Students Speak Up: “English is…”

English classes started on Thursday this week and since the students have just returned from their summer vacation, I did a welcome back/warm back into the English routine with them. Just some simple English activities to use the language that they probably haven’t used in the month that they’ve been off. The last ten minutes of each class, I asked the students a question – what is English to you?

I gave them my own responses. And how it’s changed from before and after coming to Korea. Before, I would have told you that English is easy, English is life, English is what the world speaks. And now, I don’t think that way anymore. English is hard. When you have to teach it as a foreign language and communicate with young students. English is life in Canada but definitely not in Korea and many countries in the world. English is but one of hundreds of languages around the world. And I use all the skills I have to communicate- English, Chinese, Korean, body language.

I encouraged my students to be completely honest. There are no wrong answers. That I truly wanted to know what they thought.

These were some of their responses.

English is…

Very hard
Crazy hard
A piece of my language
Not fun
My life
Something I like
Something I hate
My dream
One of my test
Game time
Something confusing
Test machine
A basic tool to communicate
Something you have to learn
My second world

To wrap up the activity, I read some of the responses out loud. And told the students that I agreed with all that they wrote. And that I was so proud of them. Why? Because despite how many students wrote that English is hard, they all wrote it in English. The very language that they have trouble with. And that made me so proud to have such good students who are trying their hardest.

I can only do my best now as their teacher to assist them as they learn the language. And hopefully, make the hard lessons more fun so that they can enjoy themselves too.


English in Korean Middle School

I have loved and still do love my job and experiences teaching here in Seoul. And while there are moments of doubt – am I teaching my students properly, do the students really understand me, am I making a difference at all, what if I’m not teaching to the best that I can teach – there comes a time when I really do wonder about English education here in Korea.

At one point during my first year teaching, the principal told me that my main objective while teaching here at the school was to motivate my students. To teach students in a fun and engaging sort of way that encourages them to learn English. They really don’t have a choice – English is such a vital part of their education and ticket to a better future – but the idea is that at this age, they should find it something fun and enjoyable, rather than a task or something to fear. Because there is an English phobia here, the stress and pressure that surrounded English education is so great that it’s become something that most Koreans shy away from. Many of the Korean teachers working at my school have yet to say anything to me for the past year and a half because of their fear of using English.

Back to my job though, I understand. I get it. I realized early on that this wasn’t like teaching back in Canada. My focus was on natural English conversations, pronunciations, and bringing culture into the classroom. I love making fun lessons for the students. My biggest achievements are getting the quieter students to speak in English to me. There have been numerous students who seems to be afraid or wary of me in the beginning, and who are now actively engaged in class and love to be around me. It makes me feel like I can make a difference. That with me, they’re learning that foreigners – waygook – aren’t that scary, that we’re approachable, and English is not something to be feared.

And then a few of my sixth graders from last year returned to visit me from middle school. I asked them what their English classes are like and this is what I learn:

– They don’t speak English in English class anymore. (Say, what?)

– English class is “easy” now because there is more reading and writing.

– English class is “easier” because they don’t have a native English teacher (like me). Most middle schools and high schools now do not employ native English teachers and pretty soon, they’re going to get rid of the ones in elementary schools.

And it was a shock because one of the two girls who were telling me this was all of a sudden more shy and not willing to use English with me. Even though she used to love talking to me just a few months ago.

So, middle school English education. What is going on there? I have seen in my experiences here that the third and fourth graders love speaking in English – they are so much more motivated as they begin to grasp the language. And then somewhere between fifth grade and sixth grade, they start to become more frustrated with it. They start to lose their motivation and it’s a lot more work to engage them in class. I would only assume that it’s worse in middle school. And so, wouldn’t it make more sense to continue encouraging them to speak more in middle school? To actually keep the native English teachers there, while they learn the English required to get into a good high school and still feel like it’s something fun to learn. Because that’s how it starts – they begin to find it “easier” to learn English, but they never move beyond their books and writing. And as time goes by, their fear of actually using the language in conversations increase.

So now I worry about my students because it feels the little that I can do for them during elementary school will be wiped away and forgotten once they leave. The students who genuinely like English will continue to excel and do well – their speaking improves because they seek to improve it. But for all the other students… well, I try to understand. The pressure for English education is so intense that students cannot help but think of English as stressful. And so I would rather them focus on other parts of their education. But the reality of the Korean society is that you need English to get into a better school, and then a better career. So it becomes something that they don’t really use much of once they’re in the workplace, but it’s something that they need in order to get into the workplace at all. It’s all very contradictory and confusing. I can’t imagine what it’d be like to be them. All I can do… is my job. And hope that I can make English a little more fun for them while they’re still motivated and their motivation can carry them further in life.