Tagged: Korea

Handshake Utopia

I don’t even know why I cared so much. Yet, I did care. It bugged me then and it still bugs me. It is an already established fact I don’t care what you do in your classes but perhaps I am a fraud and a liar.  If I had to describe my feelings in that moment I might say it was a mix of frustration, embarrassment, confusion, anger, pity, and superiority. It was quite the cocktail of feelings to have when talking to a stranger I’d just met in a breakout session in a conference workshop. He was a nice guy as well! What could he have possibly said to draw out my ire, judgment and the above feelings? He told me and my friend about how his teaching of greetings and his related policies in his college English class. That’s all he did.

He told us that he doesn’t allow his students to bow. No bowing. “This is English class. We don’t’ bow here,” he continued.  He stated his case about preparing his students for life and they need to know how it is done in Merica. “They need to learn how to shake hands, firm, you know? They need to make eye contact when doing it. They need to learn to shake hands properly.” I got the sense it was a major focus of his course and there was plenty of time spent on mastering the fine art of the American handshake.

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What is proper anyway?

 

I didn’t have the nerve to ask why his students needed such things. I didn’t ask if maybe students joined class to improve their English language skills. I certainly didn’t ask if they needed to use English in Korea or needed English for their major courses.  Or if they needed a certain TOEIC or TOEFL score to get a job. I didn’t ask if this extended greeting practice was the best possible use of students’ time in light of all the other things pulling on their time. I had so many thoughts and questions but this was one of the very rare cases where I was speechless. An army of cats had captured n my tongue.

Somehow, without asking,since I was mostly frozen, I did find out how he viewed his class. He said he likes to tell students his class is America. A little mini-America. Outside the room is Korea and they can do whatever they like there. But, inside his classroom he’s in charge and he wants to create his version of an American cultural zone. “This is something students are missing in their daily lives” he reasoned.  He might have invoked the magic of immersion. He might have talked about the deep and inseparable links between language and culture.

In the oasis of freedom fries he created, students are not allowed to use the greeting that comes most naturally to them. You know, the one they are trained for from an early age.  I don’t think I have such a problem with experiencing, discussing, and even practicing various aspects of culture. What I find problematic and find myself having a problem with is the insistence on NOT doing something. The banning of Korean cultural practices from an American in Korea is something I just can’t be comfortable with or get my head around. At best, it strikes me too much as either/or.

I return to my original question of why I cared so much about this. Maybe part of what bothered me so was the fear of similar things in the past and had my own blinders about them. Even worse, maybe I still do. As I analyzed my discomfort, I was stuck thinking this was some sort of a reflection of me and this is why it made me feel so damned uneasy. I didn’t enjoy this feeling. I remembered the intensive handshake training I’d found myself engaged in so long ago. Was I an imperialist then? Am I  now? Who the hell was I to judge this near stranger anyway? Was I prepared and pure enough to cast the first stones? It was all very unsettling. I tried to see things from his perspective and tried not too be overly judgmental and failed. I successfully pushed it to the back of my mind. Then I watched some more presentations, ate a burrito, had a few beers and went to sleep.

 

Notes: This is mostly a true story.  I took a few creative freedoms. Also, I might have had tacos that night.

Photo: From here. Is a news article from ABC and is quite interesting in light of the above.

Update: I might have considered previous classrooms a little America and fancied myself as Governor of them.

 

 

Yeajin’s EFL World

I’d like to tell you about one student of mine, just #onestudent. She is a 22 year old first semester student in the Graduate School of International Studies at the university I am currently employed at in the modern capital of South Korea, Seoul.

The student, Yeajin, told me she is enjoying most of her classes and her life in graduate school. She said some classes are challenging but the workload is manageable. She is not really sure what she wants to do when she finishes grad school but is thinking about working in an NGO or government agency. From my observations she is a very polite and sweet young woman. She seems hardworking and curious. My impression is that she is bright and thoughtful.  She is not extremely outgoing or outspoken but will freely share her thoughts when asked. She is a pleasure to teach. I might be kidding myself but it seems to me that she looks more and more comfortable speaking at length in English every week I see her.

I am not about to take any of the credit for this, though. She is working hard and she has so much English around her and she uses English every day in her life and in other courses. She is taking courses like Global Economics and East Asian Security in English. In her coursework she has classmates from all over the world. She is enrolled in my course called International Discussion, which is a spoken fluency focused course talking about issues of concern to students like Yeajin and her classmates. As above, I think she is making great progress each week. I also think she started out in a good place for these improvements.

I am not an expert on such things but in terms of speaking I think she’d be in the 6.5-7.5 range on IELTS. I am pretty sure her TOEIC score will be above 900 soon if it is not already. I guess she’d have to be nearing in on C1. I think her TOEFL score is just on the verge of being high enough for her to able to study in US university without restrictions. I don’t mean to imply that these mean much of anything (or convey much of anything for that matter) but just want to give you, dear reader, an idea of this student’s level. She can handle complicated discussions and makes her points clearly. Her pace when speaking is not so fast but she is very good when she gets going.  It does not require “undue effort” from a listener to follow what she is saying. Mistakes are minor and outright errors are rare. In short, it is easy to understand what she is saying. She is a strong user of English.

I am not sure if anything I have said here sounds very much out of the ordinary or is very exciting. Maybe her English abilities sound right in line with expectations for a student in an English medium graduate program. You might even be wondering why I told you all this, and I am not 100% sure either.

I guess this is where I should mention that Yeajin has never left Korea and is from the most sparsely populated and rural province.

I would say she is higher than her average peer in the grad school in terms of communicative competence even though she is in her first semester. In the first few weeks I found myself wondering exactly why she was so strong at English. So, I asked her. I might have said something like, “Sorry for this strange and direct question but why are you so good at English?” She seemed a bit surprised but calmly answered that she has always liked English and that she reads in English a fair amount (outside and previously to grad school work) and watches lots of TV and movies from the US. She also said some of her high school classes (like science and history) were in English as her school was designated as an international/foreign language school (this not the type with mostly international students, as more than 85% of her high school classmates were Korean). Accordingly, she had more hours of English than the average high school student. Now, she has lots of non-Korean classmates and has weekly private lessons focused on TOEFL with a native (please note the lack of scare quotes here) English speaking teacher.

Another reason I shared this is because I am sick of people talking about how there is such a massive dearth of English in Korea apart from the occasional English class. I am, of course willing to admit that Yeajin is not a typical student but I am not sure if the experts realize that students like her exist. Please kindly note the lack of  scare quotes on the word experts. This is the result of a long and contentious internal monologue.

Where were we? Oh yes, EFL. Korea is an EFL situation. It seems to me so many people harp on about Korea being an EFL country or an outer circle situation they fail to see the whole nuanced picture. There is English out there. Just as an example, the young lady next to me in this coffee shop in Itaewon as I write this has just read more than half of a graded reader in the time it took me to aggressively but gently tap out these words. In past rants posts I have expressed my confusion about terms like ESL and EFL and have also offered up some newer categories that might be more accurate and telling. What is my point? Maybe something about relying on labels like EFL too much. Yeah, that and not assuming students need to go abroad to improve their English or to have access to English.

#KELTchat happenings

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Well, hello there. I just finished an enlightening (not to mention fun and funny) Twitter chat with some of my friends from #AUSELT and I am feeling inspired about online professional development and online communities. This is just a very quick post with some #KELTchat related updates. What is #KELTchat? Clicking here will help you with that question.  I’m going to share two updates below. Just FYI the #KELTchat Facebook page is also a good resource for updates (and much more including articles and links and generally adult conversation).

The first update is the return of #KELTchat, which is scheduled for March 9th, 2014. A preview for the chat can be found here. The topic is “Being a Whole Teacher: Personal Development for Teachers.” I think it is going to be an interesting and important chat. I think it will be a special chat because Josette LeBlanc will be participating as an expert moderator.  Also, as the preview says, “Although there’s a K in #KELTchat, this topic is a global issue and we invite our friends around the world to join this chat” which means that everyone is welcome.

The second update relates to an upcoming #KELTchat presentation. Anne Hendler, Alex “TBV” Grevett and I will be presenting at the annual Seoul KOTESOL Conference on March 29th. Our title is “#KELTchat (live and) Unplugged” and we will have a mix of what the group is about and how to get involved as well as face-to-face (technology free and Twitterless) discussions about a few issues we think would be of interest to English teachers in Korea. The theme of the conference is, “Think Global, Teach Local” and the keynote speaker is Sandra McKay (!!). If that is not enough to persuade you (assuming you are in Korea) to come then perhaps some cheeky #KELTchatbeverages might do the trick? Let me know if you will be around or if you have any questions or comments or anything.