Thursday, May 22, 2014

the role of the teacher in the EFL classroom

I attended a mini-conference this evening. It featured two presenters and left me wondering about each presenter's diametrically opposite ideas regarding the role of a teacher in the EFL classroom. The first presenter effectively said that the teacher should adapt to the class and accommodate the students' cultural needs; the second presenter argued exactly the opposite: the students should be the ones adapting to different cultural modes of thinking, speaking, and acting. Both of these views have merit, but I find I'm more sympathetic to the second presenter's view—primarily for practical reasons: I can't mitotically split myself into twenty Kevins, each catering to an individual student in the classroom. It's much more useful and realistic to adopt a "YOU come to ME" attitude, in which the students must bracket their own style of thinking and internalize both English language and Western culture. As the over-abused saying goes, to learn a language is to learn a culture.

My previous post made a similar point: Koreans will attempt to Koreanize the learning of English, which is exactly the wrong approach. Instead of sanitizing EFL so that it doesn't rub Korean cultural sensibilities the wrong way, Koreans should seriously consider plunging wholeheartedly into a radically different mental universe. Such a plunge would initially be painful and culturally subversive, but the linguistic dividends would be impressive. Much that is lacking in Korean culture—a culture of discussion, for example—would be brought to the fore in EFL classes that are taught in a fully Western mode. Is this a form of cultural imperialism? My answer to this accusation is twofold: (1) I wince whenever I hear the word imperialism, which I think is often misused, and is often employed as a cudgel that serves to end discussion; (2) I also think that, the moment a student decides to learn a foreign language, she is implicitly saying "amen" to admitting a raft of foreign cultural tropes into her consciousness. Whatever "imperialism" there is begins with the student's choice to learn, or with society's collective choice to prioritize English as part of the standard curriculum.

Years of less-than-impressive results on standardized tests have left Koreans frustrated and confused about how to improve their English. They don't seem to understand that, at heart, their own inertia—in matters of pedagogical ideology—is preventing them from realizing true progress in EFL. Adopting new language-learning methods, trusting the expat teachers to do a competent job, engaging with and participating in a more explicitly Western mindset—these are all things that Koreans could be doing to improve their linguistic lot. More focus on productive macroskills would also yield benefits. And the teacher most decidedly shouldn't accommodate the student's need to retreat to Korean culture at the first sign of foreignness.


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