I’m looking at the goofy smirk of someone who’s delivered a burning comment, minimizing, derisive. Defiant whispers in my intimate classroom setting, being interrupted, receiving groupfuls of disgusted stares. Perhaps without realizing, my students can be decidedly unprofessional. Deers in headlights turn aggressive. “I don’t understand you” leads to uncomfortable feelings, and the instinct to deflect and lash out with a cutting remark.
I’m no stranger to the vulnerable insecurity that arises when your language is symbolically taken away. Suddenly confronted with the inner discord of translating a rainbow of thought into black-and-white, just to be understood. Not to mention that in France, classic pedagogy is infused with the idea that you can always do better, no matter how good you think you are. Liberté, Egalité, Critiquez. Make a mistake, and pay for it. The language classroom is no different.
Many of my students have lived the trauma of classroom humiliation at the hands of the all-powerful Teacher. Being shamed for the crime of being wrong, the hurt when classmates chimed in to further deride them. They’ve been trained not to ask questions, to expose a vulnerable moment. It’s easier to shut down. A common student response, be they 8, 18, 38, or even past retirement age.
Interactions with me can make ancient antagonistic feelings bubble up. I am seen as a critic, an insolent interloper, imposing my language–deemed simple, inferior, lacking nuance or artistic merit–onto my student. I become the symbol of their Old Rival.
English itself becomes a fetish object. Adored, yet feared. Necessary, yet despised. Simple, yet frustratingly irregular and nuanced. A language of countless verbs, a language of action. Not like French, a language of adjectives and lush description. English, a language that contains far more words than theirs, with double meanings and endless colloquialisms. Many don’t understand the true complexity of operating in a language where you cannot translate word-for-word.
In those moments of student frustration and corresponding contrarian response, I’m no longer speaking to an adult member of society, but to an insecure child, that lashes out with an antagonistic “I know what YOU are, but what am I?” This speaks to my inner child, who hates to be told what to do, is tired of people lording their authority to minimize and patronize me, to diminish my intellect, my language, my heritage.
No, I refuse. It does a disservice not only to myself, but to my student, if I am no longer present. My role is to facilitate, unblock, decode this system, to break it down into sensical, ordered, comfortably logical bits. Not to field proverbial spitballs. So I wait out the emotional hailstorm, extracting linguistic information.
Storm dies down. Move in, execute my grammar lesson, administer study tips and friendly goodbye’s. Deep breath.
If only they knew how often I must become the emotional bouncer, keeping out the riffraff.
“Yeah, when I was in New York on business…”
“Those 2 weeks I was in the U.S…”
“The food is terrible… all those hamburgers and hot dogs…”
“American culture? What culture?”
“There’s not much history there, is there?”
“Ugh, that American accent… I can’t understand a thing!”
“The thing about Americans is…”
I mold my teeth back into a stiff-lip chiclet smile. Heh, heh. Very amusing. They look so comfortable, self-assuredly snickering at a caricature of a country they love to shit on.
I observe with fascination the smug joy in their eyes, the derisive wheezy laugh. All driven by a glaringly misguided, yet gloriously seductive need to be better than.
Why should I rain on their shit-parade? I wouldn’t dare spoil their moment of naive delight by questioning their pseudo-intellectual, stunningly brash hubris. There are indeed plenty of things to criticize, sure, but they’re pulling at low-hanging rotten fruit. The bland revelation is too simple, too deliciously satisfying to resist.
Is this how they go through life? Satisfied with a facile, self-serving version of reality, with no desire to learn more?
I’m not offended at their (perhaps unintentionally) injurious comments; that would be too easy. No, I’m learning. This is a pernicious trap of logic, a hasty generalization. Such exchanges remind me to work to avoid this pitfall myself.
“Mm-hmm. Whatever you say. On to page 2…”
July is long gone, and now I’m face-to-face with another birthday.
I’m 29. One year before the big 30. On a side note: when I lived in Korea, 30 was the magic number: after 30, a woman’s shelf life supposedly reaches its expiration and you creep into that undesirable “spinster” territory if you’re unmarried. 30 is that round magical number where everything changes, and you’re supposed to have a fire under your ass, to get moving and accomplish those life goals you’ve been putting off until “later.” Well, as a 29-year-old woman, I’m acutely aware that this is the time of my life; I’m in my prime, and there is no magic switch that will be flipped in one year. I’m taking things at my speed, doing what I want to do at my own speed, with no one but myself to answer to. This is the freest and most empowered I’ve ever felt. If this feeling follows me into my 30’s, that’d be one of the greatest privileges I could hope for.
Around the time of the New Year and my birthday, it seems to be the season for reflection. Perfectly spaced, twice a year, the time to take stock.
In the past year, or indeed since I arrived in France a year and a half ago, I’ve learned to speak French, become a freelance English teacher, gotten PACSed (in other words, signed into a legal partnership), found a good job where my coworkers call me on my birthday to sing me Happy Birthday, rekindled my interest in writing and drawing, succeeded (FINALLY) at having an herb garden, and started to delve into cooking more seriously (as a seriously pleasurable hobby, that is).
I’ve also lost friendships, hit my lowest emotional point, rebounded from that point, and evolved more than I ever have before.
But most of all, I’ve learned how and where to educate myself outside of the classroom. I’ve learned that it’s okay not to be a complete island. And I’ve started to research my family history, which is so much richer than I could have imagined, as well as the complex and fascinating history of Puerto Rico and Cuba. Having an intimate knowledge of where my family comes from is both empowering and valuable. For me, learning about the history of colonization, political and even musical and culinary history is a responsibility that I hadn’t fully realized the importance of.
It has simultaneously cemented my heritage: I am, without question, 100% Latina. I come from a mixed lineage of Spanish conquistadors, African slaves, perhaps even French settlers and the Tainos. The first time someone told me I didn’t “belong” with my family was when I was 9 years old, and now twenty years later, I can say with assurance that I do, in fact, have a place. And it’s my job to claim it.
Now that I’ve got a clearer idea of who I am and what I want to say, it makes me more open to writing and sharing information with whoever is there to receive it.
Last night, shortly after midnight we saw the International Space Station zooming across the sky over France. A bright speck that moved so quickly from one end of our horizon to the other, that we barely recognized it before it disappeared. And I can only imagine, to the people onboard the ISS, we looked like a dark patch of night; to them, we were less than specks. Makes me think about my whole infinite-universe-gives-us-ultimate-freedom theory.
I suppose I’m a speck that accepts its speck-hood and wants to enjoy its speck-sized glory while it has the chance.
“False beginner” is a term language teachers throw around to describe a learner who has begun from the top in learning a language, but who in fact already has some knowledge. This knowledge may come from (as in my case) environmental exposure, but not necessarily active usage of the language.
It can be difficult to identify their learning needs at first, and the classroom context may not work for them altogether (as in my case). I took Intro to Spanish while I was at UMass, and I didn’t do amazingly. Even if I can read aloud with a very good accent, the classroom setting is not how I have been in contact with the language, and it’s not a skill I associate with books and formal studies. Even if it worked for me with Japanese and French, formal classroom studies aren’t always my bag.
I’m a language parrot. I can imitate the accent, pronunciation, and manner of expression of native speakers, but this means I can also pick up incorrect or lazy speaking habits. I learn from hearing people use a language, and observing how they do so; textbooks and learning materials fill in the cracks and give me some rules to follow, but I don’t need them to make up the backbone of my knowledge of a language.
As for my accent, I have to credit my grandmother, who taught me to read aloud in Spanish and corrected my pronunciation when I was young enough to retain it. (Ah, the wisdom of the Grama… she helped me cement an excellent Spanish pronunciation during the critical period of language acquisition, which means I don’t sound like a complete gringa when I speak Spanish!)
I may not understand the subtilities of Spanish grammar, nor can I conjugate an irregular verb to save my life, but I know I have a relatively sophisticated vocabulary and decent oral and written comprehension. I’m currently working on a research project using primary documents in Spanish, and would like to eventually go to Puerto Rico to do research on the ground.
Funny enough, these are things that are difficult to admit. I never used the Spanish I knew among my peers or my family out of fear of criticism: I knew it was far from fluent, so I didn’t want to bear the embarrassment of being made fun of for my mistakes and having them pointed out without mercy. I already felt out of place enough, considering my appearance isn’t typically Latina (according to many people I’ve interacted and argued with throughout my life), and I was afraid of being labeled as a poser, someone with no right to claim my heritage. (I wrote a creative nonfiction essay about this experience called What’s the Opposite of a Coconut?, which was published in Killing the Angel Issue 2 in 2013.) In fact, the fear of judgement by others pushed me away from expressing a very real part of myself and owning my identity. It has always been easier to stay quiet than to speak up.
With all this in mind, it’s no wonder that the classroom environment, where everything is either right or wrong, where mistakes lead to a lower grade, where one is constantly evaluated, isn’t my ideal Spanish learning environment.
Being a false beginner in a language puts one at an advantage when they decide to plunge into refining their skills; but meanwhile, the approach needs to be modified and tailored to the students needs, keeping in mind that it can be easy for the learner to lose their bearings and become discouraged. Language classes also tend not to teach grammar and vocabulary in the same order that the false beginner learned what they know; so from the beginning, it’s very easy to alienate the false beginner by immediately pointing out how much they don’t know. Just because someone is familiar with certain concepts of a language doesn’t mean that they have a rock-solid foundation; there are often cracks to fill in, little by little, without pointing out the depth and quantity of those cracks.
This is all true for me, and as a language teacher, it’s even more interesting to pick apart this phenomenon, and examine effective ways to deal with these students with whom I fall into the same category.
One thing I’ve learned during my various language studies is: The better you know yourself, the way your brain works, and the way you learn most effectively, the more success you’ll have in the learning process. And with this in mind, I’m jumping in.
When I went to South Korea to teach in 2008, I found myself in a situation I’d never been in before. I didn’t know what to do with my life. (Not that I have much of a clearer idea now. I’m only slightly less lost than I was 4 1/2 years ago.)
I was soon to be a college grad, and I failed to get into grad school, so I had to face the cold hard reality of finding a job. Not to mention starting to pay off my mountain of student debt. I had had some previous teaching experience, so I thought I’d try my hand at teaching English in Korea. I could kill a few birds with one stone: get a great travel opportunity, gain some professional experience, and try figuring out what I want to do.
In the course of four years of teaching in Seoul, I found I enjoyed it very much, and that I had a knack for it. I got promoted, became heavily involved in my job, put in many hours of preparation and essay grading, the whole lot. I plunged myself in, and found teaching English to be fulfilling and fun, especially with my adult students. Plus, I got to indulge my interests in language and culture at the same time.
I was quite confident in my teaching skills by the time I came back to the US in 2012. I mean, I had gathered 4 years of experience, I was a high-rated teacher at both my jobs, and I had gone through a lot of trial and error to find methods that worked for me. So I went into my CELTA course in December with a reasonable amount of confidence. I felt I would do well with the foundation I had, and was excited to work on the holes in my game. I figured I could bring a lot of what worked in Korea with me into the CELTA.
I was only half-right.
In retrospect, I am SO happy that I chose to do my CELTA in New York, and not Seoul. I quickly found that my tried-and-true teaching methods with Korean students DO NOT work with Europeans, people from Central and South America, Russians, and other people not from East Asia. I realized I had a lot of work to do after my first teaching session evaluation… I found my method was quite teacher-centered, and I wanted to explain every little thing to them before they practiced. Intro, warm-up, teacher lesson, students practice as I monitor, group feedback, end of class. This tried-and-true method that worked for most of my students in Korea, I found to be completely out-of-place and inappropriate for my new batch of students. I needed an adjustment.
A Korean-American colleague of mine and I discussed a lot about the traditional Korean foreign language education system. In Korea, the Teacher must be an all-knowing figure at the head of the classroom. The Teacher must stand at the front, disseminate the information while Students (theoretically) absorb. The Teacher’s job is to push the Students to memorize, and there is no room for creative speech production or errors. Precision is emphasized because standardized exam scores are the indication of the Student’s success. Reading and Listening are usually emphasized over output skills like Speaking and Writing. Therefore, most of my students enrolled with an intense desire to improve their speaking.
In trying to meet my students’ needs and expectations, I had trained myself into a corner. I didn’t realize how formulaic and structured my lesson-planning style had become. I grew used to preparing thoroughly enough so that I could answer those tough grammar questions. I didn’t include activities that involved writing, or quiet head-down individual working time. I was terrified of silence in the classroom–either I should be talking, or the students should be discussing. Silence meant class was boring, or no one was getting conversation practice. I was determined to give my students a place where they could get as much speaking time as possible! KEEP TALKING!
But I realized during my CELTA course that I was just the Western equivalent to what they were used to. I gave them the brief teacher-centered lectures they wanted, the conversation practice they needed, and a lesson structure that NEVER varied… nice and predictable.
I was forced to re-examine those habits (among others) and learn that it was okay to break the structure.
One thing I learned to embrace on my CELTA was silence–in Korea what I felt was an absolute no-no transformed into a positive tool. Silence gives time for them to think and digest. Above all, silence can be a time for me to take a deep breath, without feeling pressured into rushing on prematurely.
Another point of curiosity I found was that there was little room for “real” discussion in my “discussion” classes with adults in Korea. Discussions on current events, controversial topics, and culture always fell short of reaching any level of dynamism. Few of my students ever volunteered to talk about an opinion that was anything less than politically correct and generally agreeable. I learned early on that students of differing ages, or even positions at their respective companies, felt uncomfortable discussing their opinions with one another. A woman in her 20’s is highly unlikely to talk about her real opinions with a man in his 50’s. Even if they work at different companies, age is something Koreans are highly conscious of. Social stratification based on age is commonplace–people of different ages do not commonly socialize in South Korea. Traditionally, older people are respected and people stick within their age group when they want to let their hair down and speak frankly. That’s not something easily circumvented in a class discussion atmosphere, and in my opinion, it’s not something I want to challenge, unless my students are willing to. It’s just one of those executive decisions we have to make as the Teacher.
Of course, it goes without saying that we must adapt to the needs of our students. Be it adapting lessons to suit their learning styles, tailoring lessons that help them reach their individual English goals, or above all, choosing material and procedure that maintains respect for their cultural background, we as teachers need to be on our toes. There is no cookie-cutter system of lesson planning that will work for ALL students. Sometimes, as I learned with my very active European students, the teacher needs to step back, prepare enough to give the students the tools they need, and let them figure things out on their own. For other students, the hands-off method might be negatively misunderstood as lack of teacher presence. Just as we expect our students to come prepared to work, we must come to the classroom prepared to listen. If that means tossing some of that teaching methodology aside, so be it. I learned how important it is to dust off those old teaching habits for every new batch of people.
I think it’s absolutely vital to be aware of our students’ cultural context. We respect it during our daily lives outside the classroom, but we need to do it especially inside the classroom. When in Rome, do as the Romans. When in Seoul, DON’T do as the Romans. It’s as simple as that.
During my 15 months of work at a “Nameless” English academy for adults in Seoul, I kept a secret detailed log of interesting tidbits from my students. Some are interesting, some came as a shock, some were funny. My students came from different socioeconomic backgrounds, ranged from extremely conservative to progressive and liberal, came from many different walks of life, and were of all ages.
These are reconstructed from my notes in class, so it is not a verbatim account. But I’ve tried to maintain the integrity of their points. I also don’t intend for this to be a sweeping generalization of Koreans. These are just some statements that struck me, and in no way am I insinuating that “all” or even “most” Koreans feel this way.</disclaimer>
Without further ado, here goes:
- “I feel pressured to wear makeup all the time. It’s like a courtesy to others.”
- “I want to get a tattoo, but I want to get married, so I can’t.”
- “If someone is born with an abnormal number of toes, it’s more common to have 6 than 4… I considered going to America with my wife after our son was born. I was afraid that he couldn’t live a normal life without being teased in Korea for having a missing toe.”
- “I’m seriously thinking about changing my habit of drunk driving.”
- “In America, the southern part of every state or city has a lot of black people.”
- “My parents gave birth to me, so they have the right to control what I do.”
- “Koreans don’t have enough time to protest against the government; they’re too busy studying and working all day!”
- “I think bosses want to create a ‘family’ atmosphere at work, so they feel more comfortable giving people extra work.”
- “Networking means ‘how to be good at pretending to be connected with people.'”
- “Marriage is seen as a matter of possession. We should treat our spouse like they’re on a train platform. Go in with no expectations, and know that they can leave or be free anytime. Then we won’t take them for granted.”
- “I don’t have an active imagination because I was taught not to.”
- “I feel more nervous speaking in English in front of Korean people than native speakers. Koreans have higher expectations, and they might correct my speaking mistakes.”
- “If I were Native American, I would have named my first son Tear of Condom.”
- [Lower-level male student in response to the question “What does it feel like to be drunk?”] “I feel like bling-bling on the cloud!”
- Q: “Who is your favorite rap artist?” A: “Maroon 5!”
I plan to write more about the issues that came up in our classes, and the various discussions we had. I always refrained from giving my own opinion during class, so I’ll use this blog to reflect and explore my own views too.
<I submitted this piece to a writing contest a few months back… I ended up being a runner-up (which effectively means nothing), but I’m proud of this piece, so I thought I’d share it here.>
Another afternoon on the Seoul Metro, and I’m on my way to work. As any Korean person may assume, I’m a teacher taking the train to my academy, another day teaching conversational English to adults. Nothing unusual here.
I’m lost in my thoughts when I detect faint strains of music; it’s coming from a small, cheap radio that hangs around the neck of a blind man, making his way through the subway holding a small basket for donations. He’s slightly pigeon-toed, holding a long white cane, and when the train lurches to the side, he loses his balance for a moment. But he regains balance, and the cane taps on. His cassette player swings slightly back and forth, and the music is nothing more than simple accordion-like tones that spell out a song I can’t identify.
I’m a regular on this subway line, and I’ve come to recognize the other regulars: the stoic, square-faced man; the hunched, long-haired woman who wears a permanent grimace; the button-nosed woman whose slightly parted eyes gaze vacantly upward. Occasionally, another woman comes through, singing gently along with the recorded music that plays from the radio hanging around her neck. Once I gently dropped a few coins into her basket, and she stopped, bowed slightly forward (seemingly to no one), and continued on.
But this person isn’t a regular.
I keep my sweaty hands in the pockets of my jacket; my spare change rolls around through my fingers.
I watch the blind man’s actions with the same look of wonder that many Koreans feel entitled to use when staring at foreigners. If this were taking place in the U.S., there’s no way I would feel bold enough to watch him as closely as I am now. ‘But I’m a waegugin, a foreigner, so I receive a special exemption to unabashedly stare at people, right?’ I ask myself. ‘…Yeah, right.’
I try not to watch too critically as he approaches; even Koreans disregard his presence—they only acknowledge the beggar by slightly shifting to let him shuffle past. Nobody has given him any money yet, and some people seem mildly annoyed that this man would have the poor timing to start begging while they’re on the train. Personal space on the subway is at a precious minimum throughout most of the day on this particular stretch of the subway.
What I’m looking for is a sign, any indication that he’s not, in fact, blind. He keeps his eyes shut as he approaches steadily. His white cane taps along, left to right, right to left.
I remember my students explaining that there are people that beg on the subway who are not really blind. Many of my students admitted to never giving money: “You never know who’s really in need, and who’s faking it.” “My mother told me once that every blind beggar is a liar.” Some of my students are more critical and think that these ‘fakers’ attempt to take advantage of people’s sympathy and charity, and should be ignored. I even heard another creepy story (urban legend, perhaps?) that these blind people work for some gangster boss that they must give all their earnings to.
But really, I think to myself, how much of this is based on even a shred of truth? It seems that the more people I ask about this, the more secondhand information I receive; and if their opinions are this vague and obscured, how can I ever get a straight answer?
With this in mind, I wonder: if they need to resort to faking blindness and peddling for money during an afternoon subway ride, might not they be in need themselves? Do I have the right to evaluate the perceived level of neediness of a subway beggar, based on my superficial once-over? After all, I am an outsider here, who am I to judge anyone else?
This guy looks blind to me. But again, how would I know?
I feel my cheeks blushing as I contemplate giving him my change. Time’s running out; soon he’ll be within perfect arm’s reach for me to drop my coins into his basket. I can’t verify his authenticity based on his stride, his eyes, his posture—nothing. Honestly, I’m not even sure about what to look for. All I know is that he looks legit to me.
So now that that’s been established, now it’s a matter of breaking formation, to be the only person to step forward and deposit my donation. But my arms are frozen in indecision.
His blue plastic bowl finally comes within arm’s reach, and I do nothing.
The man continues his slow march down the subway car, and now I’m looking at the back of the man’s head. I feel a bit of relief now that my moment of hesitancy has been ended for me, and my pathetic discomfort has been alleviated.
Glancing around the subway car, I can see that I’m the only one who felt any shred of apprehension just now. I suppose I should just plug in my headphones and tune out, keep my eyes trained downward, and stay absorbed in something. Maybe it’s better to stay cozily in my own bubble, just like everyone else. Or maybe these feelings just played out in everyone around me, but I was the only person to show evidence of my indecision.
‘Next time I’ll give a little something,’ I tell myself.
Satisfied with this copout of an excuse, I let the train pull me toward work, and I quickly forget the previous moment of mental floundering.