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.


  1. WWJS? Aramaic! I wonder if that would help. . .

  2. Did you know that I took a class in Esperanto (after school) when I was in high school? Very interesting, though it never really took off. I find all your studies about language fascinating.


  3. Esperanto was still around when I was in jr. high, but pretty much as a curiosity. There have been "court" languages before, of course-- Latin and French--but the masses weren't expected to speak them, nor did they have the opportunity to learn them... You make many interesting points!

  4. Becky,I thoroughly enjoyed reading your wonderful perspective on language and its complex interplay with culture, politics, and economics.

    I've always thought that a universal language, taught in schools simultaneously with ones native language, could, in just a few generations, produce a world where global communication was facilitated. The internet has, in only a decade, changed global communication exponentially.

    I agree that there is no ideal language, because, as you so intuitively pointed out, no one tongue is free of cultural or philosophical biases. Yet the need is so strong for commerce and travel.

    International organizations, and probably to an equal extent, economics and trade, have made certain languages more important than others regardless of difficulty. Airlines' official language is English, French is the accepted one for maritime communications. Chinese is emerging as an important second language for commerce because they have become the predominant center for manufacturing.

    Just as we can't control the linguistic evolution of English, we can't choose which second languages will be most useful in our lives. It will change with politics and economics, and I predict it will change faster than we ever imagined! Europeans have shown that being bilingual is a distinct advantage and America needs to rapidly catch up. Many languages are becoming extinct, including numerous American Indian spoken languages. Change is inevitable(except from vending machines).

    I wouldn't be surprised if, within another generation, an internationally recognized language, becomes recognized for business.

    As for an actual universal language some day? Maybe, but FIRST we all need to adopt the metric system!

    Thanks for sharing your experiences!

    Uncle Denny

  5. I guess I never really thought about the issues you have talked about before. But I can now see that much of what you say is no doubt true. Having several languages under your belt give you a unique prospective and being in Korea, not knowing Korean very well shows you exactly how that all shakes out. I enjoyed reading your thoughts and giving the whole situation some thought. Thanks


  6. Dear Becky: Your experiences are absolutely "our-of-this world awesome" whatever that means. I can't begin to imagine what a wonderful year you are having. We do miss you here at CPC and look forward to a first hand account through your eyes and ears of all you are seeing and hearing.

    My brief visit to China and Hong Kong several years ago were a wake-up call as to how very fortunate we are here in America. It also gave a chance to see that not all people in the world are down and out and are proud of their country as well.

    The pictures you have posted are lovely. It is a beautiful country in spite of all we hear on the very biased (in my opinion) news.

    Thanks for sharing and giving us so much to think about.

    God bless.

    Love and prayers, Shirley Alderson

  7. Hi Becky, I think your ambivalence about language teaching is very interesting. I cannot help but wondering if that is an idea you had prior to YAV, or if it is part of the growth experience that is transforming you and your ways of thinking by participation in this outstanding adventure. I remember years ago hearing on the news about a referendum in Holland, where my parents are from, over whether to adopt English as the official language and drop Dutch. I was amazed that a people could even consider disposing of such an important part of their cultural identity. The supporters emphasized the historically pragmatic nature of Netherlanders, but still, it sure seemed like a way over-board leap. Seems like the culture you are immersed in may be moving toward the same identity crisis.