You’d better read this post as possible as you can

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.

Breen's Koreans

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.



  1. Alan Tait (@alanmtait)

    I bet you’ll find loads of teachers have come across this dilemma. Wherever you teach, you’ll run into learners who can’t or won’t take teacher’s advice on usage.

    I suppose we often operate under the illusion that speaking to natives is the be-all-and-end-all of language use, that the whole world will always look to us natives as the gold standard of use and usage. And as you point out, that assumption often paints you into a corner. (Leaving aside the fact that use and usage often differ AMONG natives.)

    I think if we tell them anything, it has to be something like:

    In Britain (or wherever), that sounds too direct, too indirect, etc.

    For students hoping to use their English in a less clearly defined “international’ medium, all we can really train them to do is keep their ears open and notice how their interlocutors use English. Every learner wants simple instructions, but I don’t think we can honestly offer them.

    “The Koreans” sounds fascinating, by the way. Would there be a digital version, do you know?

    • mikecorea

      Hello Alan,

      Thanks very much for stopping by! As I just wrote to Chris, I think it can all get pretty confusing. I think your point about training Ss to keep their ears open and notice is about as good advice as there is. I also like simply saying how it sounds to us and letting them decide. As you say there were always be Ss who don’t take the teacher’s advice on usage.
      I also liked Breen’s point that the strong English user on the test in question had to remember to use what I would call the wrong form! Amazing.

      It reminds me of sometimes When I have a heavy usage focus class students are strongly told that the correct answers will be “according to Mike” (and not their grammar books or middle school English teachers.) After the lesson they can make their own decisions.

      Thanks for the exchange!

      ps- It doesn’t seem like there is a digital version of The Koreans (there probably should be). I can recommend Korea: The Impossible Country, which I am just starting (and is available for kindle)

  2. Chris Wilson

    Thought provoking as ever Mike. Personally, as I was reading you write “You’d better” I could see it as a threat (or else!) but I could see it as just very firm authoritative advice (perhaps after considering all the options or when there really is only one thing to do) “That cut looks nasty, you’d better go to the nurse.” type situation. Having said that a teach training feedback session would seem like it was too direct (then again maybe it reflects my lack of certainty in my opinions compared to his!) and so his use of it probably reflects the culture as you’ve said.

    The biggest reason I can see to intervene is to protect against issues of Miscommunication later on with Native speakers (or speakers whose culture is less direct). Perhaps an application of that for English as Lingua Franca would be to raise awareness of cultural norms in different culture groups so that a speaker would be prepared to be less direct with people from certain cultures and more direct with people from other cultures…though if both groups are being prepared to be more/less direct/use different cultural norms then it might just invalidate the whole point of the exercise…

    • mikecorea

      Cheers for the comments, Chris.

      I recall telling students I’d never say “you’d better” to my father (filial piety and all) unless it was an urgent situation (like the cut you mentioned).

      I like your thoughts on raising awareness of cultural norms.. and think this is a good way to go.

      I think this was a sort of a special case in that everyone one in the room except the trainer was Korean and a Korean L1 user.
      They were all English teachers but maybe not so likely to offer feedback in English to anyone native teachers in their schools. All the rest of the feedback in their life would thus be done in Korean. All very confusing..thanks for sharing in the confusion and helping me understand more by confusing me more! 🙂

  3. Rob Dickey

    “As possible as I can” is also listed in various websites as a problem in Japanese-English, which would seem to support the argument that it is a World English item rather than a language interference problem. Or possibly just that it is one of the English language items derived via Japan?

    • mikecorea

      Thanks very much for the input Rob! As I was thinking about it earlier I was wondering if it was one of the language “oddities” that had come from Japan.
      In a separate issue I wonder how undertsandable it would be for non-NorthEast Asian users of English?

      • breathyvowel

        Hey Mike & Rob,

        I wondered that too, but it could possibly be L1 transfer from Korean and Japan. People tell me that the grammars are similar for both. I’m presuming that there’s a phrase in Korean which corresponds to “as possible as I can”. Do we happen to know what it is?

        Also, I had similar thoughts to this the other day reading about the importance of teaching segmentals vs suprasegementals. The argument for supra in some quarters seemed to be that you were in much more danger of conveying the wrong message with the wrong intonation than the wrong phoneme. It struck me that many World English users wouldn’t have enough understanding of intonation to realize the message anyway. Possibly kind of related, I think.


      • mikecorea

        Hey Alex,
        I’m wondering it might be something from Japanese originally. This sounds like a mission for Kevin Stein!

        I think ELF changes a lot and we are just starting to see what these things might be and I think your example is surely related to what I was trying to touch on here.
        Like, if it only matters to one person in in the room how much does it really matter? 🙂

  4. livinglearning

    I have a couple thoughts:
    One is that I’ve had students complain to me in the past that the forms they learn from their teacher in order to take a test are not how L1 speakers use them. The most notable isn’t coming to mind at the moment.
    The other thing is that I think “You’d better” comes with “or else”, either implied or directly stated. I think that in order to use the phrase correctly, the “or else” has to be obvious. In the case you described, while the other participants obviously understand that a suggestion was being made, the lack of a clear consequence (or perhaps there was, for them?) means that the phrase was used incorrectly. Perhaps I’m being ethnocentric just by assuming there’s a “correct” way to use a phrase.
    A couple of questions come to mind:
    Do teachers who attend TESOL (and the like) training programs want to improve their English or improve their English teaching skills? In my experience, students who want to improve their English want to make it closer to ours, no matter what our personal beliefs on the matter might be. Why are they being trained by a qualified foreign English teacher rather than a qualified Korean English teacher? And in any case won’t many of them be working with (relatively inexperienced) foreign teachers who might misinterpret the suggestion? I’d say there’s a case for making a big deal of it.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the thoughts, Anne.

      IF the example comes to mind please do share!
      I am also forgetting an example a Korean English told me was a good model of grammar even though it was very rare so it always appeared on tests and thus needed to be taught even though nobody (or at least no “NS”) would ever use it.

      I fully agree with your take on the implied “or else” with “you’d better” and it matches perfectly with mine.
      (I am fairly certain there was no understood threat there…just his way of making the suggestion).
      To me totally incorrect and bizarre and potentially offensive. To the speaker and the listeners totally fine and normal and just a dude giving feedback on a lesson.

      You asked some great questions which really got me thinking.

      Do teachers who attend TESOL (and the like) training programs want to improve their English or improve their English teaching skills?
      >>>My understanding would be yes. I think some of them would be more interested in improving English skills than teaching skills? I’d also suggest that many of the attendees would believe that improving their English would be the most effective way to improve their teaching.
      (This is not a belief that I share).

      In my experience, students who want to improve their English want to make it closer to ours, no matter what our personal beliefs on the matter might be. W
      >>>This matches my experience very much. Why are they hiring an native speaker otherwise? 🙂

      Why are they being trained by a qualified foreign English teacher rather than a qualified Korean English teacher?
      >>>Now this is a great question. Simple answer….their was at the time only 1 Korean teacher qualified to run this particular training course. She was busy working in her middle school at the time. More complicated answer: Part of the package being sold was (near) native teachers. This is what the govt bought. Even more complicated answer: Some of the principles and ideas and activities behind the course might be seen to be easier accepted when offered by outside experts. That is to say that if Korean teachers/trainers were running the course their is the fear of a credibility gap.
      (From what I have heard this doesn’t really happen in reality but it is just a concern)

      Even more complicated answers…Unfortunately there are not (to my eyes/experience) a lot of Korean teachers/trainers with the required expertise to run such a course considering all the factors that go into it. Those that are qualified are probably busy doing something else! I hope this makes sense and I don’t mean to be flippant.

      I am very uncomfortable with the foreign expert model but that is the way the game is often played. Hopefully as things change and more Korean teachers get experience it won’t be such an issue.

      And in any case won’t many of them be working with (relatively inexperienced) foreign teachers who might misinterpret the suggestion?
      >>>> Well yeah but that is (in my view at least) seen as a very minor part of their job. I don’t have any real numbers but if I recall some of them taught one lesson every two weeks with foreign teachers or something like that. I don’t think that giving developmental feedback was a huge part of the job. As you know, it is a tricky situation with fluctuating numbers and roles and everything else. So, yeah I think that many of them might be work with foreign teachers who might be generally inexperienced but I am not sure how central this is to course participants perception of their job.

      Once again, great questions and thanks for getting me thinking on this sat night.

      • mikecorea

        One more thing! “Qualified” is a #word of many meanings. As you know the media often talks about the lack of qualified foreign teachers. Do they mean CELTA? No…they just seem to mean “good” to my mind. Above when I used qualified to talk about the lack of qualified Korean trainers I meant that very few have been through the (lengthy) qualification process for this particular training course. I hope that makes sense. There are (probably) many Korean English teachers that are “good enough” but the formal qualification was what I was referring to. Now I feel better.

  5. eflnotes

    fantastic example of what is called a culture bump – an unexpected difference in language use between two different cultures.

    does Breen give a source for the exam question? is this an example of Konglish?

    i think you have the right idea when you frame classes as “according to Mike”, exposing and raising awareness of different usages.

    as Rob and Alex have mentioned maybe it could be a L1 interference issue? a quick search only turned up this paper


    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the comments, Mura!

      Thanks also for the article you shared. It reminds me of some similar ones I previously shared with teachers/trainers new to Korea. Funny how I had to work it all out on my own without really knowing exactly what a transfer error was called.

      No source is given from Breen regarding past exams but I know that all the recent exams are online for all to see. (I just spent some time searching to no avail and I could try again if you are interested)—I can’t find the 90’s version Breen was likely talking about but I can find the last few years)

      You asked if the example sentence is Konglish I suppose that depends on what your definition of Konglish is. I think this might be different for the layperson and the linguist/language educator.
      (Darn this sounds like another blog idea)….

      some might say Konglish is

      1) borrowed words from English used in Korean that are used “strangely in English” (Cunning which is used to mean what you might call cheating is an example of this.

      2) Broken English from a Korean person.
      2A) Broken English in a systematically Korean way.
      (Interlanguage and L1 transfer errors)

      3) Korean pronunciation of English
      (which we could consider part of 2?)

      4) Some other things.

      So…. I highlighted 2 expressions
      “as possible as I can”
      (different usage of) “you’d better

      Again depending on definition I think it is easier to say that the former is more likely to be Konglish. What is most interesting to me is how it was sort of determined (by test makers I guess) to be correct and codified even if it was not a originally a distinctive aspect of Korean English. I hope I am making sense?!?

      In case not I will stop here. But not before thanking you for the term/concept of culture bump and also for mentioning that you like the “according to Mike” idea. As I wrote it before I realized that I like it to. That way I can speak very factually about what I think works and doesn’t and then I can help people make their own decisions.

      thanks again for the valuable contribution to the discussion!

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  7. George Chilton

    Hello! I’m replying on my phone, so please forgive tge inevitable typos 🙂

    I’m going to give you the old classic “It depends…” as my answer.

    The part of me that demands perfection says- yes we should intervene, or else they’ll not recognise their shortcomings.

    However, the more realistic part of me begs to differ. The primary aim should always be to transmit the message. If the student is successful, without ambiguity, and without being offensive (!) then perhaps we should allow it, taking note of ways to help them refine their language, and introducing it later. However we correct them, it should probably be done in a way so as not to hamper fluency at the time of speaking.

    However that answer comes with a caveat; my big concern, is that TEFL teachers tend to become very desensitised to the common mistakes of their students in everday usage – particulary in spoken English, and particularly with pronuciation. When I first arrived in Korea, and subsequently in Spain, I found it far more challenging to understand what was being said in English. If I think back to that time, I can put myself in the position of a (British) native speaker…and it’s tough! As a result, I’d say we should focus strongly on practising pronunciation, even at the expense of grammar, especially in situations where we’re letting things slide because we understand the student.

    I think recording students is a good way around the interruptions, and it allows self-reflection and error analysis.

    Hope I’ve not gone off the point!


    • mikecorea

      Thanks very much for the comments, George! I hope you are enjoying Sevilla!

      As for straying off the point…. I think you were right on point because my post was sort of all over the place! 🙂

      I think you made a great point about teachers being desensitized to certain mistakes. I will always remember when I brought my brother and sister in law to class and the students found it much harder to communicate with these non-teacher Americans than they did with me.

      Speaking of family members, I often find myself telling my high level students that I understand them (becuase I know about Korea and I know what they are trying to say) but my mom surely wouldn’t.

      As a devotee of “it depends” I really like your answer here. The more I think about this situation (that occured in 2009!) the more I think about the idea that there is a place and time for (almost) everything. As an English teacher I think I have a bit more room to let students know about what might be rude in the target language. As a trainer I wonder if it might be a different story. I really don’t know.

      You also mentioned pron..which I think can be very easily overlooked…and maybe something teachers don’t feel as comfortable planning lessons around but is obviously important!

      Thanks for the comments and thoughts!

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