Screw the air con! Give me some Korean lessons!
Speech impediments have always amused me and as a child I knew a shop in Edinburgh, where I holidayed every summer with my sister, that provided us a double treat because not only was it a sweet shop, but the owner had a massive problem pronouncing sibilants. Visiting her shop for a bag of cinnamon balls and some sour plums was one of our first adventures when we arrived in the city, for summer. Even to this day, my sister and I still reminisce about the, ‘Yesh lady,’ and the various means we used to illicit her to say ‘yesh’ or ‘shower plumsh.’
If I still had a childish sense of humour, and was ignorant to the detrimental effects such humour has on successful second language acquisition, I could have such fun taking the piss out of badly pronounced ‘Engrish.’ Let’s see, ‘I’m pine!’ is a very common blunder. Then there’s ‘I like flied lice’ or ‘egg flied.’ ‘Pacuum-creaner’ always fucks them as does ‘pish and chips.’ Unfortunately, my professionalism stifles the potential for amusement.
But have you noticed that Korean kids will take the piss out of your attempts at Korean. Almost on a daily basis I will hear students commenting on my pronunciation and even mimicking my attempts. Okay, the kids I can tolerate but when adults do it, though never ill-intended, it gradually grates. I have numerous friends, truly good friends, who nonetheless will ridicule my best efforts. I’ve even had friends write down my mistakes so they can subsequently recount them. Some of my gaffs concern confusing ‘eagle’ with ‘oak’ and ‘ginger’ with ‘thinking’ which have resulted in my asking for ‘eagle curd’ and ‘thinking’ in the supermarket. Then there is the confusion between ‘Dan Goon’ (단군) the legendary founder of Korea and ‘dang geun’ which is the common garden carrot! Indeed, the moment you start to use any languages that veers from the basic, especially idioms or snippets from the Thousand Character Classic (千字文 – 천자문), and you can guarantee you will deemed highly amusing.
And if I make an amusing cock-up the chances are its nature will be shared with every class in my school. I don’t mind someone having a giggle at my gaffs but have the decency, after you’ve had a laugh, to help me correct them! I used to criticise those foreigners who’ve spent ten years in Korea and can’t string a sentence together and now I am approaching my sixth year on the peninsula I am beginning to realise that it’s probably much easier to learn Korean back in England than it is in Korea.
As a nation, Koreans are immensely selfish at turning every encounter with a foreigner into an opportunity for them to learn English. How many times have I discovered a Korean who spoke little English and could tolerate my ponderous Korean only to have them ask several days later, if I could teach them English. I’m sure a great many friendships between Koreans and native English speakers are inspired through the desire to extend English speaking skills and though I admire conviction and single-mindedness, some of my friends have forgotten the original ‘contract,’ namely, that friendship was mutually beneficial in terms of our respective languages. In more than one case, I have friends who used my help and years later are now competent English speakers while I’m still waiting for my first lesson. And the boredom that flits across their faces if I ask a Korean-language related question deters all but the most important inquiry.
It might be assumed that living in Korea would be a massive advantage, and it probably is if you are working or studying in a Korean speaking environment, but for English language teachers it is often the case that they are dissuaded from making an effort to learn Korean. The less Korean you speak the greater your value for money and the less you will understand your working life – something which seems to empower some bosses. On ESL job boards for China or the Middle East, lessons in the native language are often included in the employment package along with other standard incentives such as internet connections or air conditioning. In Korea however, though there are exceptions and more enlightened employers, there seems a complete ignorance that many westerners come to Korea not just because it’s a job but because they want to experience and better understand Korean culture.
Koreans treat language as an academic tool, as almost exclusively a qualification the mastering of which provides a rung up the academic and social ladder. This is evident by the structuring of Korean-English exams where the emphasis isn’t on an ability to communicate, but to identify and correct grammatical errors. Occasionally, the questions that have to be answered would puzzle and bewilder the most proficient and articulate of native English speakers. Recently, a top Korean school attempted to change the nature of its instruction and to focus on effective communication. Parents however, weren’t happy and demanded a return to rote learning and grammar because English in Korea is not about communication and is treated in much the same way as classical Latin or Greek, in other words, as a ‘dead language’. Not forgetting that both the USA and UK have the world’s poorest second language acquisition, there are westerners on the Korean peninsula for whom learning Korean is not an academic tool but a means of communication which has the potential to help better understand Korean culture and the Korean psyche.
How Koreans perceive second language acquisition has been influenced by their experience of the language learning process. If language is about grammar, is predominantly written rather than spoken, if it is taught in isolation of history and culture, it if is about grades and exams, if written English is given more importance than spoken English, then it is understandable why they should be so negative or dismissive of a foreigner’s interest in learning Korean. Of all the potential approaches to the study of a language, Korea has managed to extract and venerate the most boring and I would imagine the learning of classical Greek or Latin, where at least you are treated to primary sources, would be more engaging. Considering the number of years Korean kids learn English, I rarely meet ones whose command of spoken English impresses me. On the other hand, a great number of them have superior writing skills to their native English speaking peers. And we should not forget, Koreans do better job learning languages than we do in dumbass Britain where a recent report claim 10% of ten year old boys have the reading age of a seven year old – and that’s in their native language!
In Korea, if you want to learn Korean you’re very much on your own! And though you would think it easy to find a Korean student or adult to help you in your quest, the reality is few have sufficient free time. Koreans are either too obsessed with the development of their own English skills, too busy using you to earn money, or too constrained by other pressures, to help you learn Korean. Of course there are exceptions! Korea is an amazing country but personally, of the numerous places I have lived for an extended period of time, Koreans have been the least helpful in improving my skills and the most demanding in the pursuit of improving their own. And if you find a Korean friend who has not the slightest interest in learning English, and they do exist, you are truly blessed.
© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.