Friday, September 13, 2013

Please Understand Their Situation

The number of times I've heard "Please understand their situation" from my co-workers this year has reached nauseating proportions. This phrase is starting to feel like a get-out-of-jail-free-card except that there seems to be an infinite number of them rather than only two such cards in the deck. It doesn't seem to matter what the students do during lessons or how they behave, it's always excused with an automatic response to please understand their situation and understand how difficult it is to speak English. It's become tiresome and a cop-out.

If I were to say that mathematics is too difficult to study, and therefore I don't even try to do the exercises, the teacher would be standing over me cracking a whip; the same thing would happen if I said this about Korean or Korean history so why should I accept this response when I toughen up, put my foot down, and tell my students that they're being lazy by not even attempting to do the exercise? This question is apparently too complex for some people.

I was told earlier this week, after a particularly bad lesson, that my questions are too broad and too difficult. Apparently, expecting the students to know what a 'topic' is in relation to topic sentences, is unrealistic, and too complex and demanding of them. I was then told that nobody could understand why I was a bit annoyed with that particular class when they hadn't done anything wrong; the fact that they hadn't done the 'homework' (despite having had more than enough class time to finish it in the previous lesson when they slept instead of worked), carried on personal conversations for the first 5 minutes of the lesson after I had greeted them, took 10 minutes to settle down so that I could start the lesson, only started looking for their worksheets after they settled down and then proceeded to sit and stare at their desks or read other books instead of even attempting to do the homework that they hadn't finished was not sufficient reason to understand why I was annoyed and reprimanded the class for their poor behaviour.

Today, after asking a student if she could understand why her topic sentence (Students must throw away this idea of studying hard.) was not clear - a question that required nothing more than a yes/no answer, which she never gave - I was told to please understand her situation and not ask complicated questions. I'm still not quite sure which part of this question was complicated: The 'Yes' or the 'No.' I was also asked to understand that English is very difficult and that the students cannot speak fluently. This was my red flag.


I have never expected any second language speaker to speak English fluently in order to be understood. My very first lesson of the year - and something that is reiterated several times throughout the year - is that I don't expect them to speak fluently or write perfectly; I do, however, expect them to at least try.  And yes, I most certainly do get frustrated and exasperated when I am trying to help a student to improve and actually learn something, ask a simple question and get not even an acknowledgement of that question let alone the luxury of an actual reply.  How dare I expect a reply to a question; how dare I challenge my students to learn something new; how dare I actually attempt to teach them English.

I'm very lenient and very patient in lessons. I don't insist that Korean never be used in lessons. I don't shout at them when they're late or sleeping in class or doing other work during my lesson. I reprimand them, but I have always tried to do it softly and discreetly - until now. I spend hours every week providing written feedback on their journal writing - feedback that many of the students never seem to read or attempt to implement. I spend hours trying to make lessons as fun, engaging, relevant, useful and easy as possible so yes, it ticks me off a little more each time I have to listen to how hard it is to be a high school student or how all they do is study, how hard English is and that they'd be able to speak it fluently if they had the luxury of studying abroad, and how learning a second language is too difficult.

As a linguist - and one who specialises in how people acquire multiple languages - I understand what is involved in learning a language. Besides this, however, even if I weren't a linguist, Korean students are not the only ones in the world who have a mandatory second/foreign language at school. Koreans are not the only ones to learn English as a foreign language - hundreds of millions of people do this around the world and guess what: they somehow survive without the 'woe is me, my life is so hard' whine. I, and most of the ex-pats living in Korea, understand very well how difficult it is to express oneself in a foreign language: We do it every fecking day we live in Korea! These kids don't have to explain health problems or legal or financial issues in English; if we make the lessons any easier, they'll only be able to say, "Hello, how are you?" after 10 years of studying the language at school - sadly, this is all that many of them can do, and they seem to take a sort of pride in this limited knowledge. Don't they realise that the joke is one them?

English in Korea

Students have 10 years of mandatory English study at school. From Grade 3 of Elementary School, they have regular English lessons and many students attend private lessons, too. Granted, not everyone is interested in learning English and not everyone is going to be good at learning languages, but they're all capable of trying to learn the language. They're surrounded by English and finding English resources online is incredibly easy. I have met several people here who speak English fluently without ever having been abroad or having had private tuition. Their commonality is their desire to learn the language.

The kids here are spoiled and many of them have black belts in complaining. There are English movies constantly broadcast on television in addition to numerous educational shows. Schools have ridiculously high budgets for English and many foolishly spend this money on books and games that get locked away in a dusty and forgotten office, never to be used or seen again. Oftentimes, the books that are purchased are not even useful or an appropriate level (or interesting!) for the students. Complaining about how difficult English is seems easier than actually investing any sincere effort into making it relevant, interesting or - heaven forbid - useful. Instead, the Korean approach is Grammar-Translation and an attempt to bore them into submission and zombie status.

Grammar is memorised and applied in the most irrelevant, useless, impractical and confusing manner possible. Instead of a necessary tool for effective communication in the language, grammar and vocabulary are used as weapons to discourage students. While there are many tricks to improve your language skills, memorising grammar answers and words out of context are not among them. Spending hours memorising vocabulary lists achieves nothing more than spending hours on a useless task. Finally, giving the instructions - and even some answers - in Korean is not an English test. After four years of studying a language, it is quite reasonable to expect students to be able to read instructions in the target language. If the powers-that-be feel that this is too difficult, then surely that should be the equivalent of a big, hairy, naked guy in a trench coat running up to you and flashing you in the street. You should be sufficiently shocked into taking the necessary steps to change the situation.

Please Understand

But, of course, what do I know about any of this. I'm just the person who has to give them a grade, asks complicated questions that involve yes/no answers, expect students to at least try to apply the language they've been studying for 8 years already and have little patience for students who are sleeping in class because they were up until 3am playing games online or on their phones. Perhaps I understand their situation more than I should, so I'd like to ask them to understand mine:
  • I understand that it's easier to complain about things than try to improve the situation.
  • I understand that whining and complaining about things doesn't change them.
  • I understand that language takes time to learn and master. I've never expected anyone to learn a language overnight.
  • I understand that learning a language takes actual work. Living in a country that speaks the target language, while certainly a big advantage, doesn't guarantee fluency and automatic acquisition of the language. If it did, I'd be fluent in Korean.
  • I understand that I teach high school students and that their role at this stage in their lives is to study while at school.
  • I understand that I'm their teacher and that my job is to teach my students - not play games and babysit them.
  • I understand that the Korean education system has MANY problems and flaws. However, foreign teachers are not responsible for this. Koreans are the ones who can change things.
  • I understand that I work extremely hard to deliver my best work possible and I expect the same of my co-workers and students.
  • I understand that many people are incredibly lazy, but that doesn't mean that I have to lower my standards to meet yours down below.
  • I understand that Korean students - and even many adults - are extremely short-sighted, ignorant and egocentric.
  • I understand what is considered to be polite and impolite in Korean culture. I also understand that if I'm making an effort to be polite in your culture, you should be extending me the same courtesy.  

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