Saturday, November 03, 2007

them heathen Chinee

I'm normally in the office until late. The reason for this, especially this semester, is usually work-related, but sometimes I'm there to catch a bit of "24" off the compressed DVDs my buddy Tom got me from the Philippines.

One of the Korean* teachers, SY, also has a habit of lingering, especially on Friday evenings. Yesterday, she was waiting for one of the ladies from a different office to come up; they were going to drive home together. SY is very chatty and she talks quickly; I usually end up nodding stupidly, catching less than half of what she's telling me. She doesn't seem to care whether I understand, either. On occasion she'll chat about a topic I can handle in Korean, allowing me to interject a remark or two to show her that I am indeed following her. This was the case last evening when she opened up about the Chinese students in her classes.

Teachers sometimes vent. This is both natural and necessary. We get shit from management above and from students below. As I've said before, I think it's our duty, as teachers, to look out for each other. SY, who vents often, told us about how she enjoys teaching Korean to Western and Japanese students, but has a hard time with the Chinese. The list of complaints was both long and surprising in content: according to her, many of her Chinese students are actively disrespectful in class. Not only do they arrive late and do other things I've seen my own Korean students do, but they also sit in class with earbuds in their ears, listening to their MP3 players, or talk to their classmates, or get up at random moments to answer cell phone calls (absolutely verboten in my classes). Worse than all this, SY says, is the way the students react to explanations of Korean grammar: with visible annoyance.

This was a stumper for me. I've been annoyed by the "explanations" I've received for quirks I've encountered in French and Korean, but I've fought my annoyance because I know that, ultimately, it boots nothing to rail against the reality of a language. Language isn't the child of pure logic. Language is a partially logical phenomenon (as the overall systematicity of conjugations, declensions, and so on demonstrates), but sometimes-- as every single language teacher has told his or her students-- you just gotta memorize the locution because, well, that's just the way it is.** Rules have exceptions; get used to it.

But SY's point was that her Chinese students, quite unlike her students from other countries and cultures, actually take time to complain loudly about the Korean language's quirks and inconsistencies. I can understand how this might drive her up the wall.

My own experience with Chinese students at Smoo is limited to the one Chinese student I've had during my time here. She was a fantastic Korean speaker (her classmates were startled the day she told us she was Chinese), and her English was good enough to place her in my advanced intensive class. She was a hard worker and already knew what she wanted to do after college. While I doubt SY was trying to paint all Chinese students with a single brush, I simply want to make clear that them heathen Chinee come in all shapes and sizes, just like the rest of us.

*In this case, I mean a Korean lady who teaches Korean.

**In Korean, I'm constantly annoyed by the presence of "invisible" letters. Take, for instance, the Korean word for "passport," which is pronounced yeok-gweon. The spelling, however, is 여권 ("yeo-gweon"). There's no extra "gieuk" (ㄱ, the letter signifying the "g" or "k" sound, depending on initial or final position in a syllable) at the end of the first syllable, yet we hear it when the word is spoken ("역권"). What makes this annoying is that, when you see a word like yeogwan (roughly, "inn") and note the Korean spelling--여관 -- you immediately notice that the word is pronounced exactly as it's spelled (i.e., yeo-gwan, not yeok-gwan).

There is indeed a perfectly rational explanation for this apparent inconsistency, but the inconsistency is one of those quirks of Korean spelling and pronunciation that isn't immediately obvious to the learner. Because it's often time-consuming for teachers to offer rationales for inconsistencies, students rarely get to hear a disquisition on the history of the evolution of Korean phonology and orthography. Instead, students are often told, "Here's the rule; memorize the exceptions." Having done this myself when confronted by sad faces in my classroom, I know exactly how SY feels. And as a student, I know it's painful every time we encounter exceptions to the teacher's stated rule. Each exception disturbs the fragile sense of rationality we try in vain to nurture while learning a language.

I usually use the above "passport/inn" example as a reply to student complaints about the craziness of English. I freely admit that English is full of exceptions and irregularities, but I make sure my students understand that all languages are that way.


1 comment:

kwandongbrian said...

I have tried to send this comment twice previously. I expect to see a note saying it is awaiting moderation. If you receive three comments - sorry.

If you comment on the front page of your blog about this comment, I would prefer to be anonymous. Your comments are hard enough to find, that I am not concerned about my name being here.

My university has a contingent of perhaps a hundred Chinese Nationals and I teach a class of 15.

Not a large number of them, but definitely more than my Korean student classes, will use their cellphones in class, chat while I am explaining things and otherwise devalue the class.

Many of the students (I would say most of all, but that would be guesswork- dangerous guesswork, as their employment is illegal) have part-time jobs that they need to pay for their classes and such. For this reason, I am somewhat more sympathetic to their behavior than I would be with my Korean students (If a Chinese student is sleepy in class, I suspect that he worked most of the night. If a Korean student appears sleepy, I assume he was drinking.)

It is possible that the calls they receive (possibly send, as well) are work related as are the discussions they have.

I am not very sympathetic, mind you, just more sympathetic.