet? What kind of attitude of a girl do you like?
  • Do you sing and dance? Have you ever been involved in any musical presentation in your schooldays?
  • Have you ever been in love to a Filipina? What is your account in Facebook? HAHAHAHA!!! Where did you finished your studies in college?
  • What can you say about the way we act in your teaching this afternoon? Give one culture in the United States.
  • What made you decide to be a Peace Corp volunteer? Do you really enjoy what you are doing?
  • What can you say about our Filipino culture? What is your ideal woman? What advices can you give to improve our English grammar?