Sunday, November 13, 2005


The Importance of Doing English

Before I came to South Korea, I was confidant that I spoke English good.
I was, after all, a professional journalist, as well as a graduate English student. I had an annual salary that any number of housewives might envy, and with my regular yearly raises my intake was due to catch up with the entry level earnings of a high school teacher sometime before they say Social Security will go bankrupt.
However, it was never about the money, or the groupies. It wasn’t even about the respect that you can hear in people’s voices when they referred to our profession — the tone of voice they would use when they gave my field the credit for everything from Iraq and same-sex unions to Jennifer Aniston’s marital woes.
No, I enjoyed my job because I was a professional wordsmith, proudly carrying the banner for suitable sentence structures in an era where many view catchphrases by Larry the Cable Guy as articulate thoughts.
I began to think that perhaps my vaunted vernacular would veer from its narrow path early in my term as a missionary teacher when I first told my class, “There will be a pronunciation test tomorrow” and was met with puzzled looks.
This required a more delicate approach: “Uhm, test … tomorrow … please, uh, come.”
The trick to speaking a language fluently is the same as with many other disciplines: find those who can challenge you and those you can learn from. In that regard, the institute environment is ideal for the Korean students, academics and businessmen who comprise our classes. For one such as myself who sought to perpetually grow his grammar, the situation has been closer to attempting to engage a second-grade class in a debate over the works of Plato, or practicing a standup routine at a state funeral.
Case in point, the institute where I work pays a woman to clean the apartments where the teachers live. This woman and another lady from the institute took me to lunch one afternoon in my second week here, because apparently something in my living conditions inspired them to feed me.
We went to an Italian-style restaurant and shared a pizza and a bowl of pasta. We had discussed several topics, like the weather, the social life in our city and various bad spells emanating from my refrigerator. I am proud to say that I kept my head when we had a philosophical disagreement, namely, over whether the word English is, in fact, a verb.
“I can’t English,” one of the ladies said to the other.
“She can’t English,” this lady said to me.
The verdict: she can’t English, folks. I think that says it all.
I only share this to exorcise a few of my frustrations I’ve encountered during my adjustment. I want to assure you that I don’t look down on them; they have made a valiant effort to learn an entirely different system of words. My attempts at speaking Korean would be far more laughable, if I were to make such an effort. I occasionally pick up words and phrases that my students tell me to use, which I take on faith. So, it’s entirely possible that I’m attempting to say things like “Hello” or “I love you” and I’m actually telling a friend or member of my extended family that I am an elephant’s toenail.
There have been many interesting relationships formed during this time, and it’s worth it every time a student feels they can open up to my and say, “I don’t English.”

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