For the Koreans, English is deliberate; they have to think about it when they use it. For native-speakers of English, it’s natural; we don’t have to think about it when we use it (but it might help if we did). Koreans must struggle endlessly with English, and this is why it belongs to them as much as it belongs to us.
Mastering English for a Korean is difficult and never-ending, yet many Koreans master English. Many Koreans can discuss abstract and complex ideas with understanding and grace in English without ever having studied with a native-speaker of English, or ever having lived abroad in an English-speaking nation.
In infancy and early childhood, Korean children don’t hear English spoken in their every-day lives to the extent that they would acquire it naturally. In today’s Korea, different than in the past, many parents send their children to private language institutes as early as four and five years old so they can start learning English as soon as possible. Having never heard English before, the children first must learn how English works before they can begin to understand and use it. They learn about English from teachers who are themselves Koreans, who first learned English as teenagers from teachers who were also Koreans, and those teachers learned English when there were few native-speakers of English teaching in Korea (most of whom were with the Peace Corps in those days). Back then, if Koreans wanted to learn English, they had to teach it to themselves.
These days at the language institutes in Korea, children typically work with teachers who are native-speakers of English for a couple of hours a day. Away from their institutes, though, the children don’t have much occasion to use English, so if they really want to learn it, they still must teach it to themselves, just as the Koreans of their grandparents’ generation did.
My one and only language is American English. By contrast, all of the Korean students I work with are fluent in at least two languages: their native Korean, and English. Many are also good with Japanese or Chinese, or frequently both, and many of these students study other languages too. Most native-speakers of English have never learned a foreign language, and of those who have, few are as fluent with their other languages as the Koreans are with English. I studied Latin for nine years in high school and college but I was never fluent with it. I could, though, carry on a few conversational snippets in Spanish with the growing number of people from Mexico who now live and work in the United States. Of course, I never needed to learn Spanish, or any foreign language, other than as a flourish, and even here in Korea, I don’t really need to learn Korean. In fact, it’s desirable to my university that I don’t, for they hired me to speak and teach and write in English. The Mexican immigrants in the United States, on the other hand, must learn English as best they can and quickly if they are to have any hope of achieving economic equality in America.
I stopped studying Latin after university. The Korean students, though, will have to stick with English for the rest of their lives, for they cannot afford to let it lapse, because in their time, the world won’t let them.
Since I can only speak English, the classes I teach might as well be in the United States, except that they are in Korea. It is much less expensive and more practical to bring teachers from America, Ireland, England, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to Korea, than it is to send countless thousands of Korean students to these other countries just so they can enhance their English. In the university classes I teach, I work with twenty to thirty Korean students, all of whom are much more accomplished with languages than I am, for they can work with me in English, but I can’t work with them at all in Korean.
As with most native-speakers of English, I am no match for the university students when it comes to knowing the parts of speech or parsing sentences in English, so there is no point in me teaching them English grammar. Students don’t need to perform scripted dialogues in front of me, either. Though many of them maintain that scripts help them improve their English, these same students tell me they don’t need a native-speaker of English to help them practice with scripts, even for pronunciation, which they can get from CDs or download from the internet without any difficulty.
From my earliest years teaching in Korea, I noticed there were always students in class who were moving their lips, whispering to themselves the words I was saying. (I never saw any students do this when I was teaching back home in the United States, but they were native-speakers of English, just as I am.) When I asked the students why they moved their lips along with me, they said that it helps them get the English vocalizations right. They call this mimicking technique shadowing, and from what I understand, they learn about shadowing from other students or from Koreans who teach at language institutes or who teach at public schools.
I learn more from students than they learn from me, and it should always be this way. The main task of the teacher, whatever the subject, is to help the students learn how to learn, and if the teacher is not learning, the students won’t learn either, because teachers can’t teach what they themselves don’t do.
I like talking with the students such that we are all thinking on our feet at the same time. I like asking them questions and listening to their responses (and I like answering their questions too). I like listening to them talk about their impressions of China and Europe, and I’m especially interested in listening to what they think about America. I like them to talk about Korea, its history, its customs, its heroes, its famous landmarks, and it’s mountains. I am not so concerned that they get the words exactly right, or if their pronunciation is perfect (my pronunciation of English is certainly not perfect) and I don’t make a big deal about the occasional awkwardness that slips into their English. This happens even with the most learned Koreans (and even with the most learned native-speakers of English).
What I am interested in is that the students can think in English, that they learn and gain insight from what they read and hear in English, and that they are able to make intelligent and well thought-out responses in English while not being stymied by the small and insignificant mistakes they will sometimes make. Rather than dictate to the students how they should speak in English, I explain to them how native-speakers might say something, so that they can figure out how they can best use English for themselves. It seems contrary to restrain students with strict guidelines about how they should or shouldn’t speak and write in English. We native-speakers of English, after all, use countless different ways to say almost everything, and who of us could say there is one and only one way that is right? The important thing for the students (and for everybody, really) is that their listeners and readers understand them.
Prescribing how students should or shouldn’t use English not only doesn’t help them learn the language, it will ensure that they won’t. To tell them what to say, what not to say, or how not to say it, will turn them away from exploring the real possibilities of this new language they’re trying to master, and this will stop them from discovering how far they can really go with English.
I read aloud the stories and essays we work with in class. The students follow along with the readings and listen to my pronunciation, intonation, rhythm, and other characteristics of my native-speaking American voice. (I implore them to bring their tape recorders and MP3’s so they can listen again and again after class.) I explain the nuances of difficult words that they won’t find in their electronic dictionaries, and I discuss the idioms they would find impossible to understand without the help of a native-speaker of English.
Next, the students and I talk about the ideas, values, conflicts, and resolutions in the stories and essays. We talk about what is good, what is bad, what might be better, what could be worse, and how things might be different in the circumstances posed by the readings. I want the students to put language to its highest uses in my classes, and through our discussions in English, I try to show them that talking about the stories and essays is a good way to understand the world.
I know the world through English, while the Koreans know English through Korean. Koreans will tell you — in English — how proud they are of King Sejong (1397 – 1450 CE) and his great achievement in creating their written language, Hangul. Many Koreans will also tell you that they learned Hangul from their mothers long before they started school. I like to imagine that their mothers learned Hangul from their mothers, and that their mothers learned it from their mothers, and that the line goes all the way back to those mothers who first learned Hangul from King Sejong himself. All things spring from Hangul for the Koreans, even English.
Since a person cannot be intelligently fluent in a language unless she-or-he is able to decently write with it, Korean students have need of cultivating the craft of writing in English (and they will do this if they make writing in English a daily habit). Writing is always difficult. It’s still a struggle for me to write, and I know I’m not alone. In a writing class, a Korean student once wrote that for her, writing is like chiseling words out of hard stone. Even Hemingway found it difficult to write, so why should the students and I find it easy? Still, it’s worth all the effort it takes to become a good writer. To struggle with pens and pencils, trying to put their ideas on paper so that readers can easily understand them, helps student writers think carefully.
People write so that others might read their writing.
The students write three or four times a semester in my classes. They bring their pens, pencils, and electronic dictionaries to class; I supply the paper. They write about topics we have studied and discussed for the three or four weeks leading up to the writing day. They have two hours in class to write and finish their work. Typically, their papers are between four and five hundred words long. In their papers, there are the awkward sentences they will inevitably write, but these are few. For the most part, the papers are readable and interesting, and considering that the students write their papers in a foreign language under the duress of a time limit, this is no small feat. I can’t imagine that many American students could do much better, even in English, and this is no put-down of the American students. It’s just that to write an essay in class is never easy for anybody, no matter what the language is.
Few students at even the best universities in America (or anywhere, really) are great writers in their freshman year, for becoming a good writer — even in one’s own language — is daunting. Yet writing well in a foreign language gives a person command of that language that a native-speaker who doesn’t write at all will never have. For a Korean to write well in English is a true test of mastery.
The job of the writer is to keep the readers reading.
Whether the teaching is done in English or in Korean — or in any language — the most important thing a teacher can do is to inspire and help students strive to meet the highest standards possible. The real purpose of an education is to enable people to live effective lives in which they will use their knowledge and wisdom for the benefit of all. Gaining competence in English is not just so that the students can pass an English proficiency examination as a graduation requirement. As the world language, English has become a window to the sciences, business, law, medicine, engineering, as well as to new fields such as nanotechnology and robotics. During their lives, all of our students must continually rely on English so they can work to the best of their abilities, and even exceed them. Mastering English, then, does have practical uses for the students in that it will help them live full and valuable lives. The world in their time will move faster and become more complex than any of us alive right now can imagine — including them. Whatever work they choose to do with their lives, they will have to use English to do it.
Recently, a college student mentioned to me that she wasn’t sure if she knew the best methods for learning English, and then she said that she really wasn’t sure that she knew English well. She said that in her dozen or so years studying English, she has tried every technique she has come across, and even made up a few of her own. She has read hundreds of books written in English (serious books too), she has seen countless movies (most of them several times), she has actively engaged Westerners in conversations at every opportunity, she still meets a couple of times a month with a group of her friends at coffee shops and restaurants where they speak nothing but English with each other for two or three hours or more, and she continues to write in English in a journal three or four times a week. Still, she has great doubt that she has yet mastered English.
While she talked about what she perceives as her poor ability in English, it struck me that she was talking in the idiomatic English of a well-educated American.
She has never lived outside of Korea.
An earlier version of this story was published in THE KOREA TIMES, on September 29, 2010.