Thursday, February 07, 2008


This is Only a Test

The final test at each level of Seoul National University’s Korean language program consists of written, reading, listening and speaking portions.

The listening portion is multiple-choice and requires students to select the correct answer to a question recorded on CD.

Because said answers are written for us, it requires students to do nothing more taxing than to use ink to produce a millimeter-wide circular shape around the letter representing the best answer.

The difficulty increases during reading test, which takes actual Korean sentences that an actual Korean might say (if he/she were talking to a 10-year-old or someone hard of hearing) and leaves a single word blank. The student knows that the word which belongs in the blank is supposed to mean “health” and must then decide which two-syllable word utilizing the “-ng” consonant means “health,” and not “idea” or “problem.”

The difficulty increases yet again for the writing test, which requires us to write the correct response to certain questions or requests, for example: “Introduce your family using at least four sentences.”

Now, the student has already done this successfully, waaaaaay back in Unit 1, which was, oh, about two months ago and required the help of no less than two helpful native speakers of the language. Having not done it since then and having no helpful native speaker to consult with, the student tries his best to reconstruct his prior answer from memory. His answer goes something like this:

“Our family United States lives in. Five people in our family there are. Our father (sequence of syllables which if, all goes well, means “plumber,” if it doesn’t go as well, means absolutely nothing, and if it goes badly mean “anti-constipation medication”) is. Our mother nurse is. My older sister Betsy nurse is. My older sister Kathy (again, collection of syllables, this time hopefully meaning “housewife,” and hopefully not meaning “rickets”) is. Love family I do.”

Then, finally, the difficulty level is again ratcheted upward, considerably higher this time, as the student begins the speaking test. The Korean teacher sits across the table, points at words and instructs him to say them aloud while she checks his pronunciation.

Maybe the sentence means “I am going to the movie theater tomorrow.” Then again, maybe it means, “I hunt Darfur refugees for sport”; since it’s a pronunciation test the meaning is irrelevant. The sound of the Korean teacher’s voice saying these words plays in his brain as clearly as an MP3. All he needs to do is force that sounds down from his brain and through his vocal cords.

However, the vocal cords are in a mischievous mood.

“Let’s wait until he reaches the last syllable, and then let’s stop working altogether for a couple of seconds!” they say in whatever chemical signals vocal cords use to communicate with one another. “He thinks he’s nervous now, but just wait after we pull that little number! The sweat glands are gonna love this!”

The Korean teacher then asks the student a serious of questions, all the while pointing to the sheet in front of the student indicating which grammar rule he should use. All goes well until the last question, which requires that he use a suffix to combine two sentences using action verbs into a single one.

“What did you do yesterday?” the teacher asks.

“I studied a lot,” the student replies.

“You’re supposed to combine two sentences,” she says.

The students looks at the paper which shows a formula he should, in theory, be able to use in order to merge two sentences into one. It appears somewhat vague to him, but then again, equations were never his strong suit.

“I … don’t know,” he says. The student, if he is, in fact, someone who has spent the last two years teaching English to Koreans, is suddenly able to recollect the facial expressions some of his students have shown him.

These faces followed questions that seemed, in his mind, rather simple, such as, “Do you like mountain climbing?”, but the response of his students seemed more appropriate had he asked them to explain the Theory of Relativity using a metaphor involving a Coniferous tree.

He can very clearly remember a struggling student of his who, near the end of his class, was asked, “What foreign language would you like to learn?”

The reply he received ought to be remembered and reflected upon by ESL teachers as long as “E” is an “SL” being taught anywhere:

“I don’t want to any other language!” he proclaimed. “I like Korean.” (It sounds even better if you pronounce it “language-y”, the way many of this teacher’s students do.)

This English teacher who is also a Korean student is jarred from recollections by the voice of his Korean instructor, who says, in an encouraging, but firm voice: “Just … combine two sentences.”

“I studied a lot … and slept.”

“Okay, good,” she says. She then reviews his pronunciation and grammar scores and tells him that he did a great, terrific, and wonderful job except for about a half-dozen times she can pinpoint when he was merely good.

Long after she has finished explaining and said goodbye (in the cheerful manner that the university probably requires her to speak in), he is left thinking: What will I do if I didn’t pass? Even if I did pass, did I really deserve to? How will I respond to my own students when they give me the same “deer caught in the headlights of a foreign language and about to become roadkill on the highway of job preparation” facial expression that I just had on my face?

All of these are questions that will be addressed at a later date. Until then, one thought takes precedence: I’m going to order the hottest drink I can find. My vocal cords must be punished.

Comments: Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]