Back in Ireland, Back in Line


It is November now, and after almost five months back in Ireland I am beginning to see what drives people to be so committed and set such high expectations. A new sense of value has permeated everyone, not just in their commercial sense, but in every sense. It’s is no longer what will you do, more what can you not do and how is it going to affect me? As a person who is returning to Ireland it seems that I have left out this consideration, and have become wrapped up in wide eyed notions of what’d I’d like to do if it’s possible, please. Somewhere along the line this will have to change.

Since September my triumphant return to little old Ireland has been suffering a series of, how do I put it without sounding too alarmist, hiccups. In fairness, myself and Herself knew it would be far from perfect, and we knew we’d have to struggle through this period, and it is well that I had the foresight to recognise this in advance of our arrival. Still, it has been increasingly disappointing.

Besides everything else all I really want now is a full time job. When I came back from Korea I was fortunate enough to land right in the middle of the high season for ESL teaching in Dublin. This is a period in the summer when literally thousands of language students converge on the capital and start to study English. They range from the age of 12 and up, and by up I mean into people’s sixties and beyond. Unfortunately the majority of these people have to go back to work or school come the end of August, and so the work dries up.

It’s not all doom and gloom as there are occasional jobs here and there, but because the teaching work in ESL in Ireland is strictly based on demand it does mean that at this time of year there are a lot more teachers seeking hours than there are classes available. It’s a feature of the business I wasn’t so aware of when I returned to Ireland, but it’s not something I can complain about as I should have expected it. Long story short: this is the rut I’m stuck in.

Rut softened by nice walks along the canal

I’ve been very fortunate since getting back to Ireland to have my fair share of support and advice from friends and former colleagues, but at the same time it still does not seem to be enough. I can’t begrudge anyone as it is me who is the person that must meet the standard, not come here expecting some standard to be available for me.

I was pretty confident though that my work in Korea over the past four and a half years would carry some weight in Ireland. And by this I mean some weight outside of the classroom. While I suppose that you could argue that the economy has seen a change for the better and there are more jobs available, there is still a huge amount of competition out there. This is especially the case when you see that there is one particular job every week fitting the particularly criteria I’m setting myself. It’s times like this I wish I worked in IT.

As I bury my head in my computer screen worrying over the state of my application, I know that there is someone with more relevant experience than me. Sure I can type out my skills and explain how I utilised them for blah blah blah but in the back of my mind I know that there is someone who did exactly the same thing or exactly what the job is looking for. Tell me to have confidence all you want, but this is certainly something every job seeker struggles with.

For one thing I want to stay in education. However another part of me says to forget about it and go and do something else, something that pays better, and something that won’t have you crucifying yourself waiting for one new posting a week. I could easily do this. Just take a step down from what I expect of myself, which is probably too high in the first place, and then in a few years take the step up to a better paying position.

The rewards of education.

This would be the cheap way out. I’ve worked in education for over eight years, admittedly most of this is in Korea which is on the other side of the planet. But it’s my job, and it is where my skills and knowledge lie. I know how students and teachers think and work, and I know that I can apply this to a role here beyond satisfactorily. As well as that I have all these other personality traits which seem to come as part of every job position advertised.

If anything, I have hoped that I could start from where I left off in Korea. I mean this in terms of salary at least. When you do a currency exchange you’ll find it’s not that huge a salary in terms of Ireland, and Korea it has to be said, but it is somewhere to start from. I believe I’m worth this much at least, and I hope that I can return to this level. As I said, I hope.

Last February I was accepted into a Doctor of Education course in the University of Glasgow. When I found out this news I was ecstatic. I had worked hard to be accepted into what I believed was beyond my retention. The thing is, I deferred the course until next year because I knew I was moving back here and I knew that it would be hard to settle into work here and to study at the same time. I wanted to settle in with work comfortably, or at least be comfortable with the work situation here before I dived into doctoral study. I believe this was the right decision.

This is another significant reason why I want to stay in education. I’m making a commitment which I believe could be significant to my future, so I need to stay involved. I can’t work in a call centre and try and get an EdD. What’s the point? It’s a complete waste of my time, regardless of whether or not I hope to return to education in the future.

One way of looking at the classroom.

All this being said, I’m looking to get beyond the classroom. I think that this may be where my problems lie, in that I have circumstantial evidence of an appropriate level of skill for an actual educational leadership or management position. There just isn’t enough stability, or indeed pay, to support a growing family as an English language teacher in Ireland. Couple to this that I’m not qualified to teach in secondary or primary schools in Ireland, that’s considering that I even want to do this.

That’s one side of me. There is another perspective, and one which I am equally torn against. I want to write. I want to write so that I get paid. If I could write enough so that the pay could afford me and my family a living then that would be equally fantastic. I have known for years that the best way to go out and find writing work is to go out and ask. It’s that simple (although the format that ask in is a little bit more complicated). What is less complicated though is my reason for not trying. That reason is I’m absolutely terrified.

Regular readers and friends will assert that this is nonsense and that I have nothing to fear but fear itself. I wish it was ever so easy. I don’t think of myself as competitive, nor do I think of myself as someone or something marketable. I just think of myself as who I am, an early thirties former Korea-based ESL teacher from Ireland. When I say it to myself like that I suppose I can expect little else but the just dessert I’m lauding.

I will argue to myself and myself only that it is perfectly natural to be afraid of fear and rejection. It is, trust me, but at what point does this attitude become ridiculous to the point that you start letting yourself down? And what about when I start letting other people down?

Tomorrow is another day.

I sit now and look back over the eight years I spent in Korea, and of all the things I claimed to have achieved. I look to how I can translate my experience into something worthwhile which communicates the character I wish to put myself across as. I look at the same time and can’t help but feel the effects of karma rubbing off me after fleeing Ireland in 2010 when the dole queues were at their longest. I think of what a great job I had but of how completely untranslatable it all feels now because of distance, because of situation, and because of the fact that I am no longer a one-of-a-kind, the way I used to think of myself.

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Learning to Read and Other Skills


It’s still amazing to me how many people are unable to understand text. Now, I don’t mean the people who are actually illiterate, which is a genuine concern, I mean people despite being able to read cannot actually understand what is being said and the context and content fully. Such people are the type who have been gifted with the ability to actually read, unlike so many deprived of the skill, but who cannot use it to living a fulfilling life. What’s more is that these same people apparently feel that they are above those who do not have the same level of intellect and opportunity to advance in society. I’d say it’s a cultural superiority, but that would be polite and aiding their pseudo intellectual commentary. I think it’s best to label them as trolls.

Let’s find some definitions for trolls:

A troll is a supernatural being in Norse mythology and Scandinavian folklore. In origin, troll may have been a negative synonym for a jötunn (plural jötnar), a being in Norse mythology. In Old Norse sources, beings described as trolls dwell in isolated rocks, mountains, or caves, live together in small family units, and are rarely helpful to human beings.” – Yee Olde Wikipedia

An evil troll, Torok, the transformed state of the ex-husband of an old friendly witch named Eunice St. Clair, has chosen her apartment building to be the heart of the restoration of the world he once knew. To do this he uses an Emerald ring, and takes possession of a little girl named Wendy, whose brother Harry immediately suspects something wrong. Torok, often in the form of the little girl, goes into each occupant’s apartment, hideously transforming people into plant pods.” – IMDB

The savage trolls of Azeroth are infamous for their cruelty, dark mysticism, and seething hatred for all other races. Yet one exception among the trolls is the Darkspear tribe and its cunning leader, Vol’jin. Plagued by a history of subservience and exile, this proud tribe was on the brink of extinction when Warchief Thrall and his mighty Horde forces were driven to the trolls’ remote island home in the South Seas during a violent storm.” – World of Warcraft

Of course each of these explanations is as likely as anything you’ll find on the Urban Dictionary or wherever else.

Now, this here lovely site doesn’t get much in the way of trolls, or indeed comments at all, and for the most part comments are nice and congratulatory. If I’m lucky I get an inquisitive one or two. Then I get a few comments every so often to one or two of my Korea criticism links, which are apparently quite high on a ‘I hate Korea’ Google search, at least that’s what I’ve been because I haven’t checked – which is probably an indication of how much I care.

In one particular post I have a number of comments which all relate to the fact that my site is a forum for hatred and that it’s OK to just blast out criticism, and I mean really nasty and narrow focused attacks on pretty much every Korean ever born – which includes my wife and daughter – and I’ve given up authorising those comments. I did go through a period initially where I allowed them, but I changed my mind because it is something that I actually feel pretty strongly against, and that’s essentially the belief that Koreans are the bottom feeders of the earth and everyone who has ever met anyone who knows anything or nothing about Korea should be told this. I could go on but I won’t. To give you an idea of the level of intellect we’re dealing with here, allow me to share with you a recent comment which I still have yet to delete:

Fuck Koreans. Everything about them sucks ass, and if you wanna see what happens to the world when Korean idiocy is left unchecked….North Korea…Nuffield said. I know for a fact MANY comments on this forum aren’t making it because several of mines haven’t, and I have a friend in busan who couldn’t post either. Too much truth in his post maybe. Bring on the comments, I don’t give a good god damn. I hate Koreans, most of my friends hate Koreans, and here in Australia, my neck of the woods, most of the people in my community don’t like Koreans either. A kid came to my university from South Korea, and no one liked him. He would get the same criticisms…racist, pig headed, closed minded, arrogant, superiority complex, lack of common sense, poor manners, lack of courtesy, rude in general and annoying to be around. Fuck Koreans. I have visited SK for a month, and it made me hate them even more. My school should stop allowing these fuckers to come here, all they do is sit in their annoying little groups “tee-heeing” about shiny objects and what some asswipe k-slop bugger is on about. The Korean asswipe in one of my classes actually tried to explain to us why Koreans are a superior race, and that they are pure by blood…not according to my research. At any rate, fuck korea, there I said it. And I’ll copy and paste this to word, so I can re-post if this doesn’t make the forum.” – Aussie who hates korrie (2014)

Of course, Mr/Ms AWHK doesn’t realise that WordPress is pretty well equipped for tracking down gombeens who can’t read the context of a post but who feel that the comment section is where their true calling in life lies. With that in mind I popped the IP address of the above into an IP finder. I’ll leave this here and you can make your own assumptions.

Untitled

Anyway, this post is about an inability to read and what concerns me is that seemingly educated people, as I assume all these people are, feel that they are above an entire nation of people yet they can’t even understand a blog post. “But it’s the internet” I hear you quip, and yes you’re right I should set my standards a little lower.

With that in mind I’m going to finish with another lesson in how to read, or how not to read.

As I teach English writing here in Korea, one thing I’m always certain to do is to reiterate the necessity of confirming and knowing the sources where you get your material. I’m not against using online sources at all, in fact I encourage it as there is great variety in the internet. Of course there are problems with encouraging reliance on the internet. We do find ourselves sinking into our own personal information clique. Here we feel that without criticism we can read and post and read and post whatever we like without ever crossing paths with an alternative voice. Twitter is a perfect example of this, and if it weren’t for having friends who I really know (and vice versa) who share a variety of opinions and news articles, from preachy Godist stuff and unrealistic out of context idealistic quotes from people I’ve never heard of heard, right up to the usual conspiracy theory and American politics we all love to slobber over in a fit of middle class apathetic rage, Facebook would be the same.

So it’s important that when you read a blog or website you’ve never come across you should click the about page. If you have the time whilst lazily bullying yourself about the internet some more articles from said website might be worth your unbridled scrutiny also. But I can see how this can be difficult for some, who may have concerns for conserving their wrist’s energy.

Again my poor misfortunate blog was left open to scrutiny. Again some genius, this time a clever fella ‘Wayginkorea’ felt he was more adept at internetting than your humble author, not that I am a master or anything. Fortunately, at time of going to press, even Reddit defeated its evil ways but I think I have some of my fellow Korea based bloggers to thank for a down vote or two.

On that post that this individual was so displeased by, a defense if you please. I get it that my poem and recording of it didn’t resonate so strongly with other people, but since the actual tragedy so much has come about that the poem’s message has been completely swamped by the controversy surrounding the actual tragedy. If you asked me the kind of people who decided they knew so much about the accident and Korean culture and are only nodding their heads into whiplash with I-told-you-sos will find something like this only abhorrent. I myself do my best to stand out of the way of truth, and just try to accept the current.

This was an account of something I did on my personal blog, so if you didn’t like it go back and read teacher blogs about how little Jimmy couldn’t control his wee wee and then spelled kuntin kandy instead of cotton candy. Life, my friends, is not all about everything meeting your own standards.

The thing is that gets to me is that there’s a great market out there for absolute Korea related vitriol, but you won’t find it here. It’s not that I don’t have things to complain about that stem from life in Korea, and it’s not that I wouldn’t be in a position to rant on and on and on about them. Because I could. In fact I’ve about three or four half finished drafts of such vitriol which have seen the sobering light of a night’s sleep and have remained where they belong. Perhaps someday they will materialise as some class of content but for now they are merely writing practice.

I don’t see any point in ranting in hate here, or in any class of media, be it online or in traditional formats. It serves little function, and even in front of real live people the distance and use is relegated to just pissing more people off. I’m not suggesting the internet is a place only for happy stories and cute puppies, which some people actually enjoy. But there is a place for anger and unless it is serving a purpose that will effect change I can only see it as a waste of time, yours and mine, and a reason to be more angry about nothing in particular. An English written blog about an individuals life in a very foreign country is an example of where anger is a waste of time.

If anything my beloved but few readers, when you read, read deep. Read more than just the link. As long as the internet is open there will be more than just a link to click, and with that more information, images, reactions, and perspective more can be gained. Find out for yourself, and don’t let some moderator or Google search decide for you. Don’t be afraid of your mouse, or your eyes, or spending a little extra time to work out where you really stand on some bull shit argument some half-wit blogger posted on the internet.

Guest Post: All Foreigners Come Back


About two years ago Conor wrote a real nice piece about me as I had just left Korea. It’d been a pretty long journey for me as I’d been there for five years. As Conor wrote I was pretty excited to do some things I’d been saving and planning for a while, but beneath all that was some anxiety as my long term plans were still unclear.

It’s a long story but the short version is my first job out of college was teaching in the Midwestern United States. It was a tough place with a lot of challenges, and after two years I decided to leave. I had the idea in my head that I accomplished something, and thought I now deserved some fabulous life or something like that. Basically as soon as I left my life went downhill. Lots of different things went wrong, had some ugly experiences etc. One thing led to another and I ended up taking a job in Korea.

I was hesitant to go, but I was really upset and angry about how my life turned out. Looking back on the previous few years I felt I had nothing to show for myself. Suwon South Korea ended up being my new home, where I taught English at a public middle school.

Almost as soon as I arrived things turned around. The saying probably is true that there’s nothing like your first year in Korea. The kids were so excited to see me. Do you know what it is to walk into a room and have 40 kids cheering for you? One of them would write “Handsome James” on his tablet and hold it up like a sign. I couldn’t walk the hallways for a while because the kids would see me and get so excited.

Jim’s middle school in Suwon.

That first year I didn’t go out much, but I was happy because I pretty much had a good time at work every day. I made a few new friends, and eventually started getting out more, doing the whole Itaewon and Hon Dae thing, seeing bands etc. During breaks I also got to travel to a lot of places I always wanted to go. I went to Japan a few times, Australia, the Philippines, India, China, Thailand, and a bunch more.

Along the way I changed a lot, and one day when I was out playing basketball with my kids something really hit me. I should have kept that job in the Midwest. It took me almost ten years to figure it out.

I never thought I’d do five years in Korea. Especially those first three, I generally believed every year that “next year” I’d be going home. Cut to the end of 2010, it was almost 2011, I had some money saved up and had been in prayer about leaving at the right time. I was working on my birthday which is right before Christmas when I found the note on my desk. Due to budget cuts, once my current contract would run out on September 30th of 2011 I would not be renewed.

Several other foreigners would have the same fate. I’d heard rumors this was coming, so it wasn’t a total surprise, but still it really hit me. This is it, it really is over now. If this had happened a few years prior I’d have been more upset about it, but I just accepted that it was time to go.

So I soaked in every moment of those last nine months. It helped that the new batch of kids that came in were fantastic. That last year was probably my second best year in Korea as far as the job went.

Then that day came Conor wrote about that I hopped on that bus, and I was excited. In just a few weeks I’d go to the New York Comic Book Convention and meet the legendary Stan Lee. I’d do a cross country road trip; self-publish a few books and sell them at shows, and do all these things I’d been planning and saving towards, but then what?

Jim with his poetry book at the Poet’s House in New York City

Culture shock was something I’d never experienced, but coming back to my hometown that’s been getting worse and worse, seeing old friends go through hard times, not seeing people you expected to see, and just generally being back in western culture was a lot to deal with. Reverse culture shock hit me hard. When a westerner comes back from Korea their friends and family tell them they’re glad they’re back where it’s “safe.” They say this because they love us and they mean well, but they don’t understand that we were quite safe in Korea, maybe even more safe than at home. I’m eating pasta at a Pizza hut in Suwon when some high school boys I don’t know come in. They’re excited to talk to me and offer some of their pizza. I’m walking down the street and some Korean teenage boys walk the other way and it’s “Hi what’s your name where are you from? You are very handsome! Nice to meet you!” Now I’m not saying they’re perfect angels who never do anything wrong. I’ve heard “Fuck you James” a few times as well. But in my own hometown that summer I was back a 15 year old boy followed me and a friend down the street yelling and cursing at us acting like he wanted to fight us. That never happened to me in Asia.

Doing my cross country road trip was great. I’d seen a few old friends I hadn’t seen in 10+ years, went to a few places I’d never been to before, but some of it was really heavy for me too. I went back to my old school in the midwest and ran into a few old students. One of them even said to me “We told you not to leave and you fucking did anyway!” I was coming face to face with what I did wrong.

However there was another personal situation which I won’t get into which was clouding my judgment, and I kind of blew a chance to go back to my old school. Now I was in a situation where I needed to start working soon and didn’t’ know what to do. Times like this you go with what you know, and, Korea being Korea, I was quickly offered a job.

All foreigners go home, and a lot of foreigners end up coming back. Almost exactly a year after I’d left I was back in Korea. Even though the reverse culture shock was hard to deal with, I wasn’t happy to be back. It was for a lot of reasons, but in short I was only coming back for a job and didn’t like that being the only reason I was coming back. I was real pissed off for a bit, but luckily it wouldn’t last.

This time I was out in the country side, kind of like being out in the midwest. The kids were great. I got to see a few friends that were still in Korea, got to meet Conor’s +1, and made some new friends along the way.

Still I knew what needed to be done. Last summer at maybe 2 in the morning I made a phone call and got the news that I got my old job back. I did feel bad for having to break contract with the Korean school, but I figured I’d do the summer camp so I wouldn’t totally screw them over.

Jim’s new/old school in the US

I was ready to leave Korea this time, and that’s the thing. I wasn’t really ready to leave the first time. Coming back helped me realize that I shouldn’t stay in Korea forever, as much as it’s a good life and an easy life, I’m not meant to be a lifer.

So what’s the point of all this? I don’t know. Conor asked for guest posts and this came to mind. I guess I’d want fellow teachers to know that there is life after Korea. Reverse culture shock can be really hard to deal with, but maybe reading this will help someone out there.

Both times when I went to Korea I did so hesitantly, but both times that country gave me a lot of healing and got me straightened out inside. In some ways Korea really saved my life. I’ll be forever thankful for that.

Dae-Han-Min-guk!

This post is guest post. For more on guest posts and how to submit please follow this link.

 

smiley jim

James Murray currently teaches high school social studies in the mid-western United States after traveling the world a bit. He enjoys movies, old cartoons, and a tall glass of milk. When he has spare time he attempts to write. In 2012 he started Hard Coal Studios for his self published comic books, poems, and prose. His website can be found at www.hardcoalstudios.com and he blogs at jemurr.wordpress.com/

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.

I have a job.


One thing I don’t talk too much about here is work. The reasons why are because it’s work, and work is work, and there are plenty of people out there who are more suited to talking about my line of work than I am, and more importantly, I don’t want to talk about work.

I talk with co-workers about work all day in work. It’s work talk. The same work talk that everyone else talks about in work, which usually involves complaining/marvelling over something irrelevant to the rest of the immediate world. It’s not very exciting and the less I have of it the better. Sometimes I talk with Herself about work, and she politely grunts and changes the subject, which I’m grateful for. I do enough talking about work and you don’t deserve, need, or really want to hear me go on about work.

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