In The Korean English Classroom

“Minus-uh! Minus-uh!”—many shouts came with just as many fingers pointed toward the student who had torn down two papers from the wall and run off with them so his fellows wouldn’t be able to read them and memorize them for the running game we were playing; sabotage!; but the student who committed this fowl act of anarchic terroristic prankistry is indeed one of the best English speakers in the school, having achieved something close to fluency in an incredibly difficult foreign language before he reached the sixth grade; moments before I challenged him to a spelling contest after he angrily proclaimed that I had misspelled “genius” (“O! O! GENIOUS!” “You think you know how to spell better than me? I’ve been spelling in English for twenty-three years!” “I’m better than YOU!“); naturally I soundly trounced him with astronaut (astraunot, astronut), experiment (exprement), and others, and was ready to break out the French and the Greek (bourgeois, onomatopoeia, two words which absolutely stump me every time I write them (and this is more often than you might think, especially when you must describe the sound of consumerist barbarism as often as me!)), when we chose to move on, but this did not stop him or his fellow students from proclaiming victory, and later they demanded that we engage in a similar contest later, except in Korean, and not English; I left them by shouting 미국 이기다! 미국 이기다! (Meegook eegeeda! America wins!); earlier we focused on properly pronouncing several English sounds which Koreans find rather difficult because at some point in the past someone decided that when Hangul, the Korean syllabary, was unable to represent a sound with a given symbol, it would simply substitute a different symbol and therefore produce a different and improper sound—examples, in Korean, th = s or d, f = b, v = b, r = l, z = ch or j, etc., etc.—there are no th, f, v, r, or z sounds in Korean, so you have to show them how to make each sound, which results in a great deal of weirdness as you examine every student in the classroom while they bite their tongues for th or bite slightly different parts of their lower lips for f or v or imitate the sound of the bees for the hard, very hard, z in pizza (t + s = zz)—but why indeed were they shouting “minus-uh! minus-uh!” at the bad (good) student? Simple! Minus points! If you’re bad you lose points! 넌는 마이느스! YOU MINUS-UH!

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2 thoughts on “In The Korean English Classroom

  1. Tatiana says:

    Hey Ian. Your English classroom sounds surprisingly fun. Where are you teaching now and what ages? Your description of the wrong sounds embedded in the Korean alphabet reminds me of how Isabelle talks right now. I mean do most young speakers sound like the typical American two or three year old? I don’t mean anything derogatory by this since I know that I often sound like a five year old speaking in chinese. Also your Korean seems to be pretty good. Did you take classes or is it mostly self study?

  2. hiddenconnections says:

    Hey Tania! Indeed it can be quite a blast. I’m working on single-handedly converting the entire educational system from “children will learn if they repeat information endlessly” to “we should inspire children to want to learn on their own”, going on that quote from Plutarch, “The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled”, but obviously it’s like trying to keep the tide from coming in. Almost everything we do in my classes is planned by other teachers, but I’m starting to make inroads and gain more influence; I was allowed to get the kids to play a grammar game that teaches them really simply that English is s-v-o rather than Korean’s s-o-v, something younger students apparently never learn unless they go to private academies after school. But they still spend years repeating phrases without ever knowing what they really mean or why the words are organized the way they are. The justification for this is the odd belief that learning a second language should be like learning our own native tongue, but this notion is so obviously ridiculous I won’t bore you by tearing it to pieces.

    I can’t believe Isabelle is learning to speak! What’s she talking about? How much Chinese does she speak? Does she speak a mix of both languages? It’s difficult to say if these kids (and right now I work with the 3rd-6th graders) sound like American toddlers; the mistakes they usually make are so strange and so specifically Korean (like adding extra syllables to words because of Hangul’s inability to transcribe English consonant clusters) that I don’t think they have much in common with our own youngins. More advanced students, however, run into the same exact problems, particularly with spelling, that their counterparts of the same age encounter in America; these few kids, and maybe there are about twenty of them or less in a school of three hundred, are generally able to communicate abstract concepts and almost whatever comes to mind, just not with the same eloquence as their American counterparts. All of them study relentlessly.

    I know that my own Korean sounds unbearably stupid but it’s getting the job done; I only started making any kind of improvement when I began taking one-hour classes three times a week, combined with plenty of self-study and as much conversation with my girlfriend, my students, other Koreans, and a number of various tutors, as possible. It’s a multi-pronged assault on the language, but even with all this firepower I doubt I’ll ever be able to match my abilities in English with my awkward, stumbling, simplistic, stale, repetitive, Korean. But I think I surpassed my French and my Spanish a long time ago; maybe I can vaguely understand movies in those languages better, but I was unable to remember how to say “is” in Spanish a few days ago, so I think there may only be enough room in my head for one foreign language at a time.

    But it’s funny you should mention Chinese because I think that’s the next language I want to learn–I’ve begun some vague and very amateurish attempts to learn the written language since I find it so fascinating, and it’s also useful for Korean since at least half of the words in the language are evidently Chinese (and Chinese characters are used in newspapers and advanced texts). Can I ask how you’re progressing?

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