Sunday, November 25, 2007


Teaching the Teacher a Thing or Two

It was a Thursday night in my Korean language class at Seoul National University. Like every other week, we had each been partnered with one other classmate and required to produce a script, written in Korean, and then act it out for the rest of the class to watch.

However, this week was atypical, in that we had no class on Monday because of a national holiday. This gave us a little more time to work on our role-plays, but the unfortunate side-effect was that we had two classes in a row on Thursdays.

On Mondays, our instructor was always teacher Chae, a young woman who embodies many of the endearing characteristics of today’s Korean female: bilingual, pleasant and scared of pigeons.

If it were teacher Chae’s duty to assign us our partners for the role-play, she would always gave us the last 10-15 minutes of class to work on our script so that we could spend the next few days memorizing it. If we were to perform in her class, she would give us about five minutes to practice it first.

But with no Monday class, we both received and enacted our assignment under the watch of teacher Hahm, a man in his early 40s who wasn’t in the habit of giving us time to either prepare or practice our scripts in his class.

Therefore, after using e-mail to communicate with my partner for a day or two as to what we wanted to say, then spending a little more time translating that into accurate Korean, we had one or maybe two days to actually remember all the words.

So, I did my best to mentally tie each sentence in our script to a series of forceful gestures and exclamations, but there was no time for me and Daniel, a graduate school student from Switzerland, to actually work together beforehand.

When it came time to perform, my name was called first, perhaps because, in my over-exuberance to register for Korean language classes my name ended up first on our attendance record.

During our enactment, I would pretend to be asleep, until Daniel came into our classroom and told me that it was time to wake up complete my chores for the day. We would then compare and contrast our schedules for that day, with me ultimately concluding that his was better.

I remembered many of the important things, such as to: A) portray the requisite amount of bewilderment that befits someone who is asking questions like, “What time is it?” and “What day is it?” and B) appear thoughtful and contemplative while speaking, thus disguising the time required to translate English thoughts into the Korean spoken word.

Under pressure, with the whole class watching, I had considerably more difficulty remembering some other critical details, such as A) the suffix that identifies the topic noun, B) the suffix that corresponds with the subject noun, C) the suffix that matches with the object noun, and D) why the Korean people hate me so much that they had to spend years thinking of ways to beset me with this suffix onslaught.

Every time our role-plays end, I hear my classmates’ light applause. We always applaud in a less than thunderous way for our classmates presentations, signifying that we know something interesting was just portrayed, even if we lack the comprehension skills necessary to discern what that something precisely was.

Each time, I head back to my seat, waiting for my teacher’s constructive criticism. On this occasion, 50 percent of my expectations were met.

“Robert, I like your acting,” teacher Hahm says, “I like it more than your Korean.”

I recognize his method: sarcasm is a useful tool when talking to presidents, people who want to be president, and regular folks who insist on sharing “insights” which one apparently achieves after completing an MTO (Master of the Obvious) degree. However, any good performer knows that if you use too much sarcasm too soon you won’t have an audience left.

In fact, teacher Hahm’s remark triggers a rush of memories: the times he pointed at what an obviously confused student was working on and said, without a trace of pity, “Wrong again!”; the times he said “Oh, several mistakes!” with all the relish of a tabby cat descending upon a wounded mouse.

“I really don’t like him sometimes,” I confided to Daniel.

“Yeah, me neither,” he responded.

We are, of course, Westerners visiting his country, and if this was the environment his generation learned in we ought to understand that. However, shouldn’t he understand that our teachers don’t talk to us that way, at least not when we’re obviously trying to learn?

Until I could think of a way to make this clear to him, all I could do was sit, stew and listen to his lectures. Then, as if in an answer to a prayer I hadn’t yet offered, he began telling us how to address someone who knows “many informations.”

Upon hearing him say this, I couldn’t wait for the break we would take after the first hour of class was completed, and not just because they serve snacks in the hallway. I may not be able to explain the complexities of intercultural norms and how they relate to the teaching of second languages, but I could certainly make him remember how hard it is to learn a foreign tongue in the first place.

“’A lot of information,’” I said as I approached his desk. He responded by staring at me, blankly..

“It’s not ‘many informations,’” I expounded, “because all the information that a person has is contained in a single unit.”

“Oh,” he said, nodding while his imperious demeanor seemed to shrink before my eyes. We discussed grammar rules for a moment, then he thanked me and I said, “Any time,” clearly insinuating that I was always willing to “help.”

However, I never had to again, because he was a lot more sympathetic from then on. I hope any student of mine would do the same for me.

Hi Robert shi :)

I guess you registered for the 2n evening classes? Who is the teacher? I actually registered as well..but due to the final exams and my holiday schedule I wont take part. Might be next semester then.

The reason why i write here: Congratulations for winning the DAVIS CUP! And I am happy for Roddick least once that he can win something without facing Roger :)

take care and all the best on your korean studying

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