19 September 2008

Hey teacher, leave those kids alone

I'm considering adding a 'title filched from' byline to my entries in lieu of the fact that I'm too lazy to post daily and thus rivet you with an accurate tally of alcohol units consumed, the number of road accidents I almost caused and the amount of things I proclaimed "awesome", as a proper journal clearly would. Is it worth updating old entries thus also? Probably this is only worthwhile if the majority of the source of my titles isn't usually as appallingly obvious as this one... I am not a good judge, clearly. I noticed that Neil Gaiman's webgoblin used a Buffy quote as a title the other day and the collision of two obsessions made me unreasonably happy. (FYI I'm totally planning on stalking the webgoblin on livejournal now that NG's taken over his own blog again.)

Anyway, I thought that it might be pertinent for me to occasionally actually discuss what I'm doing. So here are some meandering thoughts about my occupation. Bon appetite! Firstly let me please emphasise that I don't really feel all that well equipped to teach English- I've never done a TEFL course or had any training besides my two day initiation here, and I spent most of that asleep. I did have a job teaching English in Holborn for a couple of weeks a few summers ago (but left when the manager tried to both withhold my pay and fondle me), but it was the dodgiest and most ridiculous thing ever so of course I wasn't trained. I was just given a crappy textbook and told to stretch the material out for an hour. A lot of it was very basic stuff too, like numbers and letters of the alphabet which are pretty straightforward. Also, almost all of my students spoke Romance languages so mostly I just cheated and explained things in an odd mixture of English, French, Spanish and Portuguese (much to the chagrin of my lone Hungarian student- but he spoke reasonably good English anyway and shouldn't have been in my beginners class, plus noone who wants to talk about Nirvana all the time should expect me to deign to communicate with them).

I've never been trained to actually teach English, or indeed to teach anything at all, and the fact that I have a little (rubbish) experience is merely a happy coincidence- it isn't required by my job. All that's required is proof that you have a degree and that you're a native English speaker, and I suspect white skin may also be a(n unofficial) requirement. The idea of this company is that the students deal with grammar issues with their Korean teachers, whereas the native speakers are supposed to focus more on pronunciation and usage. Trying to delineate tasks like this doesn't work however. For certain activities correcting students' grammar is necessary, plus generally they want me to point out their grammatical mistakes. I don't think that the class should consist of a constant barrage of corrections- that isn't good for their confidence, and it makes the situation more tense so there is less likelihood of having free flowing conversation (especially if the student is quite shy). Before I started this job I thought that I had a reasonably good understanding of English language (I always preferred studying language to literature). Possibly I do, but only in relative terms- many of my friends are useless at identifying the basic components of speech (i.e. nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and pronouns), whereas I can remember what conjunctions and prepositions are, and could probably hazard a vague explanation at a past participle.

I am not good at explaining grammar rules though- and students' files often come to me via their Korean teacher filled with handy notes about tenses (many of which have whimsical names like 'the future perfect') and so on which I stare blearily at and then ignore completely. I often get bombarded with questions which I simply cannot answer. Sometimes they're asking me how to use a verb in a random tense that I've never heard of, but often the stumper is simply "why?". Why do people get "in" a car but "on" the bus? Why should I use "a" not "the"? Today my student had written "just as entertainment companies" and I suggested changing it to "just as entertainment companies do" or "just like entertainment companies" but she was a little peeved that I couldn't explain why. It doesn't help that I suffer from brain freeze at least 50% of the time!

Also English as it is spoken is obviously often quite different to 'proper' English. The BBC news magazine recently compiled a list of twenty examples of grammar misuse. I think that I'm guilty of both incorrectly using the phrase "for free" (where it should be simply "free" or "for nothing") and referring to midnight and midday respectively as 12AM and 12PM. Things like the above are found so commonly in (spoken) English though that I wouldn't really call them errors per se, language isn't static and if the usage of a word changes substantially then that change ought to be accepted instead of railed against. Similarly I wouldn't correct a student if they said "on foot" instead of "by foot" because the former phrase is used often, even if it might technically be considered 'incorrect'. I know that I need to watch myself with apostrophes, I still sometimes throw in an incorrect possessive "it's" instead of "its" because that rule never made sense to me (just as I always think that 'grateful' ought to be spelt 'greatful' because I could imagine that the etymology of the two are entwined, but I can't see the relevance of grates, or grating, to thankfulness [*]).

Gratifyingly (ah, actually now I can see the connection between 'grat(e)' and 'grateful' and feel like an idiot) I can at least understand how these are misuses and even though I've never really known what the difference between saying "x and I" and "x and me" is (despite mentions in both The Song Of The Lioness quartet and Dawson's Creek) I seem to be able to instinctively differentiate between them and use them correctly in speech (most of the time!). I would be hard pressed to explain how one differentiates though, at least without a handy explanation in front of my face. Props to the linguists, language really is absorbed and not taught. Of course there are instances where language operates in a counter-intuitive way: for example the plurals of Walkman, computer mouse, still-life and attorney general. I'm not sure if the fact that 'open fired' is apparently the correct form of 'opened fire' is counter-intuitive (as military English sometimes is) or if it just seems so because I've heard the latter so often though.

The books that we use seem to have been written by a variety of different people, so I sometimes find Anglicisms thrown in. However the dominant dialect is certainly American English, both in the books and in Korea in general. There are differences between American and British English (and of course there are myriad other regional forms of English too) that aren't restricted to just differences in the vocabulary that is used (for example lift vs. elevator; trousers vs. pants; soccer vs. football). I've been exposed to enough American television, film and music to not be completely lost in the mire, for example I'm vaguely aware of the American conception of a townhouse (via Sex and the City), which isn't quite the same as a London townhouse. However, there are also clearly differences which I'm not aware of too. For example I was relentlessly "correcting" my students for omitting the 'and' of a year (e.g. saying "two thousand eight" instead of "two thousand and eight"), but I've been informed that both are acceptable in American English. This wouldn't be too much of a problem if my students were uniquely mine, but since they often get shunted around to various teachers (on the whim of whoever is in charge of the schedule) it must get very confusing for the poor dears.

Also, I don't know the meaning of every word ever. I can never remember what exactly a condominium is, or a duplex. I also really don't care, but there's a lesson on dwellings (which incidentally omits anything interesting like a castle or a barge) and I often get enquiries. I even tried looking them up, but it was so dull that the definition just slid out of my head immediately. Some things really sound like nonsense to me- seriously what the hell are a stand-over (possibly something to do with blackmail?) and a blue light special? And is 'poseur' an English loanword from French? I don't understand why if so, since we already have 'poser'. Generally I can blag it, like today I managed to correctly guess the meaning of 'yardage' (or perhaps it was sitting around in the back of my brain), but sometimes I just want to say "sorry, I haven't a clue".

The other day I was reading through an article in preparation for a topic tutorial with one of my favourite students and had to go look up a word ('obdurate', I also had to search up Albert Schweitzer, and still don't understand why I was supposed to know who he is) and was beginning to despair of my ability to teach. It turned out to not be a big deal since we mostly just chatted completely off-topic instead of discussing the illogical treatment of people with AIDS. I think that I am becoming a little better though. I've noticed that I'm able to give better more succinct definitions, rather than gesticulating wildly I've been filling the students' files with handy diagrams (very badly drawn, but I reckon that they get the point across) and synonyms. Some words and concepts do defy simple explanations though, which is why the students should do their bloody homework, goddammit!

I had a moment the other day when I really felt like an English teacher though:

Scotland: Are you hungover?
Me: Actually I don't think that's an actual word. 'Hangover' is a noun not a verb, so really you ought to ask me if I have a hangover.
Scotland: ...Is that a yes?
Me: Very. *dies*

Obviously some concepts just do not translate well and can be very confusing. I find that my students are split roughly into two groups: those who have had contact with the existence and ideas of other cultures (possibly through travelling or living abroad, but it can also be through exposure to films, music, friends etc), and those who haven't. Those who haven't are often adamant that they are like all Koreans and that I'm asking unreasonable questions if I enquire whether they like Thai food, reggae or some other lesson-appropriate thing. Sometimes students, especially ones at lower levels, have a problem with my accent too since they're much more used to an American one. I sympathise but it does get annoying... luckily after a couple of lessons we usually don't have any problems (although sometimes there's residual confusion over the "a" sound as in 'can't', 'water', 'after' etc).

Normally I find most of the lower level students a bit boring. Some of them are perfectly nice and try really hard, but it can be kind of frustrating and dull- especially if it's a busy evening and there's one after another after another. I sooo cannot be bothered with most of the middle school students too, they're so shy it's unreal! They all prefer me to the other native speaker teachers since I'm a girl (gender discrimination is working wonders for me here, most of the women love me simply for having a vagina) and try to wrangle themselves into lessons with me instead, but they're still really quiet and dull around me. Generally it is much, much easier to get along with the higher level students- simply because it's possible to communicate with them better. I have two favourite topic tutorial students (topic tutorials are either 25 or 50 minute lessons where there's freetalking, supposedly about a specific subject but it often dissolves into random chitchat, and I vastly prefer them to normal, structured lessons- especially with interesting pupils), one of whom studied in Wales for a year and is almost militantly fond of my accent. There's a few others on levels 4, 5 and 6 that I really adore who brighten my day too including a guy who wrote an absolutely flawless essay in English about the constructed nature of memory, a really funny chick who studied at Royal Holloway and is still indignant about it claiming to be part of the University of London since it's bloody well not in London and a high school student whose English is so much better than all the businessmen that it's laughable. I don't really like teaching the business courses since I know nothing at all about the subject (and thankfully I have to use those books far less frequently here than at Yeouido), but I have a couple of businessmen students who are very fluent and regale me with stories of their insane bosses instead of doing their work. I don't think that even they could swing me around on the interview course though, it's terrible. Luckily I don't have to teach it much, but it's next to impossible to stretch those lessons out into 25 minutes- and the section where I had to ask a poor student to describe his personality, his character, his personality traits and finally his character traits befuddled me as much, if not more than, him.

Having said all that though, one of my favourite students hardly fits the mold. Not only is he on the first level, he's been floundering ever since the beginning and repeated the first lessons several times. Now he's finally progressed onto lesson four (after more than double the amount of lessons). His English isn't very good (obviously), but he manages to communicate his ideas reasonably well. The main reason that I adore him though is that he becomes practically fluent when discussing books, travelling, his daughter or music. We had a nice chat about Milan Kundera today, he's always eloquent about his travels (although I do try to point out that the cities of Italy are not usually referred to as Venezia, Firenze, Roma, Milano e Napoli in English), he adores his baby girl so much and is adamant that she's not going to be a 'salaryman' (well I'd imagine it'd be unlikely that she'll end up as any kind of man, but you get his drift) like him and he's encouraging her to be a bohemian artist layabout, and he's incredibly articulate on the subject of music (although he can't for the life of him pronounce 'Zeppelin').

The lower level books have a section where the student has prompt questions to ask of the teacher. This can be good as it can engage the students more and it gives them an opportunity to mimic. Plus I can generally stretch out talking about myself if I have to. However it can lead to some awkward conversations, I've had a few along the lines of:

Student: Are you married?
Me: No.
Student: But you want to get married, yes?
Me: No.
Student: Ah, you want to stay single. *knowing look*
Me: No. I have a boyfriend.
Student: Ah! How long have you been dating?
Me: About 6 years.
Student: Erm, 6 months?
Me: No, 6 years.
Student: So why don't you marry him?
Me: I don't want to get married. Look, it's not the same as in Korea... many people live together without getting married, it isn't considered strange.

At this point there's a divergence in responses; the female students seem satisfied with my line of argument, and I tend to get something along the lines of "that's nice dear, but I couldn't do that in Korea", whereas the blokes' answer is usually "harrumph".

Anyway the wonderful level one student I was talking about (who is equally obsessed with Mozart and The Beatles, FYI) had to ask me what I want for my next birthday. This proved to be quite a puzzler for me, since there's nothing that I actually want- surely this is a dangerous state to live in? I have a laptop, a 60GB mp3 player (even if she isn't behaving herself) and a camera- i.e. all the things I wanted. I would like to go clothes shopping, but that's something I can do myself clearly. I don't buy DVDs or music because I download everything, and anyway I don't want to accumulate too much stuff because I'm eventually going to have to either pack it up or leave it behind. The main thing that I want is to travel, and I don't mean right now: I only just got here! So I said 'books'. It isn't untrue, I do always want books, it's just that I'm capable of providing myself with books and anyway this lack of demands makes me sound like a humble hermit who might run off to go live in the woods at any moment. Fuck that, I'm as materialistic and greedy as the next person. Really. Anyway he asked what was at the top of my list, and predictably I drew a blank. I have a list on Facebook of 135 books that I want to read, and that's just the ones that I noted down off the top of my head! Eventually I managed to grope for a relatively recent addition to said catalog and said The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. He then made me write it down and said that he was going to buy it for my birthday (which he remembered is in February since so is his). I doubt that he'll actually remember to do so, but it's still very sweet!

[*] The online etymology dictionary tells me that 'grate' is an archaic word meaning 'thankful' though, so perhaps this will stop troubling me now.


Juno Spires said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Juno Spires said...

A blue light special?!!! Well, I guess it has to be tamer than a red light special...

Yes, it's all those little awkward questions about the usage/nuances of our lovely English language that completely freaks me out about teaching it...

Still, as the Koreans would say - aja aja fighting!

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