So I had this student a while back. Let’s call him Mark. That was not his name, nor was it even his English name. He was a Korean student in his very early 20’s and I thought he was extremely bright. Some, just some, of the reasons I thought this were because his major was something that made rocket science sound simple and because he went to one of the best universities in Korea. Mark was also a very nice, if perhaps socially awkward, dude. I enjoyed working with him.
I was working in an intensive English program attached to a university in Seoul and Mark was taking a bit of time off from his university studies to brush up on his English. Actually, brush up is not the right word. He came to learn how to use English. Even though he went to one of the best unis in Korea (and had the test scores to match) Mark really couldn’t make a sentence, any sentence, when he joined the program. By the end of 20 weeks he was by no means fluent but he could do a lot in English and he looked pretty comfortable doing it. At this point I am willing to admit that everything I am talking about is directly related to simply an increase in confidence. Before Mark came to the program he’d had around 12 years of (mostly, I assume) grammar-translation teaching that helped prepare him for the college entrance exam. He did very well on that exam but could barely speak English at all.
The above is why he was registered in the lowest of all 15 of the groups in the intensive English program. In this program students took 30 hours of class and in doing so took courses from 5-6 teachers. I was the teacher that Mark spent the most time with, teaching “Learning to Speak” (which could be considered something like a fluency focused basic discussion course tailored to lower-levels). The other classes, which he took with 10 other students, included “Practical English” (for the purposes of this post we can consider it to mean a more form-focused class following a coursebook), Listening, Reading (maybe), and Writing.
I was continually impressed, and indeed thrilled, with the progress of Mark and his classmates. I was especially impressed with the dramatic improvement Mark showed. I know that he was highly motivated and worked very hard. Perhaps it was (semi) youthful hubris but I really believed at that time that my magic mix of support, kindness, and opportunities to use the language coupled with fantabulous feedback were some of the main keys to his success. Now, with the passage of time and a bit of maturity I realize that there were likely factors other than his aptitude, intelligence, and diligence coupled with my mad teaching skillz and overall brilliance. With some time, distance, and humility I am also wondering about the implications of this tale, if any, for my future teaching (or others for that matter) I am having a hard time isolating what might have helped Mark improve so dramatically and so rapidly. Maybe this is all beyond the scope of a 600 or so word blog post.
Questions that come to mind:
- What kind of data (replace date with words like proof or evidence here if you wish) would people need to see to believe Mark improved so much?
(Besides, of course, some shmuck blathering on about it 5 years later)
- (How) Could we measure, quantify, or even explain Mark’s progress in terms of SLA?
(I mean now, or even at the time)
- Could we really say the intensive program was all that helpful considering all the time he had spent in English classes prior to ever setting foot in the intensive English program?
- Is there something to be said for spending 12 years being talked at about English?
(Perhaps not fair. Sorry everyone.)
- (How) Could we consider measuring the impact of each of the various courses he and his classmates took at that time?
- (How) Could we consider measuring the impact of the previous 12 years of schooling?
- Are there any lessons to be drawn from this besides “it helps to be clever and studying 30 hours a week after 12 years might work?”
- What am I missing?
- Are these questions useless or otherwise beyond the point of what we need to consider as language teachers?
(I am a big boy, ready to read any responses here )
Recently, when giving feedback on something written for English teachers in Korea I told the writer that it would probably be better to say “ELT” instead of “ESL” in a sentence that was originally something like “It is so nice to connect with other committed ESL teachers.”
A few days later I saw a blog post where a different author wrote something like, “If you want to improve your ESL lessons in Korea, you will need to get the right EFL books.”
Color me confused.
Generally being a proponent of ELF (English as a lingua franca) and World Englishes I still had to wonder about the use of the acronym “ESL” for the Korean context. My understanding is and was that ESL (even if it is an outdated concept) still refers to countries in which English is the main language. Of course, determining such things can be messy and English is extremely important in Korea but I think people would be hard-pressed to call Korea an ESL situation.
The uses of “ESL” above got me thinking….
1) Was I being pedantic? (This is a charge that I will willingly accept at times)
2) Would readers judge the authors for using the term “ESL” in this way?
3) What is the big deal anyway?
4) Do these distinctions still matter?
I will leave the first 2 questions up the reader but I am not certain how much these distinctions matter much anymore. I am not saying that we would teach necessarily teach the same way or the same things in Seoul and New York City but I don’t know that making broad assumptions about students and “the way” to teach them based on this (false?) EFL/ESL dichotomy is the way to go. Let’s consider some scenarios. Which of these sounds most “ESL-ish?”
The class is a conversational English class in a graduate school in Seoul and there are 10 students and 5 of them are Korean. The rest of the students are a mix of Chinese, French, Russian, and Swiss, One of the Korean students has never left Korea and another one went to high school and college in Canada. English is the main language of communication in the graduate school (meaning that all their classes are conducted in English).
30 Korean college students go to Boston for 2 intensive weeks in the summer. They mostly study TOEIC prep and vocabulary but also have some excursions around town. They speak Korean with each other for the majority of the time when they are not in class and don’t have much contact with the locals.
30 Korean college students go to an English camp in Korea where they study English all day every day for a month. The camp’s policy is “English Only” and students are given penalty points if they are caught speaking Korean. The main focus of the camp is “survival English” in order to live and survive in an English speaking country.
In Manila, 10 Korean students study in a class with 3 Japanese students, 3 Chinese students and 2 Vietnamese students. The class is mostly focused on conversation skills and vocabulary.
Are some of them more “ESL-like” than others? Is it just based on the location where the course is offered? Is there more to it?
Other questions include:
When would you use “ESL” and what would you mean by it?
When would you use “EFL” and what would you mean by it?
When would you use “TESOL” and what would you mean by it?
When would you use “ESOL” and what would you mean by it?
When would you use “ELT” and what would you mean by it?
(Please don’t send links about terms or inner-circle/outer-circle stuff…I am mostly concerned with how you would personally actually use the terms)