What Students Know, What Teachers Don't
ESL teaching is half guesswork. For the native speaker in a foreign land, it can be difficult to predict what the students already know. This problem is particularly acerbated in Korea, as so many words enter the Korean language through adapted homophones. One of my first lessons was a class I copied from an ESL website – a 'make your own pizza' sheet. It included a word search, a vocabulary scramble and a 'design your own pizza' square where students drew their dream pizzas. A good lesson, I thought, that should fill the time admirably.
It took the students about twenty minutes. You see, when you order a pizza in Korean you are essentially speaking English – most of the ingredients are transliterated (cheese is 치즈 [chi-ju], pepperoni is 페퍼로니 [peh-pe-ro-ni]) and the menu uses transliterated English terms to characterise the pizzas (barbeque, supreme) even though there are Korean equivalents available. Couple this with the students' prior experience with time-wasting English games (mostly likely taught from an early age by other native speakers) and it meant I had a lot of bored kids on my hands.
The flip side of this equation can prove more difficult. Another early class I ran was called 'avoiding nice' (another downloaded worksheet) in which the students had to use adjectives other than 'nice' to describe a list of arbitrary nouns. It was a complete, cringe-inducing failure. After eliciting a blackboard worth of adjectives the children knew, students would rush through the sheet putting the same three or four adjectives in the spaces provided as I screamed at them to stop. Students would finish the sheet in a minute, lie slumped on their desks and complain: “Teacher! Bored.” Internally, I pondered how much of my foot I could fit into their throat without their face exploding.
The problem was systemic. From my point of view, the lesson plan was about exercising an already known vocabulary in the correct grammatical way. From the students point of view, it was about filling the gaps with a certain sort of word. We were playing a game with language, except we both had different rule sets.
Dreaming of the Multiple Lamppost
Wittengenstein defined language as a game with a near infinite number of moves restricted and defined by the finite number of given rules. The rules of the game give the board (context), markers (speech) and players (speakers) meaning despite the endless permutations of the game. His definition was designed to give meaning to any specific utterance (conversation) by eschewing it as a subjective, constructive process. Everytime you talk you talk with someone for some tangible reason – in other words, you play a sort of game. Academic debate? Verbal chess. Keeping secrets from a friend? Spoken Jenga. Flirting with a stranger? Go Fish. Some games are predictable, some are not, but each is played using a different set of similar rules.
Your crib or mine?
But there is another truth that underlies this. A truth that has made me appreciate what my job as an ESL teacher in Korea is. It came to me on the outside landing of a friend's apartment in Noksapyeong. I was bending the ear of a new friend of mine, Hyunsin, who had foolishly allowed me to pick her brains whilst I was desperately looking for the bottom of a pitcher of Cass Red (for those back home – 1.6 litres of 6.9% alcohol beer.) I had been thinking about this article for a while and wanted to ask her opinion of language acquisition and more specifically, probe her for an understanding of bilingualism. Hyunsin's parents were both Korean but she was born and spent the first thirteen years of her life in Germany. As a result, she can speak Korean, English and German fluently and also has smatterings of French, Swahili and Chinese.
As someone who reads a lot in translation, I was intrigued by the bilingual mind. I machine gunned her with what were, in hindsight, very dumb questions until she finally said something my lumbering mind could hang onto. It was a chill winter Saturday, and pointing down the twisted alley to a streetlamp choked with IP cables I asked her if she saw that post with the wires hanging from it in English, German or Korean. Was there a quality to the light that was best expressed in German? A way of evoking its rubber spiderwebs in the sensitive definitions of the Korean colour spectrum? But she said simply:
“I think of it in Korean because I'm in Korea. If I was in Germany I think I'd be thinking in German.” And that's when it came to me. Discussion between two speakers is a game – but language itself is a road. And a road has only one function – to connect otherwise isolated spaces.
Not pictured here: subtlety.
Highways, Back roads, Fire trails.
Today in class I taught the names of the planets alongside a video with their relative size. As part of the lesson I included a 'sentence scramble' – an activity designed to help the students reproduce correct sentences by giving them the building blocks of the sentence required. Thus far most students have been completely unable to complete the task. Why? Because the road isn't completed.
English as it is taught in Korea is a completely abstract knowledge. Students with low intelligence or poor motivation will boggle the minds of their foreign teachers by being unable to recognise basic English words that are plastered over shop fronts and signs everywhere. When one student didn't know what the Korean for 'noodle' was, I literally felt one half of my brain blister like heated paint. The English word 'noodle' is EVERYWHERE. At a rough guess, I'd say up to 185% of all noodle places in Korea have the word stencilled somewhere within.
English as it is taught here isn't used to communicate with other speakers of the language. Rather, English is used as an indicator of class or sophistication – the same way one might hang decapitated antlers in the parlour or a dried, twisted wreath of laurels over a door.
The equipment to build the road is supplied but it goes nowhere. There is simply no reason for Korean students to make a sentence because one: it is not required for their final exams (all of which are done in multiple choice) and two: because there is nothing you could wish to impart in the language that doesn't consist of verbs and nouns. If I ask my class, “How do you spell 'dictionary'?” No one answers. But if I say, “Dictionary. Spelling?” They will dutifully answer. The games of English that Korean students play are limited to algebraic substitution (gap fills and multiple choice) and banal word recognition puzzles (word searches and letter jumbles).
What the Job Is (part 2)
I was discussing bilingualism with a friend on mine who has recently moved to Mexico with his Chilean girlfriend. He commented that the most difficult problem is “the trap of translation” - that of converting the target language (in ESL terms, the L2) into the native tongue (the L1) and then back again. Imagine a triangle with 'English' at the bottom corner, 'Korean' at the bottom right and 'translation' at the top point – it is a ludicrous method and can only be overcome with practice and patience. As my friend went on to write in his email:
“Knowing the English word for 'auto' in Mexico is not necessary or relevant - all that matters is the word that Mexicans use. And, again, knowledge of the English word is not actually necessary to understand the concept.”
The word itself and not the idea of the word. But here is where this whole festering mess come to rest – 'the word that Mexicans use'. My friend is still learning enough Spanish to immediately communicate his needs to other Mexicans, but because he is living with someone he can converse with in Spanish, and because there are so many other people who can engage him in Spanish, he will be able to communicate with Mexicans much easier than my students can communicate with me. The English of my students is played in the classroom and for tests. The Spanish my friend learns is the game of the lost tourist.
Learn the plural form of 'Rape' in fifteen new languages!
In my last article, I talked about how isolating this job is, and how the avowed claims of 'language fluency' were actually a lie – but I never realised how completely this job was isolating myself from my target skill. Put in a situation where they can only communicate in English, the students are bullied and baffled by a strange looking guy whose arms swing wildly and eyes flash like hornet's wings. On the most basic of levels our job is to be AN ENGLISH SPEAKER. We are not educators in the truest sense of the word – we are cultural immunisations.
This is not the fault of the Korean education system – they are doing their best to institutionalise a foreign language in their native country. But the concept of language that they are dealing with is irrevocably flawed. While it is possible to teach abstract skill sets without specific goals in sight, the elements of a language are informed by countless interactions which both parties' need to willingly enter into. Imagine teaching soccer by reading the rule book to a classroom – the students could not play soccer, they could only emulate the rules. Similarly, the majority of my Korean students cannot speak English though they have massive vocabularies and an impressive knowledge of grammar.
I have begun to feel that my classes should have no explicit grammatical goals, nor do they follow a trajectory of knowledge. My classes are becoming more like my own tastes – strange things riddled with non-sequiters and wonderous, useless marvels. My best recent lessons have been about dinosaurs, the solar system and how to draw anime. Internally I hope that these useless lessons begin to destabilise the image of English as a drab, dead thing. It would be no use to teach poetry to the kids – they couldn't understand it. But to learn the names of the planets as they spin in a silent void? To raise my voice as they watch a video that relatively scales the earth to the sun and the sun to the biggest stars we can see? That's fun. And what's more, it's a game they might learn to like.
Daniel East is a curse word in 12 languages.