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Keeping a Cow

Practical Language Learning, Then and Now

When I was studying Chinese in northeast China in the early 1990s, one of my classmates got frustrated that the language we were getting from our textbooks wasn’t particularly useful to our everyday life. Keep in mind that, at the time, there were only a handful of Chinese language textbooks available, and they had been written in the 1970s and 1980s. We learned how to say things like “production brigade,” “comrade,” “ration coupons,” and “commune.” 

A classmate, tiring of these outdated topics and accompanying vocabulary, set out to write something for her classmates that would be more useful. This resulted in a textbook called A Year in the Life of an English Teacher. She compiled a list of situations that a foreign teacher might find him or herself in during the course of the year. Working with a language helper, she constructed dialogs and vocabulary lists. Topics included things like shopping in the market, ordering in a restaurant, buying train and/or plane tickets, going to the hospital, shopping for computer parts in Zhongguancun, and renewing a residence permit.

A few years ago, a friend of mine, while researching for a book about a missionary to China in the 1920s, stumbled upon a digitized version of a Chinese language textbook used by foreign missionaries working in Sichuan Province in the 1920s. It was titled, Chinese Lessons for First Year Students in West China, by Omar L. Kilborn.

A glance through the table of contents reveals some of the important situations that language learners needed to navigate in the 1920s.

Lesson 1: Conversation with a Teacher
Lesson 2: Hiring a Cook
Lesson 3: Hiring a Coolie
Lesson 4: Hiring a Woman Servant
Lesson 5: Giving the Cook His Orders
Lesson 6: Sweeping the Floor
Lesson 7: Washing the Floor
Lesson 8: Dusting
Lesson 9: Arranging the Furniture
Lesson 10: Piling Boxes
Lesson 11: Buying a Sedan Chair
Lesson 12: Sedan Chair Riding
Lesson 13: Travelling by Sedan Chair
Lesson 14: On the Road
Lesson 15: Changing Dollars
Lesson 16: Changing Silver

Lesson 17: Cleaning the Lamp
Lesson 18: Washing Dishes
Lesson 19: The Kitchen
Lesson 20: Setting the Table
Lesson 21: Putting the Food on the Table
Lesson 22: Cooking Eggs
Lesson 23: Cooking the Porridge
Lesson 24: Carrying a Letter
Lesson 25: Carrying a Lantern
Lesson 26: Buying Firewood
Lesson 27: Buying Coal
Lesson 28: Washing Clothes
Lesson 29: Ironing
Lesson 30: The Bedroom
Lesson 31: The Bathroom

And last, but not least…

Lesson 32: Keeping a Cow

Note: This is an adaptation of a post that first appeared on Joann Pittman’s personal blog Outside-In on August 28, 2014.

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Image credit: Image by Kadres from Pixabay
Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio

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