Monday, March 24, 2014

teaching and learning Korean: some disjointed thoughts

Starting next week, the beginning of April, I'll be teaching Korean for not one, but three days a week. Last semester was easy by comparison: just one 90-minute day a week. This time around, my Monday/Wednesday "Absolute Beginners" class will be twice a week at 90 minutes per class, and my Tuesday "Veteran Beginners" class will be for two solid hours. Am I a glutton for punishment?

Obviously, this can't be "punishment" in anything like a true or literal sense; I wouldn't be doing this if I sincerely thought it was a burden. I like teaching, even if I'm not the world's best teacher, and I do feel that non-Koreans can use the extra help to ease into Korean culture. There's a lot about this country that seems, especially at first, nonsensical or even ridiculous (nine years later, some aspects of Korean culture still feel that way to me!); Korea and Koreans can rub foreigners the wrong way, and vice versa. At the same time, I think another reason to get foreigners learning Korean is that, as I've said before, it's the least thanks they can offer back to the country that feeds them, clothes them, and puts a roof over their heads.

So let me rant a moment. It's a familiar rant to longtime readers of this blog. I have a great deal of trouble understanding the foreigner who cruises along for decades—decades!—in Korea and never picks up more than a very basic, pidgin/grunting version of Korean—a jumbled storehouse of random expressions and interjections like "Kaja!" and "An-dwae!" and "Aigu!" I always want to grab such people by the shoulders, shake them until their brains are sloshing, and bellow, "What the fuck have you been doing all this time? Actively hiding from Korean society?"

I suppose some people are experts at creating tight little cognitive bubbles around themselves, bubbles that selectively screen out most of the reality of living in Korea, allowing in only those few things that would have piqued the person's interest back in his or her home country. Did you like beer back home? Well, there are bars in Korea! See? No need to change yourself! Such foreigners are amazingly incurious about the rich world around them. Instead of asking themselves "What's the name of that fish in Korean? What do you call the job that that old guy with the flattened cardboard boxes is doing? What's that sign over the restaurant mean?" or asking themselves "What does 'jjajeung-na' mean? I hear it all the time...", they let Korea just wash over them in a wave of squandered sensory data. The country is 90% opaque to such people, and they don't care. Why don't they want to know more?

To be fair, I have to concede that some folks really do have a tin ear when it comes to learning foreign languages (although this is sometimes selective: a person might master five European languages, then be brought up short by basic Korean). Other folks may be so paralyzed by their introversion that they find it difficult or impossible to insinuate themselves into Korean society on any level. Still other folks plead age as the reason why they don't seem to be catching anything about the culture. About this latter claim, I'm sure that theorist Stephen Krashen would say that, no matter how old you are, you're capable of learning quickly and well as long as the "affective filter" is low, i.e., as long as you're motivated and in a low-stress environment, free of the fear of embarrassment or failure.

If I may digress further, that in itself is an interesting topic: is a low-affective-filter language classroom always an ideal language classroom? I'm not entirely convinced that's the case. In my own experience learning French, some of my most mortifying mistakes have also proved to be some of the most effective teaching moments for me. My most embarrassing gaffe came early on, in 1986, when I was a rising high-school senior at my French host family's house over the summer. I wanted to compliment the Ducoulombiers on their excellent raspberry jam, so I asked, "Do the French put preservatives in their jam?" Unfortunately, the word I used was préservatif, which caused some guffawing. You see, un préservatif is a condom. You can talk about un agent conservateur (a preservative) or, more generally, about des produits chimiques (chemicals), but don't mention un préservatif unless you're feeling amorous. As you can tell, there's no way in hell that I'll ever forget how to say "condom" in French.

It's only one example, but it can be multiplied indefinitely, and I think an argument can be made that embarrassment and failure can actually be excellent motivators when learning a foreign language. What worse feeling can there be than in not being understood the way you intended? A language learner with any sort of conscience will do his or her best to avoid such a pitfall. At the same time, it's the teacher's responsibility to strike a balance between not over-coddling the student (who shouldn't be told that s/he's a great success when s/he just failed to perform a simple linguistic task) and not inadvertently abusing the student through teasing or ridicule. There probably should be some fear of failure in the classroom, but only enough to keep students alert and on their toes.

So those are some very scattered thoughts on teaching and learning Korean. Sorry about the rant, but I do feel strongly that it's the height of stupidity to move into a foreign culture and then spend the rest of your time avoiding it. I've got eleven students signed up for my classes thus far: six in the Absolute Beginners class, and five in the Veteran Beginners class. I doubt there'll be more: I've sent out several emails, hoping for replies from a few stragglers, but they haven't nibbled. Our loss, I tell myself. Perhaps these hold-outs will see the light and try to learn some Korean next semester.

Once these classes begin, I'll have to exercise discretion and respect people's privacy by not writing in detail about what happens during the lessons. I'm aware that one or two of my students know about and read my blog, so if any students turn out to be raging assholes, you, Dear Reader, will never be the wiser. (In all seriousness, though, these incoming groups both look to be great. I'm not too worried about how they'll get along with me, but here's hoping they all get along with each other!)


John McCrarey said...

Well of course your rant applies to me in spades. I did put forth some effort over the years; learning the alphabet, hiring a tutor, using Rosetta Stone and the like. It was frustrating because I'd learn a some new phrase and excitedly try it out only to be not understood. Jee Yeun says I have a "bad accent".

Anyway, I'm not denying that a fair amount of laziness came into play as well. 70% of my Korean life is spent in Itaewon playing darts and needing the ability to speak Korean when almost everyone speaks English is greatly diminished. I think if I had been domiciled out in the countryside I might have been more motivated.

I've been considering going back to school because it does pain me not to be able to communicate with my Korean family. Still, I consider myself blessed that I've never encountered a Korean who viewed my inability to speak the native tongue with the vehement negativity you express. (ha, of course how would I know, right?)

Ironically, I used to get pissed about foreigners in the USA not speaking English. Having lived as an illiterate here has made me much more tolerant and forgiving.


Kevin Kim said...

Yeah, I think you and I stand at different points on the spectrum regarding this issue.

I'm an assimilationist, so I feel Koreans have as much right to ask us expats "Why can't you speak Korean after all these years?" as we Americans have when we ask the same question of barely functional expats in America.

And you're right: most Koreans actually have very low expectations of foreigners when it comes to language learning, which is why they're eternally surprised whenever a non-Korean starts speaking Korean with any competency. My feeling is that those low expectations need to change.

One exception is my barber, who is an unrepentant assimilationist. She has very high expectations of her foreign clientele. While she's viciously buzzing away at my hair, she often complains about the foreigners who visit her salon, completely unable to speak Korean. "They need to learn!" she barks. Good for you, girl, I cheer silently.

My other beef with not assimilating is the burden it places on others: by not learning the language, one chooses to make oneself dependent, and for many foreign guys in Korea, this means that almost every important task will, in some way or other, devolve to the distaff side of the relationship: shopping, filling out forms, planning and prepping trips, even something as simple as ordering food over the phone. Those poor women: little did they know they'd be throwing their lot in with a cripple. I just hope that, in relationships where the woman does almost everything for her man, she's appreciated for what she does, and not merely taken for granted.

King Baeksu said...

Let's be honest here: A lot of expats these days come to Korea to work, not out of any real love or interest for the culture. I can also think of quite a few long-term male expats I know from Canada, Australia or the US who don't seem to have any close Korean male friends. Says something about their attitude to the local culture, doesn’t it?

However, Koreans sometimes don't help in this area. It would be nice if when a foreigner makes a mistake in Korean, they didn't patronizingly say 99 times out of a hundred, "Wow, you speak Korean so well!" but instead actually tried to help correct the problem, for example by subtly repeating how a certain word or phrase should properly be expressed. (The technical term for this is modeling, I believe.) Of course, a majority of Koreans will assume that non-Koreans are just as hypersensitive to “criticisms” as they are, and will generally just bite their tongue rather than say anything at all. In any case, I sometimes wonder about my Korean friends when I suddenly learn that I have been making the same mistake for years and never once been corrected. Do they think that they are saving my "face" be letting me lose face for literally years at a time? Doesn't sound very logical to me!

Koreans could also try to muster a bit more of their world-famous 눈치 and not speak at the rough rate of a KTX train to non-Koreans when it's usually obvious by the lost look in someone's eyes that not everything said is being fully processed. A bit more flexibility with different accents would also be appreciated. When I lived in China, I often mangled my tones but somehow most Chinese were able to understand me the first time I said something. In Korea, however, invariably there is 10% of the population who just won't understand the same exact word or phrase I have been using for the past decade here without any problems. Last weekend, for instance, I was at Myongji University in Seoul trying to do some research in their main library. The older guard at the front desk wanted to know my purpose before allowing entry — we were speaking entirely in Korean — and so I said I needed to do some research, using the common word “연구.” He looked completely befuddled and spent the next several minutes asking me what “연고” meant (it means “ointment” in case you’re wondering). I kept replying, “Not 연고 — 연구,” stressing the second syllable (ironically, he seemed to hear the first syllable correctly, with a far more difficult vowel to pronounced for most Westerners). Finally, I had to write it down on a piece of paper, which he looked at and said, “Oh, you mean 연구!” Now, I know my Korean accent isn’t perfect, but sometimes I really wonder if such communication breakdowns aren’t more psychological than sonic in nature.

(After that, I went to the central libraries of both Yonsei and Sungshin, said the exact same thing to three different guards — also older men — and was understood instantly. As I had been at least a hundred times before.)

King Baeksu said...


My last observation has to do with cultural confidence, or more exactly Korea’s lack thereof (if they really were culturally confident about themselves, they wouldn’t need to keep blowing their own horn in the domestic media all the time). I have also lived in Japan and China for several years each and the default setting for public interactions there is the local language; if your Chinese or Japanese isn’t up to scratch, that’s your problem and you’d best try to get a handle on it sooner rather than later or else you’ll be lost. In Korea, however, whenever a white person appears most Koreans — especially younger ones in larger cities — automatically assume they need to speak English, and if they can’t they will often just clam up and things quickly become very awkward. I rarely had awkward communications in public in China or Japan with restaurant or shop staff because they didn’t burden themselves with the notion that they automatically had to speak English. Do Americans assume they need to speak Spanish or Chinese when they encounter Latin Americans or Chinese there? Of course, not, that would be silly. So why can’t Koreans chill out and just use Korean as the default language of communication when interacting with Westerners in public here? If they relaxed a bit more and made communication with non-Koreans less stressful and strained, non-Koreans might enjoy conversing in Korean all the more, and find that much more motivation within themselves to try to learn the language.

Kevin Kim said...


Can't say there's much to disagree with here. I, too, think Koreans understand utterances through a cognitive filter that has very, very narrow gaps: if your utterance is even slightly off from how a Korean expects it to sound, then they won't understand you. (The obvious exception is Koreans who teach Korean: they're used to foreign accents.)

I also agree that Korea's own cultural self-esteem (victim complex?) comes into play in intercultural interactions: Koreans generally do expect that they're the ones who must speak a foreign language whenever they meet a foreigner.

And the patronizing "you speak Korean so well!" compliment is part and parcel with the low expectations I had mentioned earlier in my response to John: Koreans either don't think foreigners can learn Korean, or don't think most foreigners care enough to learn it (and unfortunately, there may be some truth to the latter).

King Baeksu said...

"I, too, think Koreans understand utterances through a cognitive filter that has very, very narrow gaps..."

Add to this a technological filter of more recent vintage, namely, an entire younger generation that often seems more comfortable "communicating" via a screen interface than face-to-face and in person. Indeed, I can't help but feel that my university students these days are rather more quiet and reserved in class than they were a decade ago. Today we were talking about "smartphones" and one girl, who is actually one of the sharper students in class, said she used hers 20 hours a day. That is not a typo. I asked her how many hours a night she slept on average and she said, "About five." I countered, "But you also have classes to go to, so how can you use it for 20 hours a day?" She replied, "Oh, I use it while I sleep, too."

Hmm. If one spends most of one's waking hours in dreamy virtual worlds, who's to say that most of us aren't sleeping all the time, anyway?

Kevin Kim said...

Hm. Hints of Plato's cave allegory.

Charles said...

Interesting post, and interesting comments, too.

I agree, of course, that foreign residents in Korea should take the time to learn the language. And I agree with the comments on low expectations regarding foreigners and Koreans' general "cultural confidence." I think it's a two-way street. I know guys (it's always guys) here who tell me, "Yeah, I tried to learn Korean, but it was too hard." So they give up. Sure, that's on them, but the truth is that it is fairly easy for them to give up. They don't risk much by doing so. Imagine giving up learning how to speak French as a resident of France, and instead walking around trying to speak English all the time. I don't think that would work nearly as well.

I also think it's a bit of a personality thing. Some people seem better suited to assimilation than others.

John from Daejeon said...

Charles, a big part of the problem in not only "some people seem better suited to assimilation than others," but some countries are better suited to assimilation than others, and South Korea is not one of them as you can read a little about here as even half South Koreans have quite a bit of difficulty being accepted on the Southern part of the peninsula even when their Korean is flawless and perfectly accented.

Charles said...

John, I definitely see where you're coming from, and I will agree that Korea can be a hard place to find acceptance. That being said, I think there is a difference between "being accepted" and "assimilating," but I'm having a hard time formulating my thoughts at the moment, as it is a very complicated subject. I've written out two replies so far and discarded them. I'll have to give this some more thought.