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Interview with Soo Win "Winnie" Kho

Kho, Soo Win "Winnie"
Cloniger, Catherine
Date of Interview: 
overcoming obstacles; relationships with people and places
Soo Win "Winnie"Kho talks about her education and her experiences with assessments.
Charlotte Narrative and Conversation Collection
Collection Description: 
Catherine Cloniger interviews Charlotteans to collect stories for a class project at UNC Charlotte.
Interview Audio: 
CC (Catherine Cloniger): This is Catherine Cloniger. The date is February 4, 2003. And I'm interviewing Winnie Kho, Soo Win Kho. Um, Winnie, I just want to remind you that the purpose of the interview is to ask you some questions about, uh, language assessment in your home country of Singapore and in the United States, where you've spent 12 years. So, um, how are you?
SK (Soo Win Kho): I'm fine, fine.
CC: [Laugh] OK. Um, since you were born in Singapore, um, you told me that you began learning, uh, English in kindergarten?
SK: Yes.
CC: Did you learn in, um, English classes or were you immersed in the language?
SK: I was immersed in the language.
CC: Uh, did you, did you have any kinds of English classes to supplement your immersion, or was it, did you just pick up English from the, the teacher's use of English?
SK: Yeah, I just picked up English from my teacher's use of English.
CC: What, what, uh, other language classes did you have as a child?
SK: Um, in kindergarten it was just mostly English but at home I spoke, uh, what is it called? Mandarin and Indonesian with my parents. And then, um, because um, I went to like, an English-educated school. I went to convent, um, um, school for girls from kindergarten up to like secondary two.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: Um, and it was all English-based. So, ah, but I had, um, classes in Chinese classes. I had to take Chinese classes. But all the other classes like, you know, you take history and like sciences, they were all taught in English.
SK: And then we had English class, too to talk about grammar and all that stuff.
CC: OK. And did you ever take any other foreign languages while you were in Singapore?
SK: Um, I took some Japanese classes on the side at night 'cause my mom, you know, thought that was very, very useful. But I never stuck with it. I didn't really formally take, um, Japanese classes until I went to Wellesley.
SK: Um, until college.
CC: OK, and, um, how did, when you were in your language classes, whether it was in Chinese classes that were for grammar or English classes, how did you feel about the classes? Did you enjoy them?
SK: Uh, it was, yeah I did. But the thing is that it was more of a necessity, you know, to learn like, you know, English. You didn't really feel like you were learning because, you know, the thing is because English is very much used in Singapore, you know.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: It's, uh, everyone speaks English, etcetera. It's like, basically, the primary language in Singapore.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: But for Chinese, Chinese, yeah it was a little harder because the Chinese language, like the written form, there's no, like, characters. There's no, like, you know, alphabet.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: Each word is its own character, it's like its own picture, you know.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: So, you had to, ah, memorize what character or each picture looks like. It was just, it was just harder, you know, Chinese. But my mother, because my mother is Chinese-educated and all that stuff-.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: -She was able to help me, so um, it was, yeah, it was, uh, if you were to compare the study of both languages you would say that Chinese was harder.
CC: Because, even though you spoke it, you had to learn how to write it?
SK: Yeah, the writing part is, uh, is harder.
CC: What is it, since you've been educated in, in three countries I suppose, um, what was compared to, the education that I have probably had in this country, what was the education like, what was school like, especially in your language classes in Singapore?
SK: Um, I didn't see, see English, when you took like English class, it was not, I didn't see it as, like, a language class, because you just kind of felt as though you knew English already but the thing is, taking English class was just to polish it up.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: But, uh, more importantly it was like, learn the proper way of writing-.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: -Etcetera, you know.
CC: Uh-huh, the same way that native English speakers here would deal with having English class.
SK: Yeah, like how you would take it here.
CC: Right.
SK: It's to read little books and all that stuff.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: It's not like you learn the basics from them. It's not like how you would take French in this country, you know?
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: It's not like a completely new thing-.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: -And you have to learn everything from scratch, like the nouns, the verbs, and all that stuff.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: So it was, it was, English class was not like that, but Chinese class was not really like that, too, because, spoken-wise, I could, you know, I definitely knew what was going on. It's just the writing part was just harder because you had to memorize so many characters-.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: -You know, in just the writing.
CC: What were, um, in Chinese class, what were the tests like, the assessments like? How were you graded and assessed?
SK: The thing is, uh, most of the tests, uh, were writing. They were all in writing and the thing is, they would have these things called dictations, you know, to, to, to, to make sure that you understand, you memorized the characters or, you know, how to write the characters. Uh, basically, what would happen is that the teacher would like read a passage, and whatever she reads you have to write it down.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: You know, so the thing is if you don't know how to write that character down, then you are basically in hot soup [laugh].
CC: [Laugh] Because you can't sound it out.
SK: The dictation was, and sometimes she would throw us, like curveballs, you know, some characters you haven't learned before, you know what I mean?
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: So, so you always had to be on your toes. Um, and, uh, it was a lot of writing, and, and I would say in this country when you learn a foreign language, I don't know, at least in my school, when I took French and Japanese, uh, a lot of it was based on like, you know, you had personal, like, interview sessions with the teacher where they test out orally how you were speaking, you know.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: Whereas in Singapore, there was not, there was not much of that. Maybe it was, again, it's because it's known that you know how to speak Chinese and English over that whole, you know, around you.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: That's why the oral part's not stressed, whereas, you know, the written part is, you know, there, there, there is much more of a focus on that, in that area.
CC: Right.
SK: So it was mostly just tests. You just take tests, you know.
CC: How did you, how did you feel about the tests? Were they, did they bother you at all? Did they, uh, give you a sense of achievement?
SK: I guess, like, take a, like, see the thing is, or maybe it's like Asian education or something like that. You start taking tests very, very young. Like in grade one or, so, like, you, it's like, you know, very common to take tests. So the thing is you get used to it after some time.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: It's like how, like, the whole entire system is based. You know, like, you've got to learn it to make sure that you, you comprehended it like the fundamentals. You just, they test you.
SK: Yeah.
CC: And when you got to, uh, boarding school you went to Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts?
SK: Uh-huh.
CC: Um, was it there that you began taking French? Or was it not until-.
SK: Yeah.
CC: OK. And how, what were your experiences like in French class at Concord Academy?
SK: It was fun because if you look at, again, the differences between like Asian education, I guess, and like American education. And also it's maybe because I went to boarding school so the classes were really small, like the sizes of our class was, like, what? 10, 12 people.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: So you got a lot of attention from the teacher.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: And the teachers, like, ( ) my French teacher she was very animated, you know French people are.
CC: [Laugh]
SK: You know French people are very passionate and all that stuff. So it was very, very fun. You know, there was a lot of, what's it called? And so it was very, very interactive, too, in class, like, you know, you learn the basic stuff but the thing is that the teacher would try to explain to you in, you know, in fun ways, whereas, like, it's not, like, "Oh, just memorize this," etcetera, etcetera.
CC: Right.
SK: And, uh, it was fun, because, I mean, we started reading like things in very early stages. I took French in four years and like, you know, by the beginning of like the second year of French, Le Petit Prince and all that stuff.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: So it's like, you know, they start exposing you to, like, the different, not only the language and stuff but like the cultural-.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: Like, you'd watch movies and all that stuff. We'd read books, and we'd try different things-.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: -So that, you know, to show, you know, that the language is alive. It's not something that's dead, you know?
CC: Right.
SK: I thought that was very, very interesting.
CC: How were the, uh, how were the tests and assessments in, in that class?
SK: Tests were, uh, I mean, there was a lot of quizzes. You know, there was, you know, uh, you know, to test and make sure you know your vocabs, vocabularies and all of that stuff. There was quizzes, but there was also oral exams, you know, where you go in and you try to speak, what's it called? You know, French, with your professor, not, not, not like heavy-duty, like conversations, but, you know, like the basics, like, "Ça va bien, ça va," and all that stuff in the beginning. And then towards the end, uh, what would happen is, uh, you know, you would also, like, after watching a movie and all that stuff you play out certain parts like do skits, you know. And they give you a scene, and then you have to, like, partner with someone else in the skit and it was fun.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: I mean towards the later part of the French, like, you know, classes, like, you know, third year and fourth year you'd read books and then you'd have to start writing certain essays like very short essays and, um, the expectation is that you can, like, speak a little more.
CC: And how did you feel about these forms of, uh, assessments?
SK: I thought it was, uh, it was, I thought it was good because, uh, the thing is like, you know, as you get to a higher level of a language, it's a way to get deeper, you know what I mean? It's just-.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: You speak about language as kind of a, you know, you're building a house kind of. You lay down the foundation first, you know?
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: Like the piling and the floor and, you know, the structure and architecture and then comes, like the fancy stuff.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: You know, all the frou-frou stuff. So once, I think it's good because, it, it, it, it tries to challenge your creativity or like, your skill or how you execute the language. I thought that was pretty cool.
CC: How, uh, if you had been taking, um, if you had been in, um, in middle school or in high school in Singapore and had been taking French, do you think that, uh, those same forms of assessment would have been used? Or would it would have been, uh, heavily test and writing oriented?
SK: Uh, I think it most probably the, there would still be a lot of tests, and, uh, we should still be reading books and all that stuff. I think there won't, I don't know, I should talk to my second sister because she took French when she was in Singapore.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: And, uh, she says it was pretty good too, I mean, and she took French in, uh, what's it called? In a US high school.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: So the thing is, I didn't really ask her about the differences or anything like that, but the thing is, I would expect that it is less interactive in Singapore. More like memorization and all that stuff.
SK: I mean the fun part about French, in, uh, the US is we took a class trip together to France with the teacher.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: So that was very, very fun. And we had a treasure hunt in Paris.
CC: Oh.
SK: [Laugh] And, and then we explored Paris because we had to find things, certain clues, and all that stuff. And, uh, our French teacher made us speak in French because, you know, this is like the first time we were actually able to practice the language.
CC: Right.
SK: So it was very, very fun. And I think it's a good way to, uh, to, to, to to, to, uh-.
CC: See if you know what you think you know?
SK: [Laugh]
CC: What about when you got to Wellesley? You took, did you continue taking French there or did you start right into Japanese?
SK: No, I took Japanese because I'm like, "Oh, I should," because of, in terms, of an application, in Asia, it's more useful to know, like, you know, Japanese because it's more, it is the strongest economy there.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: So I took Japanese and taking language at Wellesley, I have to, in deference to them, they're really, really good.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: You know, like, the, the, the talk about interaction, this was taken to like, uh, even a higher degree. Basically we had Japanese every, single, day.
CC: [Laugh]
SK: It was not like the French people who only had it like twice a week.
CC: [Laugh] Yeah, that's about right.
SK: And we had it every single day, eight-thirty in the morning. And it was for about, uh, how long was it? About 50 minutes. One session is like 50 minutes as opposed to like 70 minutes at Wellesley. So the thing is, it was we had pop quizzes almost every single day. They weren't even "pop" anymore.
CC: [Laugh]
SK: And we had to go to the language lab every, single, day.
CC: [Laugh]
SK: It was very, very intense taking Japanese. That's why I would say, I mean Wellesley students when we went abroad to Japan, like we always, it's not only like, you know, my class, like me and my friends who went when we did study abroad in, um, Japan. I mean historically Wellesley students have always placed in the top one or two classes-.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: -You know, because our Japanese program is so intense.
CC: And how were the tests? You said that you had pop quizzes, did you have, uh, big exams also?
SK: Yeah, we had big exams too, and we had big oral exams too.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: Huge oral exams.
CC: How did you feel when you had to take those?
SK: I mean, uh, I can understand why you had to take them, because-.
CC: [Laugh]
SK: -Because the language is not dead, as I said, you know, you can write all you want, but the thing is that if you can't communicate verbally-.
CC: Right.
SK: -It's almost useless, you know. So the thing is that, it's good to test both oral and written.
CC: And did you feel that the tests you took prepared you, made you, um, review the material enough that you felt prepared when you arrived in Japan?
SK: Oh, yeah, I, I definitely felt as though, I mean the thing is, when you learn the language in class and when you go to the actual country itself there are all these differences, you know, like, just like, when, like, you took French, like, you know, the slangs that the French use and also when you go to different areas of the country-.
CC: Yeah.
SK: -People have different dialects. Like when I took Japanese, I went to Kyoto, which is the ancient capitol of Japan.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: You know they have, uh, a different dialect from the national, what's it called, Japanese, I mean, um, they still can understand each other but there's just certain nuances.
CC: Right.
SK: And the thing is, uh, you basically have to adjust, you know, and adapt. But mostly like what you learn in class is more of the formal type of, uh, language, and not really what the youngsters use today in Japan. And also like Japanese, the hard part too is, between Japanese, especially Japanese, is that they have this formal, honorary way of, they have different levels of Japanese, like, you know, like the type of Japanese that businesses use is completely different from the street language.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: You have to, for example, when you say, "You," you have to say, you can't say, "You," you have to say, "The Honorable You," you know?
CC: Like "vous" in French?
SK: Yeah, yeah, but the thing is taken to a higher level. You know and it's-.
CC: [Laugh] The honorable you [laugh].
SK: That's why, like, uh, what's it called, the like, huh, youngsters in Japan, when they enter the workforce, they have to, uh, start learning this thing called Kagal, which is the honorary type of Japanese.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: And then, uh, it's hard to adjust to, you know?
CC: When you were in Japan, did you also take language classes?
SK: Yeah, we had to.
CC: In Japanese only?
SK: Yeah, in Japanese.
CC: And how were they, compared to other language classes you'd taken?
SK: I mean, by the time we got to Japan, it was a lot of reading-.
CC: [Laugh]
SK: -Because the thing is, as I said before, you know, now that you've built the foundation-.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: -It's time to use it, you know. You've learned, kind of, a language, so now it's time to use it. So it was a lot of reading. We read essays, like, newspaper, and all that stuff. And I thought it was actually kind of boring because, you know, you kind of enjoy more the interactive side of it in class 'cause it was more fun.
CC: How were the tests, or in what ways were you assessed in Japan?
SK: I can't remember, what was it like? Basically, we didn't study that much. Study abroad you don't really study that much.
CC: [Laugh]
SK: It was, uh, it was written, it was definitely written, it's like they give you passages that you've never read before-.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: -And you'd have to read it and understand it, and you'd have to answer questions.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: She'll ask you questions about the passage, and you have to answer them, basically explain what you believe, you know. And then you also have to memorize certain characters and all that stuff.
CC: And did you feel prepared for those tests? Did you feel anxious at all, or did you feel ready for them?
SK: Yeah, I guess, yeah, I felt ready for them. Like, and the thing is that also Japanese borrows a lot of Chinese characters, you know. So I felt that the fact that I knew Chinese did give me an edge-.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: -In terms of memorizing characters, you know. It's not, like, complete hieroglyphics to me, you know what I mean?
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: So that was good.
CC: When you think back on the tests that you've taken, the, the language learning experiences that you've had, have there been any high stakes tests that you've had to take, uh, where, you know, your performance would dictate anything about your future? Or have they all been, either you haven't been anxious about them, or they haven't been that, uh, momentous?
SK: I haven't been, that answer, it was not like a deal-breaker, you know?
CC: Yeah.
SK: Like language is very important, especially in, like, the globalized economy today. It's good to know as many languages as possible, especially, like, languages like Spanish, or, you know, Chinese, and all that stuff. But the thing was not a deal-breaker because, you know, if you think again, like English is always, you know, English is, like, if there is a language in this world that is, like, you have to know, it'll be English. And I already know it. So the thing is, that it's not, learning things like Japanese, French, and all that stuff, is just like a "good-to-have but won't kill you" kind of a thing.
CC: Uh-huh. Did you have to take the TOEFL when you came to Wellesley?
SK: Um, yes.
CC: How was that?
SK: That was, it was a joke. [Laughter] It was a joke. They wanted me to take it because they were like, "OK, this is kind of like a second language for you, so let's just confirm," you know.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: So I did take the TOEFL, but it was, I thought it was a joke because, the thing is, I could, I was educated in English in Singapore, so it was not like it was-.
CC: So it wasn't hard for you at all?
SK: No. I think for a student who's taking English, seriously taking English as a second language, that, and they don't do well on it, I think that would be a deal-breaker, you know what I mean?
CC: Uh-huh, uh-huh.
SK: Especially if they're taking classes there that are taught in English.
CC: Right.
SK: Think about complete foreigners coming to this country, learning English, and to be able, and to need take classes in English. I think English, I mean, learning a language, from their perspective, is very much different from the way, you know, I take it.
CC: Yeah, so you had an edge-.
SK: Yeah.
CC: -In many senses. Um, one last question. Um, how do you feel now that you've been through a lot of schooling and, and taken a lot of language classes? How do you feel um, or how, how important do you think assessment is in a language class?
SK: Assessments?
CC: Assessments meaning tests basically, or any other form of-.
SK: I think it's very important because you need to know where you are, you know. It's, I think assessment in the written form and in the, uh, oral tests are very important, just to, for the teachers to gauge where you are.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: You know? And for you to see where you are, you know. 'Cause language, you know, yes there is a lot of natural talent but there is also a lot of hard work involved because you've got to memorize certain things like vocabulary, etcetera, etcetera.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: But in the beginning, I think, you know, assessment is important to make sure that the students like, you know, you know, uh, learn the fundamentals and all that stuff. But towards the end, you've established the foundation and all that stuff. I think, you know, tests are not as important. More important is stuff like, you know, having projects like being able to write papers, read books-.
CC: Uh-huh.
SK: -And all that stuff. I think that's more that, that, that, that, that, you know, the form of assessment should take that, that, that, that kind of a direction, once the person has reached some sort of advanced level in the language.
CC: Well, I completely agree. Completely. I completely agree. And I, I'm, uh, glad you were able to tell me about your experiences. And, um, so our recording will end here. Thank you, Winnie.
SK: No problem.