I discovered that one of my female students is learning German. Delighted, I asked:
"Warum studierst du Deutsch?"
She stared at me, blinking and smiling lamely.
It's a simple enough question: "Why are you studying German?" Even someone who can't speak German should, in principle, be able to figure out what I'm asking. But my student couldn't. I smiled and nodded cynically, then I asked her whether her German profs spoke Korean most of the time. She nodded. "But sometimes they speak German," she said. "95% Korean and 5% German?" I asked, laughing. She smiled and nodded again.
I tried another tack:
"Wo hast du dein Deutsch gelernt?" Where did you learn your German?
She halfway understood this question, but found herself unable to form a sentence. Instead, she made the "Right here!" gesture, jabbing her finger at the ground near her feet.
Yes, folks: welcome to Korea, the land where the education system beats you over the head with all manner of English lessons, but skimps horribly when it comes to the study of other European languages. I had heard the same thing about French from students of mine at Sookmyung Women's University: almost all lectures on French language and literature occur in Korean, which is absolutely ridiculous. I'm not so ideologically rigid that I refuse to use a bit of Korean in the classroom, but full-on lecturing... that's a bit much, wouldn't you say? How do you expect the student to learn the target language if he or she is never exposed to it and obliged to function in it?
Obviously, Korea's first and most relentless priority is English, not other European languages. The country, taken as a whole, is still trying to figure out the best approach to teaching English in a way that is somehow consonant with Korean culture. It's that last part that sticks in my craw: to learn a language is to learn a culture: you can't Koreanize the learning of English,* straining it painfully through a Korean cultural filter, and still expect the learners to come out as competent speakers and writers of Shakespeare's mother tongue. So yes, I freely admit that, if I had things my way, I'd be a total cultural imperialist, forcing Koreans to learn English the way we Westerners approach foreign-language learning in general. I'd keep the traditional Korean stress on grammar, but I'd place much more stress on the formation of the productive macroskills, i.e., speaking and writing. Korean education remains beholden to a notion of the student as a passive receptacle of knowledge (which is why lecture is still such a popular format here; you, Dear Reader, already know my opinion on lecture as a pedagogical tool); this mentality spills over into language education and results in French and German students who listen to long lectures in Korean that are about French and about German when they should be in French and in German.
While I'm not the biggest fan of modern oral-proficiency approaches (they encourage "talk," a vague notion at best, at the cost of sloppiness), I do think such approaches would be therapeutic if transplanted into the Korean academic milieu. They'd be an instant cure for student passivity, shocking the students into action and, yes, forcing them into a different cultural mode in terms of teacher-student and student-student discourse. Granted, many Western teachers in Korea are fully aware of the dynamic I'm talking about and have been doing just this—employing a proactively student-centered, oral-proficiency approach—for some years now. But we expats are fighting a cultural tendency, namely passivity, that's not going to go away anytime soon. Passivity is too rooted in other ambient cultural factors for it to be easily excised, dominance-hierarchical thinking not being the least among those factors.
Further complicating the problem is that, while modernization of language-teaching techniques is most visible in English, Koreans themselves seem to have balkanized foreign-language study such that going from, say, studying English to studying French is like moving from one universe to a completely different one. A college student of English can expect to encounter many different pedagogical approaches, styles, and methods; the same can't be said for the college student learning German or French: the latter student is in for lecture, lecture, and more lecture—mostly in Korean. It's a sad and frustrating state of affairs.
Where do matters go from here? There's been an unfortunate push away from the use of foreign instructors, who are being unceremoniously booted out of Korean public schools and other arenas. Parallel to this is a bizarre movement advocating the use of robots to teach English—a further unfortunate step toward the Koreanization of English-language pedagogy. Unwilling to trust us foreigners to step in and do things the right way, Korea meddles with the language curricula, and the result is widespread institutionalized mediocrity. Notable exceptions would be the elite universities, where even French and German learners can take actual courses in the target language. If anything, the cultural tide needs to move in the other direction, i.e., toward greater expat involvement in the educational process, and toward greater emphasis on different modes of thinking. Student passivity needs to be combated, but that fight is a multi-front war that won't be ending anytime soon.
Meanwhile, we wage slaves just toil away, doing what we do and hoping to get through to at least a few of our kids.
*Koreans Koreanize as much as, if not more than, Americans Americanize. When Doritos corn chips came to Korea, the Korean market instantly responded by producing its own version of Doritos. Several competing brands are now available; to anyone familiar with the original Doritos, the Korean analogues taste and feel different: they're lighter and a bit more weakly flavored—a mere flimsy shadow of the original, as is often the case when Western products—food or otherwise—are Koreanized.