Dec 1, 2010


Each morning, my low-level students and I go through a pretty bland speaking exercise.

How are you?
Im _______________.
Why is that?
Im ______________ because ______________.

Basic stuff, but it always takes a while, and we always end the exercise laughing. When studying English, it seems, Korean students are overfed the Politeness Script of small talk.

How are you?
Im fine thank you, and you?

They say it all in one breath, the words meaningless sounds as they tumble out. Its English on autopilot. Their voices rise sharply to a forced squeak at the end of the sentence. I can picture my students back in elementary school, a stern teacher waving a ruler in a rising motion. Your voice goes up with questions! UP!

On the first day of any new class, I ask them this simple question, how are you? The same mumbled answer follows me continent to continent in ESL classrooms. Imfinethankyouandyou? - a banal language-learning epidemic. I write fine on the board, and draw a thick line through it. Dont tell me youre fine, I say, feeling like a sitcom therapist. Think about it. Take your time. Tell me, really, how are you?

Here in Korea, my middle school students take this question seriously. Their answers are sometimes touchingly frank; stripped down in their limited English vocabulary.

Im bored because my life has no laughing.
Im happy because I like my pretty face.
Im angry because. I dont know!

This is where I want them to be; to move beyond the regurgitation of memorized English sounds. I want them to start really working the language; moving words like puzzle pieces together, building sentences that are personal and genuine. So many of them have impressive English vocabularies, but the words are trapped in memorized soundbites, gleaned from television and K-pop and video games; What is your name? Dont worry baby. You lose! You lose!

The thing is, as I push my students to take that leap from language parrot to language user, I know all too well how tough it is. As I prod my students for original answers in English, I know my Korean studies are full of the same easy, parroting method. Im guilty of communicating in memorized Korean phrases; slogans also absorbed from the pop culture around me; That looks delicious! Hurry up! I cant breathe without you.

Its easy, isnt it, the language script? Its amazing how much you can get by with some memorized key phrases is your non-native tongue. In fact, a lot of foreigners in Korea get by for years with a handful of syllables committed to memory go left, go right, one beer, thank you.

But how great does the breaking point feel? Its the place where the new language becomes a working machine in your head, each word moveable, changeable into new sentences, not ingested from a phrasebook but created, all on ones own. Its when you can really chat, not just point out the window and identify the weather, not just point to apples at the market and say how much? Too much! 

Slowly, slowly, Im nearing that leap too, but Im happy that my students got there quicker.   

1 comment:

  1. Sweet post, Anne. And also, love the bloggy make-over!