Saturday, July 31, 2004

49 more weeks to go

I made it through a full, eight-hour Saturday with sanity more or less intact. Nipple hairs wave contentedly with the knowledge that Sunday, bloody Sunday, will be a day off. I'll probably spend it doing fucking laundry. And sleeping.

Caught a glimpse of Miss SNU this morning as she went to a different foreign teacher for her class. The dick shouted a muffled "YO!" from inside my pants. The scheduling of students seems almost random to me: students aren't necessarily paired with teachers over an extended period. It's assumed that all teachers are following the program in the same manner, which makes us little more than modular, perfectly interchangeable components in a smoothly operating system. The more I learn about EC's methodology, the less I like it.

One of my students, a French teacher, has done extensive study in linguistics, and she's got plenty of questions about the effectiveness of our system. I don't have time, in a 25-minute period, to address such concerns, so when she brought up her doubts today I dodged the issue and put on a customer-service veneer, expressing sympathy but also gently pushing her to continue with the lesson. I'm sure she saw through the charade.

It also turns out that one of my colleagues, a Canadian who's just about to finish up his year at EC, has a Master's degree in linguistics and is plenty dissatisfied with EC's system. I think that anyone with even a superficial linguistics background like mine will wonder how effective this approach is. Is language purely habit-formation and specific skill sets? Can a reductive approach to language teaching, one that nearly eliminates language's cognitive elements, produce students with actual brains? How does one jump from an audiolingualism-heavy curriculum to the real world, where creative utterances are the norm?

K, the founder, made it clear that he was trying to apply a "lesson" approach to language learning. Think: piano lessons or voice lessons or tennis lessons. K actually said to me during our chat, "If a piano player learns Piece Number 1, then Number 2, and so on, then by the time he's reached Piece Number 1000, he's a true pianist." What K is missing is that the pianist's learning process actually includes a lot of seemingly-random input and a good deal of creativity along the way.

One of my brothers, Sean, is an accomplished cellist, and I know for a fact that his cello performance skills aren't purely the result of sawing away on études and memorizing standard pieces. A good deal of creativity derives from working with different chamber groups, hearing (and integrating) contradictory instructions from different cello teachers, and discovering things on one's own during solitary practice. Along with this is the constant need for auditory input: listening to classical CDs, attending the concerts of friends and luminaries, attending master classes, preparing one's own cello recitals, and returning to basic exercises like études and so on.

EC is opening a new branch in... Uzbekistan. It'll be for teaching English. K also has plans to open branches in the US and Europe. The US branches will be for teaching non-English languages, including Korean. I'd be morbidly curious to try the EC method as a way of learning Korean, but I truly doubt its effectiveness.

Compare EC to the Korea University program, which follows a fairly standard "SL" (second-language) intensive-course format: four hours a day, five days a week of in-class activity, plus homework, quizzes, tests, field trips, and projects. Although I felt the KU program's Achilles' heel was the placement interview (they placed me into too high a level), I thought the teachers did a decent job and had a more or less solid (if not flawless) curriculum. My four-hour day was divided into two principal parts: "conversation" in the morning for two hours (actually, it was more like a grammar class using a textbook containing dialogues), followed by two hours covering the "four basic skills" of listening, speaking, reading, and writing. This represented a fairly balanced approach, and while I felt KU could have done a far, far better job of dealing with vocabulary*, KU's program significantly improved my Korean.

[*I consider vocabulary the basic linguistic unit, from a teacher's point of view. You can know all the freakin' grammar you want, but if you don't know the word for "bathroom," then your ass'll be redecorating your pants. Vocab comes first. Period.]

I could blow greasy fart-bubbles about this damn program all day long, but let's focus on the bright side of life at EC: I like my co-workers. It's something of a tradition for the male teachers at a hagwon to flirt with the front desk receptionists, and I, with my large ass and big stomach on full display, am no different from the trimmer guys in this respect. The receptionists giggle at my antics while my manager-- the one who told me to lose weight so I could fit the lab coat-- stares at me with hooded disapproval.

The manager's very polite on the whole, though; I don't want to leave you with the impression that her style resembles that of the typical foaming-at-the-mouth wonjang. She's occasionally strolled all the way to my class to talk with me about this or that student (I actually have my "own" room; another perk), and aside from the lab coat problem, she's been downright cool. It's kind of strange to look her in the eyes, though: the whites of her eyes are light blue, and I have no idea why. Fans of Frank Herbert are probably wondering whether she's Earth's first Fremen, veins infused with the spice melange of Shai-hulud. If she's a Fremen, she has to be the shortest one on record, but she looks capable of twisting (or biting) your nuts off, Fremen-style, if you step too far out of line.

We foreign teachers (actually trainers, remember!) work with Korean partners who also speak native- or near-native-level English. At the Kangnam branch of EC, almost all these teachers are female, except for one gyopo dude. My foreign colleagues include a woman from New Zealand, another woman from Malawi (she's white and carries a South African passport), two guys from Canada, another from the States (just hired... I think he's from the States), and yours truly. We all rarely have time to sit together as a group; our schedules are all different, and break times don't overlap much. Many of us are new to the staff, replacing people who've either been fired or who are finishing out their year-long stint.

I suspect EC will still be here in a year's time if it's trundled on for two years already. I don't wish for its collapse since I'm now on its payroll. But hear me well: I think EC's a gimmick and little else, and further, I think it's going to "hagwonize" like every other company eventually does in Korea. Expansion will mean diffusion; diffusion will mean increasing separation from founding principles and methodology. K, the company's founder and Dear Leader, said that EC will be rolling out a kid-oriented version of the program sometime next year; I can only assume that we proles will be asked to teach it. The kiddie program is a smart business move: I already teach three middle-schoolers and a high schooler with the adult textbooks, which is silly. But because the kiddie program will follow the same basic methodology, it'll be more of the same pedagogical fluff.

Righto... gonna schlep home and enjoy some goddamn air conditioning, despite the ticklish throat it's been giving me.


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