Sunday, July 01, 2007


All About Neil

In the Seventh-day Adventist Language Institute of South Korea, teachers encounter many students who frustrate them: young people who almost never study, who frequently come late, and who take advantage of a system that allows them to miss class as many as seven times. We understand that they have university classes and sometimes work that also bids for their time, but we can’t comprehend their apparent belief that English can be learned through the osmotic transfer of information.

Periodically, though, we encounter those whose dedication is inspiring, even if their actual ability leaves much to be desired.

When I think of students like these, Neil will probably always be foremost in my mind. As a 40-something computer software company employee in Chuncheon, Neil started attempting to learn English later in life than most others. Also, he lived in a small town, as opposed to the national hub of Seoul, where English is heard more commonly.

Neil attempted to compensate for his disadvantages through as much immersion in the language as he could attain. In addition to having perfect attendance at his 7 a.m. class nearly every term, he has also taken part every evening in our religion classes, which are a kind of workshop we that exposes them to English through Bible stories.

He also goes to our church nearly every weekend to talk to other students and teachers. Outside of class, he studies for two or three hours every evening.

His first term in studying with SDA was in July-August, which was also not long after I came to Chuncheon as a teacher. On a Saturday afternoon near the end of August, some of the students and church members made plans to go bowling that night, and I was told that Neil would transport us there in his van. As confirmation, I asked him, “Will you drive to the bowling alley?”

He looked back at me as though he were some manner of hooved mammal caught in the headlights of a Hyundai Entourage. As I often do with beginning students, I had to resort to pantomime, first by making an under-sweeping motion with my right arm, then pointing to him and gripping and imaginary round object utilized for steering.

“Bowling … tonight … you … drive?” I said, clearly enunciating with each gesture.

“Oh, okay!” he said. “Yes.”

Virtually every student who makes an effort not to go over our absence limit passes level one, as do most in level two. This is done to give them encouragement, and at least expose them to conversation practice and their teacher’s voice. Unfortunately for many students, from levels three-six we must grade by ability, and not necessarily by diligence.

In level three, Neil’s teacher was Pieter, a former South African minister who speaks multiple languages himself. Among the ideas Pieter had for his class was that they would take a vocabulary test every day, in order to prove that they could write correct sentences. In that same term, he also attended my religion class in the evening.

“He tries very hard but I don’t think he’s going to make it,” Pieter said of Neil one evening early in the term.

However, during those two months, a noticeable change took place in him. He has always said very little, but by this time he could understand nearly every word of English that was spoken to him. Pieter told me that although his sentences often came out broken, he wrote his daily vocabulary tests almost perfectly each time. As such, Pieter was conflicted about whether or not to pass him.

Ultimately, when Neil failed the final exam his teacher chose to repeat him in level three. His amount of effort did not change, however. For the next four months, he came to his morning and evening classes without fail and was a consistent presence in our church. I eventually moved to Seoul to write and edit textbooks, but at the end of April I received word that Neil was going to pass level three after six months of trying.

I visited Chuncheon just before May, and saw him in the institute church. As soon as he saw me he came over to say hello.

“How are you?” I asked.

“I am fine.”

“And how is your English?”

“Oh,” he said, shaking his head. “I am very difficult.”

Those of us who have taught him can at least take consolation in the fact that he said “difficult,” and not “hard.”

Many people study a second language to get a better job. Sometimes, it’s to make friends you wouldn’t be able to communicate with otherwise. Other people want to travel easily in places where their own language isn’t spoken. There’s also the most noble reason of all: because your Korean girlfriend wants you to.

However, there are many benefits to trying something new that people rarely think about. Neil has found kind of home at the Chuncheon institute, and befriended many students and teachers. While starting a new language is more complicated at his age, these new relationships would be harder — in some cases, impossible — without the knowledge he has gained.

While studying Korea, it’s hard to see the progress at times. However, periodically I can see that I’ve advanced from where I was just months ago. I know I’ve already learned some useful phrases in the language. For example, Choneun mani oh-ryo-eun (translation: “I am really difficult”).

Hard as it may be, it’s good to have someone like Neil to look to for inspiration.

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