At What Price English?

The best speech I saw at the KOTESOL conference this weekend was one that a lot of people seemed to skip, one that a friend said he wasn’t all that interested in, but which I found fascinating and explanatory of a lot of things I’ve seen in Korea.

It was Language Policy and the Construction of National Cultural Identity, delivered by Amy B. M. Tsui, from University of Hong Kong. Professor Tsui discussed the history of English study — encompassing English as a foreign-language subject of study, as well as English as a MOI — that is, as a medium of instruction, either in an immersion system or out of necessity in areas where the local language simply hasn’t developed a scientific or technical vocabulary for certain subjects but instead simply is displaced by English as the MOI for that subject. The history she covered included colonial inheritance of English-language study/English-MOI dealt with briefly, followed by the post-colonial disbanding of English study and then its eventual reinstatement in many areas.

The questions she raised were fascinating and immediately pertinent to my own work: whether English requirements safeguard elites or democratize language resources by opening up English to the masses; how people in non-Western cultures regard English study, individually and as a society, given the fact that English includes a wide range of cultural assumptions which are not fully compatible with traditional nonWestern societies; the purposes for langauge study and the way they inform the type of study performed; and what kinds of linguistic resistance arise when governments institute language and language-education policies.

Some of the points regarding Korea were pretty interesting. There was a nervous chuckle about a quote from a Korean-designed textbook that explained to students the value of studying English which was to be found in the comparative advantage of “knowing one’s enemy better.” But this reflected a deeper sensitive-spot in the Korean national psyche which even later on that day was demonstrated for me: if English is so necessary, well, then, is there something lacking in Korean?

The answer to this question, of course, is that there is not: it’s a matter of historical circumstance that English is the lingua france, just as French was some time ago and Spanish or Chinese may yet be in the future, depending on what happens to various economies in the world. But of course, given the colonial experience in Korea, including the Japanese occupation during which Korean was sidelined and Japanese language education and even naming policies were instituted, I believe it’s somewhat an understandable anxiety.

It’s easy for me, as an Anglophone Canadian, to shake my head and reflexively mutter, “Get over it.” It’s easy for me to say, “Look, the more you arm yourself with English, the better equipped you’ll be to keep your culture, but also to change it as you wish.” And to some degree, I believe that learning a language is like learning to play an instrument. Sure, you forge yourself a new identity in that language as part of the learning process — I’m more of a cusser in French, I’m (usually) more polite and slightly punnier in Korean. But this doesn’t mean that you give up the original identity that you built for yourself in your mother tongue; it doesn’t automatically translate into being someone else, at the end of the day.

Frankly, if and when exposure to ideas in another culture result in adoption of those ideas, I hardly think it’s because this is an automatic, unthinking response to the second language: after all, some ideas I’ve encountered while studying Korean rub me the wrong way. While I can parse or comprehend them when I interact with others in Korean, it’s not as if automatically adopt them and transform myself along their lines. The ideas I like, I accept into myself; the ideas I don’t like, I think about and compare to their analogues in my own society, and eventually reject them. Viewing language as a medium for transcultural “infection” basically ignores the fact of human agency, the idea that people can think about ideas and question them, and choose whether to accept or reject them.

And yet I can also agree that as part of the victory of the idea that “modernization” is synonymous with “Westernization”, people have lost a lot; this is because, perhaps, most people, even if they do have the ability to think through and choose what to accept and reject, for whatever reason don’t actually think through and decide: they simply let media, or the crowd, decide for them. Young people choose electric guitar or drums instead of their country’s traditional instruments, or any other country’s native instruments; businessmen wear suits as universally as any soldier wears a uniform. Art around the world reflects the modern art of Europe and the Americas, and the world’s main form of entertainment now is the movie. While people in other nations still adapt these things to their own cultures, and make each of them “their own”, it’s hard to believe that some degree of agency and power isn’t lost when these “foreign” things become the universal standards.

Of course, the forms of resistance look really unusual to us foreigners: we witness a number of stock phrases such as repeated declarations of how the Korean language and writing system are extremely “scientific” and “easy to learn” offered as explanations of why Koreans love their native tongue so dearly, and why Korea has an apparently much lower illiteracy rate than we see in other nations; but I wonder if this extends to stock affirmations about Korea in general, such as the 5,000 years of history and the “Korea has four seasons” memes that English teachers seem universally to encounter, and generally find odd in their apparent universality.

Of course, what to do with this is the big question. For example, is it better to point out that lots of other countries have four seasons, and at what level should one do that? How important is it to get students talking about Korea? (Given that this is an activity I have found most students find boring unless they have a teacher who is–or claims to be–new to the country.) And how much of my role in teaching English is to teach the underlying culture that English contains and embodies? This doesn’t come up much in my lower-level classes, but it does come into my upper-level classes, I think, a little more.

Anyway, I am interested in hearing others’ thoughts on the subject.

9 thoughts on “At What Price English?

  1. I’m increasingly regretting having missed this presentation. Thanks for the great report – and it was really good meeting you for dinner on Saturday night, I hope the rest of your trip to Seoul was enjoyable.

  2. Well, I attended and found the presentation interesting! ;-) Next time you come, I hope we can meet. I think very highly of you as a blogger (which is the capacity I know you in). Have a great evening!

  3. Yup, it was cool EFL Geek. And you SHOULD have stayed for the plenary, but quotes aside, I think you got the majority of the gist from what I had to say.

    Thanks for your kind words, Nathan. I’m sure a chance to meet will come up eventually.

  4. Hey Gord,

    Interesting comments about “cultural assumptions.?

    Would you agree that the teaching of the English language in North East Asia has been, for the most part, a failure?

    I often feel this way.

    Think about the vast amounts of time and money that these countries have invested into learning English. The results have been pretty discouraging, in my view. Even with the assistance of foreign ‘experts’ many students, after 6 or more years of English instruction cannot form even basic sentences or respond to basic questions about daily life, ie. “what time is it??

    I sometimes wonder if part of this may be associated with the fact that CLT and communicative based textbooks and materials don’t take into consideration the socio-cultural contexxt that the learning takes place in.

    For example, doesn’t it seem that CLT has a ‘one size fits all’ quality to it?

    What about culture, ethnicity, L1 – even religion? Don’t they (shouldn’t they?) factor into the learning process?

    I’ve read that our L1 has a large bearing on how we learn an L2 – that is, there are specific strategies that are used in L1 acquisition that are unique to certain languages (I think of Chinese and Japanese when I say this, as they seem to emphasis a lot of rote memorization, repetition and group/choral recitation in the learning characters and sounds).

    So, does it make good sense to use pedagogy and materials that are not naturally perferred by certain groups?

    Where I worked in Japan, I had to use communicative techniques. That’s the way it was. I wasn’t allowed to even discuss grammar! If teachers didn’t use task based, process oriented teaching methods, they failed and were let go. I have a British friend who works for Kojen here in Taiwan. He told me that he fired several teachers because they didn’t adopt CLT methods in their classes.

    In Tokyo, our supervisors forced us to use pedagogy that was designed in Western cultures and told to use it in a culture where it’s foreign and largely resisted not only by the students but by many local teachers as well.

    Is it correct to assume that because one approach is preferred and works certain cultures of the world that it can be successfully applied in communities in other parts of the world?

    I think there’s a need to develop ‘hybrid’ pedagogies that relfect the interests, preferred learning strategies and learning styles of the communites we’re teaching in.

    CLT approaches makes sense to me too, but then I was raised and educated in a Western society.

  5. Fred asked:

    Would you agree that the teaching of the English language in North East Asia has been, for the most part, a failure?

    I often feel this way.

    Well, I also think the positivist march of progress notion was a failure, but then, it was crazy to believe it would work, too. It’s just impossible for the majority of a nation to acquire a language without a really deep impetus to do so, without the chance to grapple with it on a regular basis. Hell, it’s about as common for a Korean to learn English fluently as it is for a foreigner in Korea to get fluent in Korean. (This is true on the level of statistics, in that only a vanishingly small minority of Koreans ever get fluent, but historical circumstance and experience dictate that even so, many MORE Koreans learn English than non-Koreans learn Korean. For now. It may not be that way when immigration here grows as it will need to do, though those will be non-English-speaking non-Koreans who’ll be learning Korean. In my opinion, they count.) Most people never really acquire a second language when they’re living in their homelands, and a majority of people don’t manage it even when living abroad. So it’s hardly surprising, and shouldn’t even be something one has to feel awkward about admitting, I think.

    I mean, how many societies achieve widespread bilingualism? And how many societies achieve it with a foreign language as alien to the mother tongue as English is to Korean? (Yes, many Dutch speak English; how many Dutch can speak Chinese?)

    Think about the vast amounts of time and money that these countries have invested into learning English. The results have been pretty discouraging, in my view. Even with the assistance of foreign ‘experts’ many students, after 6 or more years of English instruction cannot form even basic sentences or respond to basic questions about daily life, ie. “what time is it??

    Sometimes my response is that there’s not a big enough desire for the learning. I mean, I don’t think Korea will ever really be generally bilingual; I don’t even think the educated elite will manage it. But I do think all students could be a bit better off if their education hadn’t reduced them to worrying about one thing and one thing alone: “grades” which they understand as being earnmed through the regurgitation of a “correct” answer.

    I suspect this harms all areas of scholarship here, not just foreign-language study but also science, engineering, tech research, the arts, and so on. It seems like a good way to hobble the human imagination (and achieve social control).

    I sometimes wonder if part of this may be associated with the fact that CLT and communicative based textbooks and materials don’t take into consideration the socio-cultural context that the learning takes place in.

    For example, doesn’t it seem that CLT has a ‘one size fits all’ quality to it?

    What about culture, ethnicity, L1 – even religion? Don’t they (shouldn’t they?) factor into the learning process?

    And of course the pedagogy of the society. Approach to pedagogy is a big thing. I realized at some point, when teaching children way back when, that kids go through a kind of culture shock when confronted with a foreign teacher. The expectations go out the window, so do some boundaries. They don’t know what will happen if they are good, bad, lazy, or hardworking. While adults don’t show it quite so clearly, one does realize that for them, as for the kids, part of adjusting to a foreign teacher is learning the “game” of the classroom, the role they’re supposed to take on, and so on.

    Sometimes I wonder if I confound them too much, giving them agency and forcing them to make decisions that I know their other profs would likely just make for them and impose from above. But I also feel like (a) this is part of education, to be given choices and responsibility for one’s choices, and (b) that this approach to teaching is more in harmony with the language I’m teaching. Students need to learn why the “I” is capitalized in English, why we never use “we” or “us” as much as “I” in our declarations, and so on. Part of English is about not being so group-oriented. It’s the hardest lesson, I think.

    So, does it make good sense to use pedagogy and materials that are not naturally perferred by certain groups?

    I suspect I may be disagreeing with you if I say, at some level, yes. It depends on what you’re teaching, and at what level, of course. I try to use the groupishness of students while still affirming the importance of individual declarations, for example. I noticed that at Korean Pansori (traditional vocal music) performances, the audiences called out supportive words to the singer. I taught students the English version of some of these exclamations, like, “You go, girl!” and “Say it, brother!” and the like, and had them — in a group — support students who were put on the spot with review questions. It seemed to work on a few different levels.

    I myself would be quite prepared to go through the repetitive stuff to learn to read Chinese, if that were what I wanted to study; it makes sense to do so. It doesn’t make as much sense to use rote repetition when, as in the case of Korean students, many years of rote repetition has dulled their ability to form even one single unique sentence of their own devising. (Something one of the Korean profs in my office has taken to complaining about lately.)

    Where I worked in Japan, I had to use communicative techniques. That’s the way it was. I wasn’t allowed to even discuss grammar! If teachers didn’t use task based, process oriented teaching methods, they failed and were let go. I have a British friend who works for Kojen here in Taiwan. He told me that he fired several teachers because they didn’t adopt CLT methods in their classes.

    Augh! That’s the worst, when some know-nothing bureaucrat or theory-mad supervisor demands everyone teach from the same style, using the same technique. I think one of the cool things in my office is that among the people who are actually making an effort, each person is doing different things. Not everyone is continually experimenting — who has the energy or time? — but in the end, the experiments that work out get shared, and spread little by little. A kind of hybrid set of pedagogical tools evolves through this.

    CLT approaches makes sense to me too, but then I was raised and educated in a Western society.

    Well, Koreans I’ve spoken with agree that it works, or at least works better than the rote learning they grew up with. The problem is that CLT in the context of ESL works better than in the context of EFL: there’s more input available for students to draw on. Using CLT on me to teach me Russian is only going to make me crazy, because right now I have no basis or context in which to acquire even a little Russian.

    Pedagogies need to vary with situations, individuals, classes, levels, and cultures; that’s why teaching is more of an art than a science, no matter how we try to scientize it.

  6. Fred, thanks for the recommended paper.

    I think anyone who studies the local language and seriously asks about local pedagogy would arrive to similar (though not the same) conclusions. I should add, however, that one should be careful not to map a particular experience on a society. There’s a myth floating around my office that all homework in Korea is optional; it has its roots in the claim made by some local professor to a foreigner at some point. But I know definitely at other schools it’s not like this, and I suspect even in other local professors’ classes it probably isn’t.

    Laura, on the contrary, I love to see others’ writing spurred on by what I’ve written. I’ve changed the link, though, to lead back to your post. I hope that’s alright. And of course I don’t object to your link. Off I go to read your post and the paper recommended by Fred above.

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