The Hadley School for the Blind has launched an innovative program of English language learning and empowerment which spans the Pacific Ocean. Hadley’s international branch is located in Fuzhou, China. In 2005 the principal of Hadley-China, Rongqiang Xia, contacted Hadley students and staff who spoke native English to see if they would like to teach Chinese Hadley students English over the internet. The native English speakers readily agreed, and an international program of empowerment, English learning, and friendship building has existed ever since.
Hadley-China students, support staff from Hadley-China, and native English speakers log onto a website at the same time. This means that Americans and Chinese have to coordinate time zones rather carefully, since China does not observe Daylight Savings. To further complicate matters, when it’s evening in the U.S., it’s the next morning in China.
The participants wear headsets with microphones. High-speed internet access allows them to speak and be heard by all others logged on. It’s like a free conference call.
The native English speaker teaches lessons on topics like holidays, customs, or English grammar. Beginning English learners practice pronunciation and speak simple sentences. More advanced English students read aloud interesting articles for the whole class and explain the more complicated words to the other students in a combination of Chinese and English. Students ask questions about English usage. Some particularly brave students even sing songs for the enjoyment of the group.
The Hadley-China support staff interpret between Chinese and English to prevent communication difficulties. They consult online, Chinese-English dictionaries. After the English lessons end, the native English speakers and the Hadley-China staff talk about the class and make suggestions for improvement.
About ten students log on per chatting session. These chats typically last one to two hours. Occasionally, slow internet connections make people’s voices choppy or difficult to understand. When that happens, the chat participants use Skype instead.
Hadley-China notifies its over 1,000 students of the chance to talk with native English speakers through the website in its newsletter. Of course, only students who have access to a computer with assistive technology and an internet connection may participate. Unfortunately, this means that the majority of students served by Hadley-China are unable to chat in English.
The benefits of the English chat are many. Chinese are still eager to learn English, because it remains the language of business. Chinese who are blind would like to get jobs in more diversified fields than the traditional massage. Therefore, the English chats play a large role in helping Chinese who are blind or visually impaired to become more competitive in the job market.
Hadley-China students gain more self-confidence as their English skills improve. They share stories about being blind with the English tutors, some of whom are blind themselves. One of the English students who participates regularly in the chats has passed the General Examination in Spoken English administered by Trinity College in London. This student will likely get a job in interpreting next year. Another of the Hadley-China students who logs onto the chat has recently been hired by a Chinese travel agency to translate some of their advertisements into English.
The cross-cultural friendships that are formed by Hadley-China students and the native English tutors are heart-warming, indeed. Students and tutors communicate privately on Skype as friends. Both of the current native English tutors have visited Principal Xia in Fuzhou, China since the chats began. Several of the Hadley-China students called one of the English tutors on her birthday and sang her Happy Birthday in English. The same tutor visited two of the Hadley-China students while in China recently.
As improved international communications make it easier for business and friendships to develop around the world, Hadley is at the forefront. Hadley continues to capitalize on the growing importance of the digital age. Hadley students from all areas of the globe can connect and learn from each other with programs such as this one.