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.

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