I am currently (finally) reading “The Koreans” by Michael Breen. It is an interesting and well-written book though it feels quite dated at times. They tell me it was revised and updated in 2004 but it still has the faint scent of the 90’s. Not a bad read.
Wading through history, generalizations, cultural insights, riveting stories, and interesting ideas I stumbled across something that caught my attention, made something click, and forced me to let out an audible “Wow!”
Breen was detailing the testing
madness culture in South Korea and wrote:
One occasional problem which reveals a weakness in the tendency to see knowledge as a matter of black and white, occurs when there might actually be two right answers. For example, is Hamlet a waverer, a prince, a rock star or a cigar? In the English section of the exam in the past, there have occasionally been two possible right answers to a question but the markers accept only one. For many years, high school English text books had the phrase ‘as possible as I can’, a mistake for ‘as much as I can’ or ‘as much as possible’. If it ever came up in the university entrance exam, a fluent English speaker had to remember to use the wrong phrase. (page 67)
Wow! I have been working in Korea for around 8 years in total and I had always assumed this was simply a transfer error. Maybe it is or was but the fact that this transfer error become accepted, ingrained, and finally demanded as “the correct” answer strikes me as both intriguing and telling. The 10+ times in various classes I mentioned how “as possible as I can” is not really English as I know it came flooding back to me. Inquisitive, surprised, and appreciative nods from students was the response I recall.
My mind then drifted to World Englishes and wondered about the possibility of “as possible as I can” being accepted as part of a Korean variety of English.
I was then reminded of another expression that I have focused on in class quite a bit: You’d better.
When I hear “You’d better” is sort of sounds like a threat. There seems to be an implication of “or else.”** I don’t think this is something I say very often. I might say, “I’d better” or “We’d better” but “You’d better” seems like a step too far, as step too aggressive.
As an English teacher I usually feel it’s part of my duty to share with students the possible implications of using this expression. I don’t want to be too heavy-handed and say “You’d better not say you’d better” but I do want to share how I feel when I hear it and how it might sound to others. I also like to share alternatives like, “It might be better if….” or “I think you should…” or “You could consider…”
Nothing too controversial or linguistic imperialist too far, then?
When I think about “you’d better” I often think about a participant on a training course a few years back. Zeke was a nice enough guy and was a bit of a free thinker or dreamer. By my estimation Zeke wasn’t so into the whole being a participant on a teacher training course situation which can surely happen when it’s not always voluntary. I also feel Zeke was also of a certain age and experience level and was not so accustomed to following directions but was much more used to giving them. On the training course in question Zeke was the oldest. Eldest. Eldest male. In Korea this is a thing. Anyway, every day the course participants did practice teaching followed by a feedback session.** Nearly every day, (after perhaps not observing the lesson in as much detail as trainers might have hoped) Zeke would tell his fellow participants what “they’d better do” next time. The trainer (a dear friend and colleague) continually reminded Zeke about how this might sound (in addition to highlighting the impact of just continually doling out suggestions willy-nilly). Zeke would nod and then do the same thing the next day.
I think this is much more interesting than just another story about a recalcitrant ajosshi training course participant. The other participants had no problem with Zeke’s use of English. They thought that was the normal way of sharing suggestions. They just took it as advice. (Whether they agreed with or followed his judgments and pronouncements is another issue). This is fascinating stuff. So, the American trainer is telling a Korean course participant that his use of English might be offensive to his fellow participants. But it wasn’t! They didn’t seem to mind, notice or care.
This is where things get a bit murky for me. My understanding is that the training course was conducted in English because that was the language in common between trainers and trainees. It was not, I repeat not, an English course. It was instead a teacher training course that happened to be conducted in English. I don’t think my friend the trainer was wrong or out of line to mention the implications of the “you’d better” business but it sure does make me think.
If something is inappropriate or off to us “native speakers” but is taken in a completely different way by the people doing the listening how important is it to intervene? Part of me thinks the comments were valuable because the knowledge of this expression might spread to other English teachers who might teach expressions that sound more polite and prevent potential rudeness and bad vibes for a generation of Korean students. Another part of me thinks that if such an expression has a different meaning to and between the people using it then maybe we don’t need to do anything. Perhaps just raising awareness with a quick mention and leaving it be? What do you think?
Confessions, Truths, and half-truths
*The story of my friend first arriving in Japan and being told that “he’d better” buy the Sony VHS player instead of the other options always comes to mind. He bought the Sony but wondered for years what sort of dire consequences might have befallen him had he chosen the Panasonic.
**In the interests of full disclosure I should say that I wasn’t actually even working with Zeke at these exact moments so there might be some elements of fiction here. His real name was not Zeke either.