Archive | February 7, 2014

How Not To Teach English

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Sometimes I wonder how effective it is having Native English Teachers (NETs) in Korean classrooms.

Some background for you all: the program that employs me is called EPIK. It’s a government agency overseen by the Department of Education. It was formed in 1995 and places NETs in public schools. Overall I suspect it’s a pretty expensive program to run. We’re paid quite well and receive other benefits like having our rent paid for along with receiving a decent renewal bonus. There are other programs, TALK and Fullbright Fellowships, that place NETs in Korea. I just know a lot less about them. Like most education programs EPIK is influenced by politics.

Korea’s new president, Park Geun-hye, has decided to focus less on English education and has done away with NET teachers in middle and high schools. This began in Seoul a year or so back, but has now been implemented everywhere. I teach elementary school, and figure I’m safe for a while yet.

Anyway, all this has got me thinking about English education in South Korea, and in particular the NETs role in it all. We’re a phenomenally underutilized resource. But at the same time I have no idea if it would be possible to measure our effectiveness.

First off, throw out whatever image you have of teaching English. Much of what I do is what I call Vocational English. Phrase book stuff. And what my students are tested on is their proficiency using these phrases. Understanding these phrases or being able to use them fluently are less important than being able to parrot the “correct” answers back. If I have a student that approaches an organic fluency or proficiency that’s great, yay for me. But that can’t be my goal. Nuance, organic fluency? If I dwell on those things, my students fail their tests.

Not that they want to pass them.

Other schools may be different, but 90% of my students could care less about learning English.

I teach in the old part of an industrial city in the poorest and most conservative province in South Korea. My students come from working class homes. Some are being raised by a single parent or their grandparents (or in one case I know of by an older sibling).

For a time now Korea has made English a benchmark in society. And what it’s spawned is an industry of parasites and resentment. Parasites in the form of testing agencies and pointless certifications (I have no respect for TOEIC exams). Resentment in what I see every day in my students, which I have to suspect is resentment they pick up from the society around them.

By having me or any other NET there, we’re likely increasing our student’s resistance to learning a foreign language. For one, there’s no payoff for my students. At best it’ll arrive 12 years or so down the line when/if they apply to college. They’re certainly not going to use English outside of school. Okay, maybe when they play video games, but again that’s phrase book “warrior needs food” parroting. Two, they’re bombarded with the general anti-foreigner mindset of their culture. To learn English would get them singled out as disloyal and unKorean.

The kid that’s really into English and dreams all the time about leaving Korea is a similar joke set-up to that kid in Ohio that always talked about going to LA or New York and making it big after high school. So why learn it, if it’ll single you out from your peers? And that’s not something Korean culture wires people to do easily, go against group consensus.

Social mobility? Errr, maybe. But the way the gap is growing between the haves and have-nots here is stunning, and I doubt the haves want to share.

Someone once said to me it was to make sure Korea got the jobs that outsourced to India, instead of those that get outsourced to China. Maybe there’s some truth to that, but Korea has no problem stuffing its own people in horrible factories for others benefit. Sure, the slogan is to make Korea a global player – but it’s an odd vision they have of global, when everything outside the country is depicted as broken, dirty, and/or immoral.

I suspect every Korean born after 1990 likely has English anxiety, all because it’s been forced upon them.

“Here’s another failure for you to dwell on, Sunmin! Only it’s English, and that’s okay, you can make fun of that.”

All I’m doing, I fear, is inoculating my students against English.