Korea will never speak good English
Not if it keeps up the ridiculous charade that it calls English education.
I worked in two kids’ English hagwons in Korea between 2003 and mid-2004. The first one was a complete joke, seeming to teach the kids nothing, but at that point I was so green and frankly bad at teaching that I had no right to complain. Like a modern day English teaching Groucho Marx, I would not want to work at any school that would have had me as a teacher at that time. The next school had two operations going. The morning kindergarten was basically four hours of English immersion and got great results. The afternoon elementary ed portion of the school was the same old farce. Kids learned from colorful, content light textbooks that seemed to teach the same basic English grammar and vocabulary over and over again. It was sisyphean: the kids never ever seemed to get ahead, they just kept learning and relearning the same fractured, incomplete subset of the English language, constantly reaffirming and reinforcing their own bad habits and the wrongheaded approach to language study that they were being sold.
My next job was an adult conversation school. It wasn’t much better, but at least the students were paying their own money (usually) and thus if they were lazy, didn’t study and failed to learn it was their own laziness bringing them down and they disappointed only themselves. My favorite thing about that job was watching the process of my students coming to terms with their own laziness and imperfection: at first cursing themselves when they’d skip a class, then justifying it with excuses, and finally admitting that yes, they were doomed to never muster the will to learn something whose benefits were as abstract as English, but oh, if only they knew the secret to good English, wouldn’t that be grand.
My next two jobs were teaching kids, but in the first case it was at a full English immersion kindergarten in Japan, and in the second case I was running the school. The curriculum, the tone of the school, the punishments were all chosen by me and my wife Miyoung, and the school ran like a clock. We felt that the cultural experience of learning from a foreigner trumped the English that I could teach them. We had a strict behavior code and English-only policy for the kids, while I used Korean to engage the kids, answer complex questions, and teach grammar. It was, in short, a great school.
I picked up a three day fill-in job this week because I had nothing better to do. The job was teaching after-school English classes in an elementary school. Basically a hagwon without a physical plant, I was supposed to teach with a Korean ‘coteacher’ I was told that even though I’m fluent in Korean, I must not speak any Korean, which was fine with me but definitely a first. When I arrived the first day, plenty early ‘to prepare’ I found my coteacher basically sitting around talking on her phone and kids running wild all over the class. It appeared that respect for the regular foreign teacher was practically nonexistent, as when I attempted to read a book with the kids before class they delighted themselves in nearly poking my eyes out and screaming at the top of their lungs into my ears. I took the singular opportunity to give my trademark speech in Korean
‘Look, I may be a foreigner but I am not an animal. I am a teacher just like all your other teachers and I expect respect just like all your other teachers. Would you poke your math teacher in the eye? would you scream in your history teacher’s ears?’
The speech had its intended effect, as it nearly always does, the kids, properly chastised, were reminded of the proper way to treat a teacher and expressed regret. Just when I had them where I needed them to be, my coteacher pipes in.
‘Don’t speak Korean in class.’ I realize that her English is quite bad.
‘I don’t want to speak Korean, but I had to tell the kids that so they would stop treating me like a toy and start respecting me. And it worked.’
‘You just tell me and I will say in Korean.’
Now I’m angry. ‘You were standing next to me the whole time these kids were yelling in my ears and waving their fingers in my eyes.’ Now I’m waving my finger in her face. ‘And you said nothing. So I will speak Korean if you can’t help me control these kids.’
After this she seemed chastised and genuinely sorry. I almost felt sorry for her. I got the impression that she actually thought that she was doing what was in the kids’ best interest, and she just had no freaking clue. The first class was the youngest, and I kept it just barely under control. My coteacher spent about five minutes checking homework and the rest of the class staring out the window or sending text messages. She did nothing to help me in any way. My attempts to engage her in the class (‘Oh, Ms. Yun, looks like Robert isn’t writing in his workbook!’) had no effect whatsoever. Before the class she had told me to prepare by reading the teacher’s edition of the text, which I did. At the point where the teacher’s book said to play the tape, I looked at Ms. Yun. Surely she’d prepared the tape before class, during her ample prep time. She looked at me with a look of shock. ‘We don’t use the tape.’
‘Well then how do you do the songs in the book?’
‘It’s hard to find the songs on the tape so teacher usually sings the songs.’
‘Well I have a weak throat so I won’t be singing the songs.’ Now I am really mad. If preparing for this class means taking a cursory glance at the teacher’s book and not using tapes and not making copies and not planning activities and not making flashcards and not preparing games, then why was the company that sent me on this job telling me to arrive an hour before class to prepare? She told me she’d find the song, and proceeded to hunt through the tape for it with the volume on full blast while I attempted to teach the class.
I found the complete lack of discipline, preparation, insight into the process of learning a foreign language, use of any method other than straight repetition, and complete dependence on the teacher’s improvisational skills disgusting. It jarred me that a woman who spoke next to no English could get a job as an English teacher which involved essentially doing nothing but assigning and checking homework and, I assume, making sure that the foreign teacher doesn’t get high or speak Korean.
I felt horrible as I watched kids not learning English. For example, I would read from the book ‘Sabina held up the mattress and the bus stopped slowly.’ (don’t ask what these kids were reading). I sat by and explained and explained what this meant while listening to the kids asking each other in Korean what the sentence means and being totally wrong, and not being corrected at all by me and presumably not by their regular English teacher, and definitely not by Ms. Yun, who was out of the room at this point on an important phone call.
So I applaud any effort to teach school in English here, because the way things are going now, the next generation is going to be just like the last one, a bunch of non-English speakers who think there’s something wrong with them because they’ve studied English for years and still can’t speak it worth a damn.