Thursday, April 24, 2014

Obama and ESL: a telling video

A colleague sent me link to this video. In his email, this colleague wrote:

Here's a funny video you can show your students to encourage them to speak English in public:

Obama repeatedly asks an auditorium full of Korean reporters for a question, either in English or Korean, and the only one finally willing to do so is Chinese, lol.

Commenter 정연욱 [Jeong Yeon-uk] writes simply, "Really embarrassing..."

President Obama got a taste of what it's often like for us professors to teach a beginner-level English class (for some of us, this might even apply to the intermediates!). Dead, zombie-like silence often indicates that students are in the grip of several simultaneous fears.

First, there's the fear of doing something that no one else is doing, i.e., breaking the silence and thereby disturbing the "group harmony." English teachers quickly learn that, in Korea, it's often better just to call on specific students than to ask a general, "What does anyone think?"-style question. In fact, the situation is so bad that there's a riddle:

Q: How do you shut a Korean student up?
A: Ask him a question.

Second, there's the fear of embarrassing oneself by demonstrating poor English skills—a type of performance anxiety that consumes many, many Koreans learning English. I've been giving midterms this week, and I've seen this phenomenon up close. Students who had thought they could skate by in relative silence now find themselves, this week, obliged to talk more than they ever have before, and it frightens them to be put in such a situation. It really shouldn't: much of my effort in class is devoted to "lowering the affective filter," i.e., decreasing the stress and anxiety that come with speaking in a foreign language. I'm not always successful.

Third, there is likely the fear of questioning as august a presence as the President of the United States. This last fear is a bit hard to understand, given how avidly and viciously the Korean press goes after its own politicians. Korea has a love-hate relationship with America, but be it love or hate, America looms large in the Korean consciousness. Does the reporters' hesitancy come down to a fear of appearing rude? Because ironically, the stony silence to our president was itself rude, at least from an American perspective. In class, I often can't help my own cultural conditioning: if I ask a question and receive no answer, I immediately interpret such silence as rebelliousness, even though I know, after having spent years in Korea, that the student isn't trying to be willful.

Mr. Obama should have been told by his advisors that it's the kiss of death, in a group situation, to float a general question to no Korean in particular. He would have gotten much better results had he indicated a particular reporter and asked, "Do you have any questions for me?" With that one gesture, he could easily have opened the floodgates for a host of questions once the Koreans realized that nothing disastrous would come of merely asking.

Below the video, several commenters weighed in, in both English and Korean. Some echoed the embarrassment; others testily came to the defense of the silent reporters. To me, a reporter who fails to ask a question has failed to do his job. Asking questions, finding out the truth, is supposed to be one of the most basic of journalistic responsibilities. By that metric, only the Chinese reporter who had the stones to address Mr. Obama escapes negative judgment. I have my own theory as to why that particular journalist was brave enough to risk a question, but I'll save those musings for later. In the meantime, I'll note that Mr. Obama's insistence that a Korean member of the press ask him a question was probably rooted in annoyance at and disappointment with the wall of silence: like me, he too interpreted the stillness as an act of rudeness.



King Baeksu said...

The Chinese guy is CCTV anchor Rui Chenggang. Obviously he bribed all the Korean journalists not to say anything!

This is the question he asked, by the way:

"My question is very simple, you mentioned interpretation, I know part of the difficulties of being the American President is some of the decisions that you take, actions that you make will be interpreted in a way that are not what you thought it would be or what you meant it to be. For instance some of the actions you have taken were interpreted as anti-business domestically in the United Sates. And as someone just mentioned some of the action taken by the US government that you represent as well were interpreted as sacrificing other country’s interest for America’s own benefit. You find yourself constantly being interpreted thousands of ways, how do you address these interpretations?"

If that's a "simple" question, I'd hate to have to answer a "complicated" one!

King Baeksu said...

Oh, and here's The Korea Times whining about the whole affair:

Nice spin there. Is it Rui's fault if Korean journalists can't do their own job properly? A passive journalist is no journalist at all, but merely a stenographer.

Kevin Kim said...

Spin, indeed! I noticed that the writer, Sunny Lee, made no mention of the fact that the Korean journalists just sat there for a long time before the Chinese journalist finally stepped up to the plate. Based on Sunny Lee's version of events, it sounds as if the Chinese journalist suddenly stood up and hogged the floor before the Koreans had a chance to gather their wits and say anything. The subtext is that the Koreans would have said something had they been given the chance, but that's simply untrue. They would have let the silence drag on... and on...

In my opinion, no one owes the Korean journalists an apology. That just plays to the pervasive victimization mentality on the peninsula.

The article does hint, though, at my own theory as to why the Chinese journo thought he could ask his question: he's from China, and China walks tall on the world stage. Call it an imperial attitude, if you will, or the attitude of "a winner," but more and more, the Chinese are feeling their nationalistic oats and strutting more openly.

Other, more insecure people might grumble about citizens from prominent countries who seem to walk around as if they own the place: Americans have long been resented for their loud, careless, obnoxious manners; the Japanese travel in camera-clicking swarms like a nanotech nightmare come to life; the English are often taken to task for their linguistic and cultural imperialism (same as America) and arrogance; now it's China's turn to pose and preen. Viewed from this perspective, Sunny Lee's article comes off as more than a little insecure-sounding, like a remora that resents the shark it rides on.

King Baeksu said...

I've met a couple of reporters from CCTV. They can certainly be a cocky lot. You probably would be, too, if you worked for the Ministry of Truth and had a captive viewership of a billion people.

As for The Korea Times, well, I think their motto should be "Korea's Oldest English-language Blog." It's certainly not a real newspaper.

King Baeksu said...

Who is the colleague who sent you that email? I must say that I find his (or her) attitude rather "culturally insensitive."

For that matter, "정연욱" should be taken to the woodshed for "two minutes of hate" as well.

C'mom, people, can't we all get along?