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Broken English: Lessons Given and Received in South Korea

By  Darin Cook August 11, 2009

Darin Cook recalls his challenges as an ESL teacher in South Korea.

I may have broken the English language.  I may have inflicted a disservice to the linguistic excellence of my mother tongue.  I may have shattered the modern world’s lingua franca.  I’m sorry I broke it—but, you see, I was giving English lessons to children in South Korea.  All the more reason to treat the language properly, I know;  but I wasn’t getting through to them with my wordy sentences, so I needed to break them down.

Teaching English in a foreign country is one of the most fascinating careers in the world:  every country has its own idiosyncrasies, and every classroom has its own set of challenges.  And, usually, one of these is the language barrier between student and teacher.  English is obviously the focus of any lesson plan, but it can also be an obstacle when students don’t understand instructions.

The aim of my lessons was to teach conversational English, so I simply needed to talk and be heard.  But I also needed to get through to the students, and my university degree in English didn’t give me the skills to do that.  Communication was the key, not teaching the finer points of grammar or even speaking in proper sentences. With these students, paradoxically, the more words used, the less likely we were to communicate.

In the interests of exposing my students to English words, it was good news that I couldn’t speak Korean.  I had to get my point across in English or else my classes became moot (and mute).  This led to some adjustments.  I found myself speaking more like my students.  I simplified my language to its basic parts.  I spoke in nouns and verbs, with few prepositions or conjunctions.  Filler words, which I love fiddling with as a writer, fell by the wayside.

For instance, there would be little response when I said, “Please take out your books so we can begin the lesson for today.”  But when I simply said “Books” I would get the desired effect of the students digging their textbooks from their backpacks.  The students understood what I meant when I said “Time” even though I really wanted to say, “I’ll be leaving the classroom for a short time, and it’s not likely that you’ll wait quietly until I return, but it would be much appreciated if you could try.”

Simplistic – yes.  Grammatically correct? Absolutely not.  Condensing sentences into a simple format was effective for students, who lost focus if my instructions were too long, but I felt as if I were taking a step backward by speaking in monosyllables.  It was a bit disheartening when trying to give students the gift of a new language.  I couldn’t keep it up if I wanted to teach effectively.  In order to fix my broken English and teach my students more than just a list of vocabulary words, I knew my conversation style needed some further alterations.

The next step was to use as many full sentences as possible.  If a sentence was received with blank stares, I would repeat it with a strong emphasis on the nouns and verbs.  Even if they couldn’t grasp the entire sentence, the students understood my instructions by picking out the main words they could recognize, and I was confident that the filler words would come with time and practice.

Korean students are nothing if not good copiers.  They treat regurgitation as a form of art.  But if that’s the way they do it, then so be it, because they learned English much more quickly and easily than I learned Korean.  They didn’t so much learn English words as copy sounds coming from my mouth—and hearing as many complete sentences as possible was the best way to improve their conversational understanding.

Education is an evolutionary process; being attentive to how my students reacted to my words taught me how to be a better ESL instructor.  By-the-book techniques work much of the time, but it’s improvisation and spontaneous teaching that sometimes gives the students the breakthroughs they need.  Teaching styles require alteration along the way.  My students and I may have been breaking the rules of grammar, but we were learning together what it took to communicate.  I can’t claim to have remedied the ails of a language, but at least I could give the Korean children lessons that weren’t broken.

Darin Cook is a freelance writer based in London, Ontario who taught ESL in South Korea in 2005.

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