Thursday, October 28, 2010

Fun, fellowship, and festivals

Whew, that last post was kind of a doozy. I'm pleased to report that this one is substantially more light-hearted.

Last week Katie, Jenny, and I stopped in at the foreigner's festival being held near EXPO park. This festival combined an international food event with a hot air balloon extravaganza. Down by the river, there were hot air balloon rides (unfortunately pretty pricey for not going very far), hang-gliding, kites, building model airplanes, and other activities. On Saturday there was a taekwondo demonstration going on with little kids duking it out for an audience. Up higher on the bank, there were tons of booths for different foreign foods (although some were strangely labeled -- the Mexican booth had samosas??). There were so many delicious smells wafting through the air, it was impossible to decide what to eat. We went around collecting free samples, and invested in a couple of choice snacks.

This past Sunday the youth group from the university church took a field trip to Okcheon, where members Winnie and Katie (not YAV Katie) live, to have fellowship time. Okcheon is about 30 minutes out of Daejeon, and is the countryside in comparison. It was nice to get out of the city and see some green! First we stopped to visit a famous historical house where the former president's wife was born. I admit that the names of those people didn't mean much to me, but it was cool to see a large, traditional Korean house where the nobility lived (although it was actually a reconstruction). Afterwards, we went to Winnie's house, which is very close, to hang out. We ate mandu (dumplings) and delicious Korean grapes (juicier than the American kind), and then went outside to learn a trade . . . farming!

Winnie's father grows peanuts and sweet potatoes, and we had a lesson in harvesting them (fortunately, it's not very difficult). We happily yanked the peanut plants up by the roots and scrounged around in the dirt for the potatoes (got some really huge ones, too). The garden itself is very beautiful -- it is located in the house's backyard, and from there you can look out on amazing views of the mountains.

This week, Hannam had its school festival, lasting three days. During this time, there are many fair-like booths set up to sell food and drink, offer entertainment, and award prizes. You can play carnival-style games of chance and try to win big against slim odds. There are also demonstrations going on where the various school clubs show off their skills or otherwise attract people to their group. (The chaplain's office and the students who attend the university church, in particular, had a good thing going in the form of free coffee and homemade waffles with whipped cream and syrup.) The big highlight of the event is the famous Korean singers who come to perform and hold concerts at night. I visited on Wednesday afternoon with some of my Korean friends with whom I'm doing an English-language blog project. Very soon (as soon as she sends it to me), you will be able to read the article Hyojae wrote about it (and what we've written about other Hannam- and Daejeon-related topics) here.

I'll be in Seoul for the weekend with my fellow YAVs, and I hope to post about that trip too! I will also be uploading more pictures when I have more time. Once again, stay tuned, and I would love to hear from you!

Friday, October 8, 2010

English fever

...or, my thoughts on teaching English in South Korea. Let me preface this with the statement that being a Young Adult Volunteer is a mission of being, not doing, and that the three of us are here not to save the world or to solve problems that we perceive, but to live in harmony with a community. Too often in the past, mission has been done with the idea that we are the enlightened ones and we know what is best for others. Therefore, the YAV program's focus is not on us and our idea of mission, but on actually listening to the people around us, our brothers and sisters in Christ, and working to fulfill their needs as they perceive them.

And in South Korea, what people want from us is for us to teach English. To be honest, I have some very mixed feelings about this, and I'm going to try to explain them here. (Warning: lots of grammar babble and linguistic theory to follow! If that kind of thing bores you, skip to the next post.)

I've been told that people here judge and are judged by their ability to use English -- i.e., if someone has no English skills, people assume they aren't well-educated in other areas, either. And companies would much rather have employees with good English skills, because it is a valuable asset in the business world. People live and die by their TOEFL and TOEIC (the standardized English-language proficiency tests) scores, which determine what opportunities they can have. Thus, there is a huge push in Korea for kids to be exposed to English at a young age, study it hard all throughout their school years, and hopefully live abroad in America, England, Australia, or somewhere else where they can become fluent. In such a society, three native speakers are too valuable to waste; hence, we have been put to work teaching classes -- primarily to disadvantaged children whose parents can't send them to the best schools and buy them all the English books and videos and games that richer parents do.

Don't get me wrong, I am all for intercultural literacy. Heck, I'm spending a year in a foreign country, and working hard to learn the language! And I'm not trying to single out individuals as being in the wrong, either. During my work week, I get to interact with so many amazing people who are doing a very good thing in trying to give kids from poor and broken families equal opportunities. It's the overall concept, the societal trend, that I have a problem with. This movement worldwide towards English as the language that everybody needs to know is disturbing to me.

For one thing, even if we accept for the moment that everybody should have one language in common, English specifically isn't a great choice as a global language because it is very difficult to learn. Let's take a look:
  • Its spelling rules are difficult to master: it has an alphabet where letters are sometimes pronounced one way, sometimes another, with many exceptions and silent letters.
  • It has many arbitrary grammar rules that have no real meaning for communication today (example: back in the days when Latin was considered the language of scholars, it was decided by grammarians that you can't split infinitives because you can't do it in Latin, where the infinitive is one word).
  • It has a strange mixture of "strong" (past tense formed by changing the stem vowel) and "weak" (past tense formed by adding -ed) verbs.
  • It has definite and indefinite articles, which are missing from many languages (I dare you to try to explain the meaning of "an" or "the". What do they contribute to a sentence, exactly?).
  • It has many helping verbs -- do, have, and will to name the most common -- that add extra steps to the process of composing sentences.
  • English verbs are conjugated sometimes, but not always.
  • English nouns are declined sometimes, but not always.
  • English speakers depend largely on their vocabulary choices to convey connotations, which makes memorizing an enormous amount of vocabulary necessary for even a fairly basic level of conversation (as opposed to a language like Japanese, where connotation is often expressed in the grammatical form).
I'm not saying that every other language is completely free of such complications. Of course not! Every language has its confusing points, its irregular verbs, its structures that seem totally convoluted at first glance, its colloquial expressions that make no literal sense. What I'm saying is that comparatively speaking, English is a terrible choice for international language because of its relatively high learning curve (although I hear from the folks in Kerala that Malayalam may very well have the honor of being the most difficult language in the world).

Which brings me to my second point. I have a lot of trouble with the idea that the way to resolve conflicts of communication is for everybody to be forced to communicate in the same way. And I firmly believe that any experiment or movement with such a goal, no matter how idealistic the motives behind it, is bound to fail. No matter how hard you try, it is simply impossible to divide language from the history and culture behind it. The very patterns of our grammar and syntax reflect the way we think and the way that we, as a society, perceive.

For example, in Russian, feelings and conditions are often expressed indirectly, as opposed to the active form that is habitual with English speakers. You don't like something; instead, it is pleasing to you. You aren't hot; it is hot to you. You don't have a car; a car exists by you. At this time, I think I will refrain from making any sweeping judgments about what these grammatical examples reveal about the Russian psyche, because that is just asking for trouble, but the point is that you can easily see how language and thought are tied up together. The differences in the ways we speak reveal differences in the way we perceive. In this case, the Russians choose to speak of themselves passively. It's very strange to me, when I think about it, that they would give the agency of the sentence to an inanimate object, but it is a natural way for them to talk.

Allow me to provide another example of the inherent difficulties here. You may have heard of Esperanto, the artificially constructed international language born over a century ago. The idea of Esperanto was a very noble one: its creator, L. L. Zamenhof, sought to create a politically neutral language that could be used for peaceful communication and mediation. Esperantists proudly claim that Esperanto is neutral because it has "no culture". But is this really true? Zamenhof was a talented linguist, speaking several languages fluently and several others competently, and he was intensely devoted to his project. I don't doubt that he worked things out to the best of his abilities. Yet all his experience was with European languages, and this is reflected in the undoubtedly Euro-centric nature of Esperanto, which is strongly influenced by the Romance and Slavic tongues -- never mind that Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, and Arabic are also among the world's most widely spoken languages alongside English, Russian, and Spanish. So can we really call his language neutral? And yet, drawing from all languages of the world to create a "fair" language isn't realistically possible, either.

After all this, it may seem cheap of me to say, but I must admit that I don't have a solution to the problem. I'm here for the year, I'm teaching English, and I don't have the power to change anything, just to help these kids prepare for the realities that already exist, the realities they will eventually have to face. But for me, one of the great joys of language, and the reason I majored in language studies in college, is discovering a new way of life and thinking through the words we speak, because the richness of culture and history are closely bound up with the simple everyday activities of talking and listening.

I don't know what the solution to all the misunderstanding in the world is, but I am sure that I know what it's not: for everyone to become the same. Teaching everyone English won't make us all magically think the same; it won't immediately making understanding each other easy. All it will do is confine everyone to a form that strongly favors some, creating a further power imbalance that will hinder communication. I love the English language; I think it is a beautiful language, a language of poetry. I wouldn't discourage anyone who wants to learn it, not for one minute. But to force everyone in the world to speak it is denying a fundamental truth about the wonderful complexity and variety of the world we live in. I don't want to whitewash the world with English if I can help it.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

곰세마리 (Three bears) song

Today, with our heads about to explode from taking so many tests, our teacher decided to show mercy on us and fill the rest of the class time with a fun activity, in the form of learning a children's song.


Three bears in one house

Papa bear, mama bear, baby bear

Papa bear is fat

Mama bear is skinny

Baby bear is very cute

Growing up straight*

*In the version of the song we learned. It's a little different from the one in the video.

Of course, I expect you all to practice this at home so we can have a sing-along when I get back~

This post contains pictures of cute children, consider yourselves warned

So, as of today, it's been a week since I started working at the Beobdong Children's Center in Daejeon, finally beginning my volunteer work. I have to be honest: while I've been grateful to have some adjustment time, it's also been difficult for me to just BE without something to DO. So I was glad to be taking on one of my first major challenges.

The Beobdong Center is about ten minutes away from Hannam University by bus. (Yes! I can take the bus now! And get off at the right stop! I feel so ridiculously proud of myself.) It occupies the second story of a multi-story building. It is run by Rev. Kim (aka "the Chief") and her daughter, Myung-ju onni (big sister Myung-ju). Both of them are amazing and sweet people who are capable of making you feel right at home. There are about four teachers there who give the kids lessons in science, math, and whatever other schoolwork they need help with. There's also a teacher for piano, and there's a cute little closet-sized practice room for the kids to do music in. The walls are decorated with photos of the kids and art that they themselves made. It is very small, but a sunny and warm place, both physically, now at the end of summer, and emotionally, because of the love the people there put into what they do.

Let me just say that the first week had its ups and downs. Despite having about a month of Korean lessons under my belt, the average conversation is too complex and happens too quickly for me to grasp. Besides that, the Korean we're learning in the classroom is formal, polite Korean -- and it doesn't bear much resemblance to the informal, colloquial way kids talk. So I did struggle to communicate, particularly with my first- and second-grade class.

That's right, class. I was not really expecting to be asked to teach formal classes (I was thinking it would be more along the lines of playing with them and teaching them English words casually, through games), but serious lessons are apparently what my center needs most at this time -- desks, textbooks, and all that. Don't get me wrong, I'm here to serve them, and to meet their needs, and I'm perfectly willing to do classes. But it was a little bit of a sink-or-swim situation when I walked in last Tuesday, with no lesson plans prepared, and was asked to give lessons, starting immediately, to four classes' worth of students. See you back at shore. Hopefully.

So I dove in. God is pretty infamous for throwing curveballs and calling people to do the unexpected, right? A YAV needs to be flexible, if nothing else. My first class was with the first- and second-graders, three very cute but very hyper little boys who speak virtually no English (they don't start that subject at school until the third grade, apparently). They're very enthusiastic and they have more energy than they know what to do with, so keeping them focused on a task can be difficult. The first day started off well, with them telling me their names and then practicing writing them in English letters . . . but things kind of went downhill from there. How do you give kids directions or discipline them when they literally don't understand a word you say?

So the second day I came back with a different approach, and brought in a deck of cards. This time it was much better. I showed them the numbers one to ten, then spread the cards out on the table and had them slap the number I called out. This caused the entire classroom to echo with smacking sounds and loud, joyous screams of "Five!" and "Eight!" when they found their target. Okay, a crude method, maybe. But you know what? They got better at their numbers. At the beginning, they kept making mistakes and slapping the wrong ones, but they quickly learned (if only for the sake of beating each other to the punch). And I really don't care if they're loud as long as they're participating wholeheartedly. (And, you know, as long as the Chief doesn't mind, either.)

My next class was with the third- and fourth-graders. This may be the most promising group in the sense that they are better behaved and better able to focus than the younger kids, but they don't have the inhibitions that the older class has (more on that later). They love shouting out the words they know and trying out the new words I teach them. Today we we went over time- and date-related words like the days of the week, the seasons, etc. and then practiced listening and reading skills with that classic known as bingo (which was always a favorite in my beginning Spanish classes).

After my first two classes, around 5:20, it's time for dinner. There is a kitchen in the center that feeds all the kids and teachers. Kids eat first, of course. So far, the food has all been very delicious. I've had mandu (dumplings), gooksu (noodles), and today there was -- well, I don't know what it was. I think it was some sort of seafood -- squid maybe? -- under the breading. Anyway, it was yummy. And the center serves a particularly fiery version of kimchi to go with every meal, so I am toughening up my taste buds.

After dinner, I have the fifth- and sixth-graders for a while. They have the best English skills . . . well, in theory they do. In practice, they are easily the shyest group that I teach, and getting them to say something . . . anything . . . requires quite a bit of (figurative) arm-twisting. Even when it's just reading a vocabulary word from the textbook. They're happy enough to repeat what I say, but they don't want to be put on the spot or have to generate anything. That's a feeling that I can definitely understand, of course -- I am never going to win a prize for being the world's most extroverted person -- but many years of studying language and of studying the study of language have taught me that, as embarrassing as it can be, you just have to put yourself out there and speak it, or you won't learn it. (My Korean professors know it, too. When I go home at lunchtime every day, my throat is sore from all the Korean I've been shouting for the past four hours.)

I have a middle-school class as well, consisting of five students from the seventh, eighth, and ninth grades. However, since I arrived in the middle of their semester and they are all studying hard for their mid-terms, I won't start teaching this class until later in the week.

Please don't misunderstand, though. Reading back over this post, a lot of it is talking about the challenges of the job rather than the rewards; but make no mistake -- I'm very happy to be where I am right now. All of the kids are unbelievably cute and sweet and funny, and they've welcomed me with open arms, and despite my struggles as a newbie teacher, I'm eager to go back for more. I know there will be tough times as I try to figure out the best ways to communicate and to make the lessons interesting and meaningful for the kids, but I think I will end up learning a lot in the process -- about Korean culture, about language and learning, about the kids, about myself.

Tomorrow, I have my first class teaching English to the Sunday schools kids at Youngrak Presbyterian Church, and two weeks after that, I'll start going to the library to read English-language children's books to the kids there. I'll let you know how those adventures turn out! Stay tuned!

I love 9 a.m. classes

Wow, it's been a little while since I wrote! I've got tons to say, and I think that instead of making one huge post, I will split it up into a couple of smaller ones. This time it's about . . . school!

Korean language school has been pretty intense these last couple of weeks. I'm not even joking. Last week Hannam's Korean language school held its second annual writing and speaking contest. Everyone in the language school is required to participate in the writing part, and cash prizes are awarded to the people with the best spelling and prettiest handwriting. (I did all right on the spelling part, but pretty handwriting is not my strong point. Not when writing the teacher's dictation down as fast as possible, anyway.)

Then everyone gets herded into the student building for the entertainment segment of the program . . . watching one representative from each class embarrass themselves in front of everybody else. That was the case for most classes, anyway. A couple did group performances, like this scene of a marriage (left) acted out by one of the third-level classes. Our class, 1-C, was represented by Aaron (above), who talked about himself and his hobbies, and really challenged himself to use the most sophisticated Korean at his command. Unfortunately he didn't win. His nerves caused him to trip over his tongue in a couple places, so he ended up getting robbed by a girl from another class, who did indeed deliver a speech with very beautiful pronunciation, but in the simplest Korean possible. Bogus. Anyway, we enjoyed cheering our oppa on. In Korea, we say: Fighting! Fighting! to encourage people to hang in there and do their best, so we were yelling that from our section of the auditorium.

As for this week, it must be Official Test Everybody On Everything Week, because in the last two days, I have had four exams . . . and more are coming before the end of the week. Yesterday I took a long written exam, then a reading exam where I stood in front of the class to sight-read a passage. Today there was an oral exam where the teacher interviewed us one-on-one, and also a dictation test. Katie and Jenny have been hit pretty hard, too, so it isn't just my class. Maybe they are trying to weed out the weaklings?