Saturday, February 24, 2007


No habla el idioma

Since I started teaching English in Korea, I’ve lost track of how many times students have asked me, “What is the best way to learn a foreign language?” At this point in my teaching career it has become my staple response to pause thoughtfully for a moment before saying “Study for a certain amount of time and then try living in that country for awhile.”

I say this because I have the suspicion that it might be true and because it is my job to serve as a source of motivation for my students, and I think these words are considerably more inspiring than the actual truth, which is: I have no idea how to learn a foreign language.

I certainly had my opportunities, however. By the time I entered high school in 1994 two semesters of a foreign language were required of those American high-schoolers who wanted to move on to their choice of a four-year institution of higher education where they could drink copiously and sleep in for four years while they’re parents paid the rent.

In eighth grade I was told that I would have the choice of studying Latin, French or Spanish when I arrived in high school. I can’t remember exactly what I was thinking at the time, but I probably knew that Latin was studied primarily by those in the fields of medicine, engineering and other labish professions which were as appealing to me as a weekend of waterboarding. Also, there really isn’t any part of the world where it is essential to know how to ask “Is this a traditional greeting in your country, or are you trying to steal my wallet?” in Latin.

French, on the other hand, is more widely spoken, but has the decided disadvantage of being spoken primarily by French people. Therefore, I chose Spanish as the language I would “learn.”

I am using quotation marks with “learn” because I, like most of the other males who were soon to be the torch carriers of their generation, spent most of the time in class using the English-Spanish dictionary to look up words/phrases that aren’t fit for polite conversation.

So, during two years of Spanish class, I learned how to count, learned the alphabet, learned about trivia from South American countries, and picked up the occasional phrase that I found useful at the time, such as “Esta clase carece espíritu práctico.” When those two years were over, I moved on to pursuits that I found more worthwhile, such as pushing my CD collection into triple digits and endeavoring toward my long-term goal of having a date with an actual girl.

Within a few years, I was a sophomore at Southern Adventist University seeking a bachelor of arts in journalism, when I discovered that two semesters of a foreign language were required at the intermediate level. I looked to my advisor for guidance, not only because he was a former television reporter who had a master’s degree in our field, but also because he had the cynicism and the addiction to caffeinated beverages that all good newsmen must possess.

As the lights of the office reflected in the blond hue of his teeth, he told me that he had taken two semesters of intermediate German. However, he didn’t advise me to do the same because, he said, it wouldn’t be useful in my future career. To its credit, the German language could make a midget with a helium addiction sound strapping even while saying “Meine Lieblingsblume ist das Stiefmütterchen**” but it’s not as though scores of Berliners are arriving by raft to take construction jobs in Tennessee.

So, I enrolled in a community college during the summer to take a beginner’s Spanish class to brush up on my skills. Soon, I remembered the alphabet, remembered how to count, and learned lots of new trivia about South American countries while picking up some more useful phrases, such as “Esta clase es inadecuada para aprender conversación verdadera.***” I got an A in the class, and prepared to take an intermediate course in the fall of my junior year.

At Southern Adventist University, my intermediate Spanish class was taught by a very serious-looking man from one of the more obscure South American countries. He could speak English quite well; he just wouldn’t allow us to do so. My high school education had taught me a few things, such as how to survive on a lunch with no actual nutrients, how to dress in a way that put me at odds with neither the stoners nor the jocks, and how to quickly change the subject whenever dating life was discussed among my peers. One thing I had not learned was good study habits; I just coasted by on what I learned in class.

By junior year of college, I had already learned that the coasting methodology would net me a C for some classes, but Spanish was different. If I came unprepared every day, not only would my grade be unimpressive, but I’d get embarrassed every time the serious-looking South American man called on me. Faced with a choice, I thought of great leaders in history such as Lincoln, or Alexander the Great and then, considering their example, I dropped the class and switched to a bachelor of science.

After a year-and-a-half of teaching Koreans, who sacrifice their youth in institutes after school, hoping to learn enough about English, Chinese characters and computer software programs to gain entry-level jobs, I often reflect upon how easily I gave up my chance to become bilingual.

Parents today shouldn’t let their high school and college-aged children make the same mistake. Learning a new language is a gateway to having new career choices and meeting new people. Also, there is a lot of fun trivia to be learned about South American countries.

I just can’t remember any of it right now.

*“This class lacks practicality.”
**”My favorite flower is the pansy.”
***“This class is inadequate for learning real conversation.”

Monday, February 19, 2007


Learnin' Korean Kids Ain't Easy

I could summarize a big part of my experience in Korea with a simple question/answer joke: “What’s shiny and silver and looks good on Korean children?”

The punch line to this joke would be, of course, “Duct tape.”

However, I should explain myself more thoroughly, rather than make harsh dismissals of one entire age demographic of a particular nationality. I will tell you, however, that one day in the recent past, maybe the last couple of decades, there was a South Korean who came up with a plan. I assume that he expressed his idea to his colleagues in Hangul, their native language, but I’m going to translate the jist of his scheme into English for you now.

Also, I’m going to give him a Southern American accent, because I believe it best conveys the intellectual merits of his plan.

“Hey ya’ll! I got me a idea! Let’s take us some foreigners who cain’t speak our language here, and put ‘em in a classroom fulla hootin’ an’ hollerin’ school kids and have ‘em teach some English! Y’know, the kids don’t know ‘nuff English to understand what that foreigner’d be tellin’ ‘em ta do, and the foreigner don’t know ‘nuff of our language to understand when the kids’d be cussin’ at ‘em, but that just plum don’t matter! We gotta learn them kids!”

And so was born the idea of after-school English institutes for children in Korea. I really have no memory of this aspect of the job being pitched to me when I took interest in teaching in this country, but nonetheless, since my arrival I have found myself spending at least two hours each day with children, in addition to the four or five hours of adults I teach. The experience has been, in a word, hoarsening.

First of all, a little background on the program. In 2000, Korean parents spent the equivalent of $7 billion on hagwons, or private institutes to supplement their children’s education after school. Children in Korea attend hagwons for math, music, computers, Chinese, and, in the way that most directly affects my life, English.

They start when the children are in kindergarten, while their equivalent-aged counterparts in English-speaking countries are learning to spell “Dick and Jane.” At these institutes, they learn the alphabet, they learn to sing in English, and they learn to say “kitten” when the teacher shows them a picture of a pre-pubescent feline. One thing they never seem to learn is how to not have audible conversation for at least 1.4 seconds while the foreigner is trying to teach them the difference between “duckling” and “chick.”

They usually continue participating in the program for several years. Here at the SDA institute, the students are divided into about seven basic levels, with at least three different sublevels they must take for two months at a time. A Korean teacher is responsible for the classroom, but a foreigner will enter three different classes in the course of an hour for 15 minutes at a time.

Each time, he or she will say, “Hi everybody!”, and the children will say “Hello” with varying levels of enthusiasm. Then the foreigner will ask them, “How are you today?” and, depending on whether they have a test that afternoon, they will answer “I’m fine, thank you, and you?” or “I am very, very terrible.”

Through almost daily saturation, by the time they are 10 years old they will have learned how to ask questions such as “Are you joyful?” and “Where is he from?” They will also be able to give answers such as “Yes, I am” and “His from is England.” As you can see, their answers are often not, in the nit-picky sense, correct, but by now the foreigner is simply happy that the child is trying to answer, rather than saying “I don’t know” and hitting the child in the next seat with their pencil case.

By the time they reach the age of 13 or 14, the child is supposed to have started the beginnings of English conversation. So, when the foreigner asks them a question of opinion, they are supposed to answer and supply a reason for their choice. However, a kind of metamorphosis has taken place by this point: the children have had their enthusiasm flattened by the weight of carrying 12 or more hours of school every day and no longer have any desire to say much of anything in class, even in their own language.

So, each day the teacher asks them questions like, “What is your favorite movie?” and the student says something like, “My favorite movie is Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” The foreigner will then stare at them momentarily, before asking, “And why is that your favorite movie?” The student’s face will temporary assume the appearance of panic, before they finally add, “Because it is very … fun.”

In some ways the Korean education system is refreshing: literacy is nearly 100 percent and nearly all of them can name the three mini-kingdoms that existed in the centuries after Christ’s death, before the coming of the Joseon Dynasty. In America, we regularly read statistics which tell us that more than half of young adults don’t know where Canada is.

However, the back draws of a system in which children take classes and attend institutes, one after another, possibly until 10 p.m., shouldn’t be hard to imagine. If I have kids of my own someday, I know both American and Korean public school systems leave something to be desired. Also, it doesn’t seem like either one learns them perticulerly good English.

Friday, February 16, 2007


Memories of English that was...Not Good.

I was nearing the end of the conversation test on the topic of computers in my evening class. One of the two students sitting before me, a college student in his early 20s, was doing okay, while Hansen, his frequent conversation partner and friend since high school, was clearly struggling.

“JK,” I said, “please ask Hansen question number thirteen from lesson twelve.”

Looking at the back of his textbook, JK pondered the scrambled words with the missing articles and prepositions corresponding with the number 13 and then, with little difficulty, deciphered the intended inquiry: “Have you ever studied computer languages such as Java or C++?”

Hansen appeared blank momentarily, before finally replying, “No, I didn’t.” I made a mental note: Too short of an answer; wrong verb tense and made plans to subtract points from his grade.

I then gestured to Hansen to inform him that it was his turn to ask JK a third and final question. “Number nineteen,” I said.

He stared blankly at the paper, and I knew I’d have to walk him through it. He’d get no points for asking the question correctly, but I felt it important that his partner answer a difficult question before he left my desk and returned to join the rest of the class, who were seated in conversation practice.

“What would you think …” I began, and Hansen repeated after me, “ … about a job … where you had to … work with computers … all day long?”

Hansen finished the question and we waited for a reply. I watched as JK, who had been cool and collected throughout the test, suddenly grew wide-eyed and began to stare out the window next to my desk.

“I think it’s not good …” he paused as if to add emphasis, before clinching his declaration with: “… my body.”

I stopped to contemplate this sentence for a moment: “I think it’s not good … my body.” I knew that Korean students struggle heavily with prepositions, and they generally substitute the word “body” to mean “physical well-being,” so maybe he was saying, “I think it wouldn’t be good for my health.”

Or was he saying, “My body is not good?” I suppose I should have pointed out his mistake and made him elaborate, but I was unable, because of the snicker which had seized me in its grasp like an epileptic fit.

“Okay, you can go,” I said as I covered my face with my hand, trembling as I sought to contain the natural expression of my amusement. Apparently, they had not heard me clearly, because they were still sitting in the same place, rapt by my rapidly reddening face.

“You can go now,” I reiterated, but still they did not move. “Please go!” I said, this time pointing at the other students, who were beginning to turn their heads my way. They finally left, and I buried my face in the books on my desk, hoping to regain my composure before the next students took the test.

One of the greatest obstacles English teachers in Korea must overcome in their students is what is known as “Konglish.” Konglish occurs when students Koreanize their English. In pronunciation, l is often confused with r (“I usually eat lice with various side-dishes for breakfast”) and almost never used in combination with another consonant (“Poke is illegal in Saudi Arabia”).

Konglish also occurs when they use a word in the wrong context (“Did you make a girlfriend in Seoul?” or “All Koreans have black eyes”) and misapply adjectives (“I didn’t like that book because it made me very boring” or “Very little people in Korea use toasters”).

Others result from students’ limited knowledge of vocabulary. For example, a large number of women in Korea are deathly terrified of pigeons. I had wondered if it was because they are seen as carriers of disease, if they are considered pests, or if women in Asia had been subjected to an immodest amount of Hitchcock flicks.

So, I sought enlightenment from one of my female students on the subject. Her answer was, “Birds feet are very … not good.”

It’s a bit harder to pinpoint the reasons for other instances of Konglish. For example, in January, when I asked some students to write down their New Year’s resolution, one of them wrote: “I wanted to waste my body because I was more and more fatting.” Recycling is very popular in Korea; it’s actually mandatory in cases of paper and plastic, but that’s one thing I’m pretty sure you can’t get back.

I won’t always be an English teacher, and there are some things about the job I won’t miss. I don’t like it when failing students beg me to pass them even though they’ve been absent from my class 10 times. I don’t like telling students who have obviously studied hard that they can’t graduate simply because they’re speaking ability isn’t good enough yet. I am particularly not fond of finishing classes at 9 p.m. every night and then have to start teaching again at 7 a.m. the next morning.

However, in what other job can you inform the people you work with that you are suffering from the effects of a cold, and have one of them send you a text message later that reads, “I hope to recover your feel & body!”

My job is to correct sentences like that, but I often wish I didn’t have to.

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