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From Englishee to English
From Englishee to English
  Date: 2009-07-18 23:41     View: 3583  

From Englishee to English (2007 Essay contest)


                                                          Leonie, Overbeek

                                                          Seoshin Middle School(Kyeonggi-Do)



“I ating hotdogs in the Everland.”

“Viking ride – not!”

“unheppy – many peoples”

These three sentences were recently produced by students who have, in the current Korean educational system, studied English for five years. Students who have reading material in their curriculum handbook such as: ‘The death of the pet canary of the tomb’s discoverer, Howard Carter, worsened the rumour, too’. Students who routinely memorise about ten to twenty vocabulary words in order to be tested on them. Words such as destination, enable, associate, response, moreover and furthermore.

Why are these students unable to put together even a simple declarative sentence? Why are they unable to apply the words they learn and the grammar rules that are drilled into them when asked to make a simple English sentence? Why, in fact, can they barely communicate in even the most basic English? And how can we help them overcome this?

One reason may be that the vast difference in structure between Korean and English means that an estimated 2,200 hours of instruction time is needed before the language can be freely used for communication1). Learning a second language for 95 hours per year for six years will not lead to functional bilingualism and fluency in the second language. Expectations must be realistic2). In Korean education, students are exposed to, in my estimation, an average of 132 hours of ESL per year in middle school, less than that in elementary school. This means that the students who wrote those sentences have had about 300 to 400 hours of instruction.

This should, even if it has not brought them to fluency, at least have enabled them to construct a simple ‘subject­verb­object’ sentence into which they should be able to cast their experiences, along the lines of: ‘I ate hotdogs. I didn’t ride the Viking. I was unhappy.’ Why hasn’t it?

Possibly because of the second reason for their failure: the fact that almost all English taught in Korea is taught by the grammar translation method using Korean. The vocabulary words, the reading material, the test papers and the curriculum handbooks all use Korean to pose questions, give instructions and explain words and concepts. In addition, Korean English teachers explain the rules of grammar in Korean. Where students are exposed to an English speaker as teacher, it is usually for not more than 1 period a week, or the teacher functions as a human tape recorder, reading the words and having the students chorus after them, or has everything they say translated into Korean.

This means that a student never associates the English words with anything other than a Korean word or phrase. While translation is useful in some instances, and certainly helps people who are using a self­study course or who are beginners, it should have no or very little place in the second language classroom.

As long as it has, all understanding of the content in the curriculum will be in Korean, a language they do know and need no further practice in. To put it more concretely – as long as the concept ‘white liquid foodstuff obtained from cows’ is understood as ‘uyu­milk’3) the sentence, “I’d like a glass of milk, please.”, is not possible. The thought pattern is Korean – “uyu jom chuseyo”(milk please give me) and so we get “Viking ride – not!”

Although these are only two of a myriad of reasons for the failure of English education, they are, to me, together with the fact that English is not spoken in society so there is no exposure to the language as a functional language, the main ones. So, having analysed the problem, what is the solution?

Let me start by relating a story one of my favourite English writers, Gerald Durrell, tells about his childhood on the island of Corfu4). He himself was about eight at the time they moved there from England, and as he tells of his experiences he also says that, after a while, the babble with which the neighbours greeted him became a recognisable language. Furthermore, it became one which he gradually started using, eventually becoming a fluent, bilingual speaker of Greek and English. He is of course describing classic language acquisition theory in action, where the mere fact of having to communicate and being surrounded by the language allows a person to start understanding it, and then using it.

Unfortunately this is not a practical method for the classroom, but it illustrates one important fact – if people, especially children, have to recognise what is being said in order to function, they somehow manage to do it. Krashen5), whose acquisition theory has been instrumental in bringing about the current emphasis on task­based learning and content­based curriculum material, emphasises that children should be exposed to language that is slightly more difficult that that which they currently understand. It is ironic that many of the current Korean curricula are based on these ideas – they present students with (hopefully) interesting content, each slightly more difficult than the preceding chapter, and ask them to carry out tasks based on such content. If the books were only in English, and the teachers spoke only in English and the students were prepared to try and speak only English, these curricula would work wonderfully.

Based on this here are my suggestions as to how to improve the ESL experience in Korea. I would suggest that the curriculum books are overhauled and printed without Korean instructions, Korean translations or Korean material at all. When grammar is taught, the English names for the items – nouns, verbs etc. should be used. Translation should be a last resort to explain a concept that otherwise would waste a lot of time to define using only English. Secondly, students should have an incentive to try and understand the language, over and above that of passing a test.

In my experience in Korea, the following are things that have worked well to capture attention and interest and a willingness to talk English – games and puzzles.

Almost all the students have responded well to games, especially games where there is competition. The classic Hangman game allows me to drill them on their pronunciation of the alphabet, as does a version of bingo in which I have cards with letters of the alphabet in a bag, and one child draws out the letters and calls them, while others cross out those letters in their chosen words. I usually ask them to choose two words from whatever section of the book we are working on, and with more advanced students, I ask them to choose a whole sentence. Dice words also works – a student tosses a pair of dice and then his or her team gets one minute to write down as many words as possible, all having that number of letters. The team with the most correct words wins the game. Finally, a game they all love playing – Pelmaninsm or memory concentration. A pair of cards contains either word and picture or word and definition. A set, usually of thirty pairs, is placed faced down after being shuffled. The first student turns over two cards – if they match, he keeps them and turns over a second pair. If not, they are turned face down again and the next student takes a turn. The secret, of course, is to remember where the cards are that have been revealed, so that if you turn over a matching card, you can find the original. The student in a group with the most cards wins.

Similarly, language puzzles are welcomed by almost all students, and can be used to great effect to teach grammatical structures without boring lectures, or to drill them in their vocabulary words without using Korean tags! Some ideas that have worked for me are crossword puzzles using pictures or simple definitions for the clues, word search puzzles, logical puzzles, making words from a jumble of letters, unjumbling sentences to make stories, decoding encrypted messages and finding hidden pictures inside a larger picture. In each case, the teacher has to be on hand to guide the students, and also to help them read the clues out loud in order to practice their words or sentences. For more advanced students the crosswords can become more cryptic, and they can be introduced to the logical puzzle, from the simple: ‘If Susan is twice as old as Brian, who is three years older than his baby brother Tom, how old is Susan if Tom is 2?’ to the complex: ‘Tom goes fishing on Sundays, Brian does not like bowling, the man who bowls does so on Thursday, Fred lives next door to the man who plays badminton, while Tom lives opposite the bowler. Who does which sport and where do they live?’ Usually these puzzles come with a grid to help you solve them, and the children love doing them.

In order to achieve the maximum benefit from class time, nothing will help them learn the language faster than reading. Reading articles, reading stories, reading comics, the more you read a language the faster you will be able to use it. Also, reading presents grammar in use, not just as a set of rules. Using authentic material – magazines, newspapers etc. ­ establishes the natural use of the language.

Reading out loud helps the student to both hear and feel the words on their tongue. Each student in class should get a turn at reading out loud, not in a chorus. Although it takes some time, it is time well spent. This compensates for not being able to converse in English in society.

Reading for content helps the student grasp that it is not always necessary to understand every word that is used in order to make sense of a passage. Comprehension tests can take many forms, they do not always have to be the boring question and answer type. For instance – a story about Santa’s workshop can be illustrated by a line drawing that then has to be coloured in according to what the story said: the elves were dressed in red and green, the dolls all had pretty blue and pink dresses, the train was black and red etc.

Or, instead of a story, give them instructions – for example a sheet of A4 paper with instructions that they must draw an outline of their hand and then make the outline into a fantastic animal, name it and explain what food it eats. Or give them a recipe and the ingredients, and let them make it.

Have a library of English books available and give them points for the number of books they finish reading – check that they have read the book by quizzing them about the main points of the book, asking them what they enjoyed and what they didn’t.

As someone whose mother tongue is not English, but who grew up in a country where English as second language was compulsory, I still recall how I learnt the language. At first, the teacher was incomprehensible, but as time went by and words became linked with objects, comprehension started to dawn. The lessons used reading material and comprehension tests, not sets and sets of grammatical rules. What has made me a fully bilingual speaker was not just the education, but also the fact that I loved reading and read a lot. I still do.

I know Koreans love books, they even sell them from vending machines. But as long as even the English teachers who are Korean prefer to read classic English books in Korean rather than in English, and thus prefer translating to speaking, we will have Englishee – not English!

So, to summarise: I know that Koreans can dedicate themselves to immense tasks and so I know that they have the willpower to succeed in learning English. Let the ESL teachers help you do it the easy and more effective way! Use only English wherever possible. Play games and use puzzles. Read a lot! If that happens in schools, no extra academy lessons, supplementary lessons or test cramming will be needed, and children will emerge from school speaking and using English at a far more advanced level.

1) At the elite Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State, students studying full time to achieve professional speaking and reading proficiency in “easy” languages(those closest to English) spend 575 to 600 hours in class ― 25 hours per week plus three to four hours per day of directed self­study. For languages very different from English, class time jumps to 2,200 hours, with half of that time spent in the country where the language is spoken. A typical year of college language instruction is three to five hours per week ―180 hours per year at most ― plus homework. Research Points, Spring 2006, Volume 4, Issue 1

2) A Review of the Literature on Second Language Learning, Language Research Centre, University of Calgary.

3) In other words, the thought of milk is not related to two separate words, uyu in Korean and milk in English, but rather as this joined word in which the Korean word is readily available and the English word is an appendage to it. Bilingualism means each word exists in a separate lexicon.

4) My Family and Other Animals; Birds, Beasts and Relatives; both by Gerald Durrell.

5) Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, and who has written a huge number of papers on ESL.




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