10 Things About Korea…


So I won’t be along here much longer, so I thought I’d give this a shot.

There’s plenty about Korea that I’m going to miss, without a doubt, and then there’s a fair amount of things I won’t miss about Korea. It would be fair to say the same about anywhere, of course.

So here goes nothing…

10 Things I’ll Miss About Korea (in no particular order of importance)

  1. The ajjumma-ajjeoshi cult – forget about how you spell the bloody word auf English, the reverence paid to these two pillars of society is beyond impressive. I often long to be one myself, just so I can get stuff done. I have looked for a  temple to worship but have only found people pushing me out of the way because a worshipped one is oncoming. I challenge my readers to find a more ubiquitous beacon in honour of how to get shit done than the lowly, and not so lowly Uncle and Auntie.
  2. Food – Yum. Season care me not, belly always happy. Tasty with or without MSG, the local tucker satisfies beyond compare, and at a price to match my much unencumbered wallet (in that it’s empty of cash). I still amaze my Irish brethren with the fact that four strapping lads could fill themselves with deadened meat and a decent skinful of schoops (an Irish dialect for pints) for about 20 blips, or there abouts. That is merely the tip of the iceberg.
  3. The weather – I’m going to Ireland, a country not renowned for it’s tropical beaches and balmy breezes, and after an afternoon where I strolled into work in short sleeves, spent an hour under a tree reading in the shade, and then dozzily cantered home in anticipation of me din-dins all in glorious sunshine, it will be hard to compare. In fairness, you would do well to better yon land of the morning calm for it’s months of May and June, and September through to even November. Regardless of when you go to Ireland, the advice at the best of time is ‘bring a good jacket’.
  4. Deliveries – You could spend your whole life in your home and never, ever, ever have to leave. I mean it. Think of the luxury of, in theory, only having to put clothes on when the delivery guy turns up, and even then it wouldn’t be much more than a bed sprawl thrown over your shoulders to cover your jiggly bits! Can you do that with as much a degree of comfort elsewhere as you can with as much success as in Korea? I sincerely doubt it – although fixing an income would be a a challenge if you were a carpenter or marine biologist… And half the time, if not all of the time, delivery is everyone’s favourite price, free! Did I mention stuff arrives the next day?
  5. Communications – Roads, telephones, internet, taxis, buses, trains, and of course subways, exist in abundance (they’d want to considering how many people live here) and they are all efficient, effective, and extraordinarily everything the public transport or whatever system in your country is not. Don’t try and argue, you’re wrong. Not without it’s faults, of course, but man I couldn’t believe it when I was in London a few years back and I heard that they were excited that they were testing getting mobile signals into the underground. I couldn’t believe it. I mean, in Seoul it was unheard of that your phone wouldn’t have a 3G signal underground, let alone just a regular bar or two on your phone.
  6. English – Ok, so not everyone is fluent and as an English language teaching professional it’s my wont to complain about the inadequacy of the English language ability of such a massive proportion of the population given the time spent on language teaching and yeah so fucking what? Not only has the country provided me with a lifestyle others would aspire too, as well as a family, friends, and many wonderful memories, it’s also the reason that made living here initially so easy, and today it’s not much different. I could go on but I won’t. English in Korea, who’d have thought it was so great?
  7. Health and Safety – Up until about two months ago this wasn’t such a big issue, and in the respect that I am now going to mention, I still thinks it’s alright. There’s not really a penchant for preparing everyone for the inevitable. You’d wonder some times who is more adult about the way that people should be constantly protecting others. Remember, we’re adults, so you know, look where you’re walking down the street and don’t expect everything to be so perfect for you. It’s a welcome thing that the love of suing the shite of some poor misfortunate for not being impeccable has not landed with the same rigour as it has in the Republic of Errors…I mean Ireland.
  8. Silence – One of the great things about being in Korea and not being completely fluent in the language or the whimsicalness of everything about you is that so much moaning and nonsense which your life is better off not knowing about floats gently and tenderly over your head and evaporates into the clouds above. And even if you do understand it, it’s a lot easier to tune out when it’s in a foreign language than when it’s in your native brogue. This lack of generally ignorable bullshittery is a fantastic advantage to being a resident in the land of such placidity in the AM, in my own most humble opinion.
  9. Suwon – It has been my home for over four and a half years, and the place where we live now has been our home for three and a half of those. I haven’t lived anywhere longer but for my folk’s place back in Ireland. I love the view from above everything. I like that suddenly we have a subway station right next to us. I love Hwaseong Fortress and the Jin Mi Tong Dalk  nearby. I like that I can walk to work in twenty minutes, and even more importantly I can walk home and not get stuck in traffic. Did I mention we recently found a butcher who sells decent steaks nearby?
  10. My job – This factor would have sounded offensive to the same me some years back. The idea that me, of all people, would actually like my job is in many respects absolute madness. But aside from the five months holidays a year, and the less than 15 hours teaching I have to do as part of my contract, it’s quite an enjoyable situation. I’ve not only had some fantastic students over the years (really, some real class acts, I’m not lying) but I’ve actually learned from my experience, not just about how I can teach better, but how to deal with people more effectively and also, how to be a better writer. I’m genuinely sad to be leaving this job.

10 Things I Won’t Miss About Korea (in no particular order of importance)

  1. The ajjumma-ajjeoshi cult – Isn’t it nuts? Really! I can’t get over it that someone saggy and poorly dressed can hold a higher position in society solely based on the fact that they’ve had more time in it. It genuinely drives me mad that I play second fiddle to someone who has no genuine advantage to me, in terms of the two of us standing side by side, other than they are a middle aged and Korean. Sure some deserve it, but why can’t I be given the same level of amazeballs for just standing on the corner and being a thirty year old?
  2. Food – Man I long for some variety, and I’m not talking about variety in Korean food, because you can’t beat the variety of Korean food in Korea I’ll tell you that for nothing. I’m talking about the variety of any food that isn’t Korean. I’ve seen enough Pizza and Pasta places to last me a lifetime. And as for Japanese noodles spots, which aren’t bad at all, I can’t handle it, I really can’t. And while I’m at it, I just long for some bread without sweet cream cheese and/or hotdogs (note: I love these things…but sometimes I care not for them). In fact, I wish it was mandatory for every person who opened a foreignesque restaurant to visit the country where it comes from so they can taste the food they’re attempting to replicate and then they will realise that other countries in fact do like to use an ingredient known as salt, and not sugar, to bolster the deliciousness out of the food.
  3. The Weather – Winter and summer can suck my balls frankly. Last winter I went to Thailand because, lets be honest, I like going outside. And to be honest, I don’t like taking the nine showers a day required of summer in Korea. Did I mention yellow dust and or course micro dust? Yeah, not weather, I know, but come on let’s be honest….
  4. Deliveries – If I don’t get killed by one of those lunatics in their vans or on their bikes, I’m going to kill them for me almost killing them as the somersault through another red light. I could say more but after my food rant I’m going to control myself. Deep breaths. Think of happy places. Mmmm, no delivery lunatic bikes in Ireland…that’s nice….
  5. Communications – I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that fast internet speeds and high rates of connectivity aren’t the be all and end all. This is especially the case when the price is censorship and ActiveX/mass rates of identity theft with little to no repercussions for those responsible for protecting said identities. And while I’m here, driving will grow you a thicker layer of skin than is really necessary. You might think it’s alright, that is until you encounter Sunday drivers, a phenomenon quite the opposite from its western counterpart.
  6. English– It irks me that so much of Korea is so English friendly. I’m on the other side of the planet but life here is so cushy that it’s just wrong, to me at least. This is a moral thing, personally speaking. In Ireland we speak English purely because English was the way to communicate and get jobs, essentially if you emigrated, and I personally don’t see why Korea should be so obsessed with this language which has such a foreign baring on everyone’s lives. You may disagree with me, and I’m sure many do, but this is how I feel. I think Korea should be less concerned about having the entire country fluent, and more concerned about giving an even spread to it’s education. Or something to that effect.
  7. Health & Safety – Ok, fuck this, I’ve had enough. Firstly let’s stop by cutting steel on the fucking street, and when you’re down there do me a favour and share the fucking footpath with the people who are using it i.e. those walking from A to B. See those fancy changing coloured lights up in the sky? There’s a reason for them and it’s not because they go well with all the neon. Yes, I am childish in that I need to be protected from your inanity, but please I do in fairness have a right not to take my life in my hand as I walk down the street to buy a carton of poxy milk.
  8. Silence – ‘I heard them say ‘waygook’ …then did they say ‘Conor’…they’re talking about. What? Come here and say that to my face! Arrrrrrrgh!’ and other stories.
  9. Suwon – There is an expression in Korean that basically says you shouldn’t spit into the wind. And in this case I shall not spit into the wind. What I will say is that Suwon, while not without it’s charms it does lack a certain amount of finesse, says the fella who wants to walk around his apartment naked until his dying days.
  10. My job – My job is no better or worse as it is, but I’m in my early 30s and I’ve a family to look after. In ten years, I could be in the same state, and this is not something I am willing to accept. There are ways which I could change this, but to be honest the right move is to stick to myself and Herself’s long term plan and get moving. I hold no regrets and would recommend it to anyone, but for me right now I have reached the point where I new stage must be entered upon.

So that’s it.

Anything you’d miss and wouldn’t miss about Korea?

 

Korea’s EFL Education is Failing, But What Can Be Done About It?


Is Korea’s EFL teaching failing? This question was asked by Groove Magazine in its March issue. The article was a comprehensive account of the history of Korea’s attempt to make its population more competitive by making English language skills key to a child’s education. I thought that the answer was pretty straight forward. Yes. Korea’s EFL instruction programme is failing. But maybe it was an easy question.

Of course it’s important to set out from the beginning to establish the fact that you’re talking about the governments drive to instil native speaker capabilities among the populace. And it’s important to know that whenever you read an argument like this you have to remember that opinions have already been forged on the barstools of waegdom, so convincing any new comers to the discussion will allow for short work.

I always scratch my head when I read these kind of articles which kind of derive expert opinion from English teachers, especially when they talk about Korea. When it comes to teaching English here, there’s a surprisingly large element of teachers who have done two things: never formally studied how to teach language, and never taught English students from a country other than Korea.

Now I will mount my high horse briefly and say that I have gone counter to this trend to a certain extent, but not to the extent that I would like to preach too much about it. Still with even a small amount of experience, I think that doing this would change anyone’s opinion about how their learners function.

A typical Korean classroom (photo courtesy of Schplook on Flickr)

Of course in Korea there’s always a rush to focus on cultural elements, notably the evil Confucianism which is apparently embedded like a cancer in the minds of every individual. While it can be a hurdle to cross, you’ll find teaching students from other countries also have their own cultural problems.

Italians students who I taught in Dublin for example, who were the same level as many of my Korean writing students, struggled to put sentences down because, well I’ll give my blunt and honest opinion, they didn’t care about these aspects of the language. All they wanted to do was to be able to talk, talk, and talk. They were certainly garrulous and opinionated, but I found that the Korean students I taught were more technically competent. There’s a certain amount of humility required for perfecting a second language, and many Korean learners have that in spadefuls.

But I’m not really here to launch a scathing critique of the article, as it is, despite my comments above, a very comprehensive analysis of what is a jaded and overstretched system which is not meeting the demands placed upon students when they enter university and even the professional world. It’s also a system which is struggling to keep up with a private sector which is bolstered by wealthy and competitive investment which sees the English language as a key ingredient in securing a secure rung on the professional and social ladder. There are some very good points supported by opinions of people who know what they’re talking about.

I suppose what bothered me about the findings was that, essentially, there was nothing here that anyone working in the ESL industry in Korea for some time didn’t know already. As I said, it reinforced those barstool dialogues. I wonder if there could be more done though. Could we analyse this situation a little more critically, and also creatively? What can Korea do to make its investment more valuable?

I’ve been working in Korea for eight years, which isn’t nearly as long as some people, but I’ve a wide variety of experience in almost every area (except, it must be admitted in the public sector – after-school programmes don’t count). I’ve met a lot of people from many different backgrounds and with varying levels of English, as well as varying levels of enthusiasm for learning and also varying levels of necessity. Both of these are very important.

Take my beloved Herself. She is a prime example of the fallacy of English language education in Korea. She went through school studying English, and she studied her arse of it has to be said, and then she went through university studying English again, not as a major but nonetheless she studied, but it wasn’t until she got a job where she actually need to English to communicate with clients and her employer (she worked in an international trading company in Yongsan) that she really learned how to use English.

As far as I can work out, she didn’t get the job due to her English ability, but it certainly helped in all her succeeding jobs that she had this experience and ability to use the language in a professional and appropriate manner, which many would say is lacking in much English communication in Korea. But she was fortunate enough to have the necessity for the language to build up her career.

One of the main reasons English is so important, and it’s also where the seeds of Korea’s English problem lies, at the moment is because someone decided the language would be very useful for Korea reaching out to the world, and therefore many jobs require a particular standard of English. In many cases it is even used as the defining factor in selecting new employees. This would be fine if these employees actually needed English.

There are two problems that I’m hinting at here. The first is basically a lack of necessity or any clear goals for learning English, and the second is a lack of respect for the language and its users. Because it’s not thanks to effort that there has been a failed attempt at teaching the country.

It’s clear to anyone who spends a lot of time here that the private sector, both the hagwons that are bulging and the employers who are demanding, is both driving the demand for English. However, it’s also clear to anyone who has spent any amount of time in Korea that other than the basic ability to read and pronounce the language, English is not necessary for every person in the country. But because of the notion that if everyone in Korea can speak English well then Korea will attract foreign investment, and thus strengthen the economy, or something like that. This is beside the point that not everyone in ever company needs to be able to speak English.

What is clearly making English a political issue right now is the necessity for English in the 수능 (Korean SAT). However, if it was not necessary and the importance of English was made comparable with other useful second languages (such as Chinese and Japanese for example), the demand for English would dissipate. Now, I know that this would not solve the problems, as it would still put wealthy families at an unfair advantage as they would still be able to afford good quality private education. Still less time would be spent on English and learners who struggle with a language which is completely different to Korean, allowing them to concentrate on subjects in which they have a higher intelligence for.

The day after 수능 (photo courtesy of Jens-Olaf on Flickr)

If you’ll allow me, I’d like to offer an example from Ireland. Here we also have to sit a state examination, called the Leaving Certificate, and your results from this examination determine where in the university world you go. For many universities and colleges the basic requirement is a pass in English, Maths, Irish and/or a modern language, with different requirements regarding your level of maths and English depending on your course. There are still exams in other subjects which allow you to beef up your score if you happen to be particularly poor at maths (me), English (me too in terms of my exam performance), or languages (I was no soldier here either).  These are core subjects, which are obviously important, but I had strengths in other subjects which allowed me to get enough points to eventually get accepted into a course of my choice.

One major obstacle to this which Ireland actually clears is the national obsession with university, which is something that I don’t think will change in Korea. In Ireland, not everyone needs to go to a four year university to be in with a chance of getting a satisfactory job. While of course you can get a job if you don’t go to a four year university, or even a four year university which is not in Seoul, there is a strict social contract which is inhibiting this kind of acceptance.

If the Korean system were to allow for more diversity in its student body, not only would it increase competition, but it would also develop a student body which had a better understanding of its interests, its weaknesses, and of course  its strengths, especially in the case of languages. Those who necessitated learning languages could do so, while those who were focused otherwise could concentrate on more important and relevant subjects.

The problem though with being idealistic like this is that I’m leaving myself open to the trap of the reality of the situation. This reality is wrapped up in a mesh of social norms which are connected to the level of respect that language acquisition has in this country from the perspective of popular culture.

Popular culture dominates in Korea, much like every other country, but in Korea it is a very specific national engine fuelled by a demand for a particular variety of music, television, and the characters which inhabit it. Other than occasional western – i.e. American – celebrities, Korean popular culture presents a particular set of norms.

While I’m not much of a TV person even for western TV, and the obvious armchair cynic would automatically regard Korean TV as seemingly all the same – it’s not – but the top programmes do seem to stick to a template. That template is loud, brash, and full of people clowning around.

Now that’s fine, as many of these programmes do with they’re supposed to do, and that’s entertain. If they ever have English on them they frequently do two things; the speak poorly and make their poor English out to funny, and they act like a person who can string a sentence together deserves some sort of reverence.

There are a lot of people in Korea and a lot of them already speak excellent English. Give them some credit. (Photo courtesy of APM Alex on Flickr)

If you want to have English communication on your television show, use someone who speaks the language well, not some numpty who recites it as if written in Hangul. The same can be said for using people who have clearly spent many years living in the US; you don’t need to sound like an American to communicate in English, and using this as the standard is, again, an unfortunate and unnecessary comparison, as it is far from the norm and ignores all the hard work put in by millions of learners across the country.

This is damaging how people deal with the language. When you ask teenagers to interact in a language that is frequently portrayed in comic manner, can they be expected to act maturely when television convinces them it’s hilarious?

The seeds of this issue are the belittling of basic English skills by the reverence paid to someone with basic language skills, or even relatively advanced language skills. Yes, these people should be applauded for their language skills, but let’s take a step away from the television and walk into the offices of many major corporations for a second. Here is where you are expected to have advanced language skills. There is no clowning around. It is a standard that is to be met and if you can’t meet it opportunities will be passed over you.

Despite what the statistics say in the Groove piece, Korea functions exceptionally well through English, because most of the English communication is carried out at the highest level of business, dealing with international partners, co-workers, and clients, as well as preparing for conferences and trade shows among other reasons.

There are thousands, if not millions of Koreans with highly acceptable levels of communicative English, many of whom use it on a daily basis in the private and professional lives, and they do not struggle to do so. But as long as popular culture continues to make a mockery of these people by not choosing to use good, or at least passable-to-decent English, then how can they expect children to take it seriously?

If the norm was seen as communicating comfortably and happily in both English and Korean, with less focus forced on learners by necessitating incredibly levels of perfection in exams, there would be a change.

There is no need to applaud a person who has studied hard to learn English, or any language or skill to a level of proficiency above the basic requirements. The person who acquired this skill did not do it to be applauded. They did it to make their life better. And to use the words of my grandfather here, it would take a lot praise to fill a pint. What I mean by this is for all the praise in the world, you’re not going to have much in your bank account.

For these people English is a means of communication, not an exam subject, and they do not run around blaming a lack of foreign friends or contact with foreigners as an excuse for their language skills. That excuse is like saying I don’t have a computer so I can’t write well.

There is no doubt that learning English is not easy for Koreans, but this process is been complicated by the image the language creates in the public eye. To secondary school students this image is undoubtedly negative, symbolised by the necessity to excel to find a place in a leading university, and comical as presented by the (admittedly very intelligent) goons who populate popular loud-mouthed TV shows. Korea can present a more appealing and approachable image for language learners but it needs to take the people who have worked hard more seriously and use them as positive examples of what can be achieved.

It’s clear that whatever policies have been chosen in the past have not worked as well as desired. Korea’s education culture is always going to take the steps taken by the government to a more extreme level and a change of strategy is required. Yes, keep investing in classrooms, but a different kind of investment in the people who are the living products of the system will encourage a new mindset in young learners, and hopefully realise the value of the national investment in a language from the other side of the world.