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Shepherds and Sheep

Those of you who knows your Canterbury Tales well don’t need the exact line I’m thinking of in that title, so I won’t give it here, since it would be overstatement. Or, well, no, not really, but it would be not-nice understatement, anyway.

I’m struck, in reading the work of schoolteachers who are trying to write an English text for students of the level they teach — and trying is the word, indeed in a couple of senses — that maybe some of the content just shouldn’t be in there.

The problem isn’t total incompetence on their part. A lot of the content is, if not inspiring, fine, okay, serviceable. (Read: not worse than the other stuff on the market. This is a pretty lax standard, but it’s the standard of the market and the industry.)

It’s just that there’s these things that even the teachers are getting wrong, things like the usage of that vs. which, or should vs. must, or, well, any of those standard EFL/ESL errors that people really often only sort out when they get to a certain degree of fluency competency. (ie. These are the sorts of things people don’t truly learn and integrate into their speaking in middle school English courses, no matter how many times you bang ’em over the head with it.)

I could dwell on (and gawk at) the irony of (assumably at least regular, if not unusually superior) teachers flubbing the very grammar points central to these chapters. I could question the wisdom of having a non-native speaker draft foreign language text books across the board, though I’d admit collaboratively it is a good idea to have a nonnative speaker on board. (They see things a usefully different way, especially when they’re fluent in multiple languages.)

But instead, I’d rather just ask: if middle school and high school teachers aren’t getting it right, does that not speak volumes as to the (practical, and also the functional) teachability of the point?

Some of this stuff, like I said, is stuff I suspect people only sort out later in language acquisition, and cramming it into students’ heads early may not help; worse, if teachers are also prone to getting it wrong, how are they to teach it correctly to their students? I don’t mean teach it so they can get it right on a spoonfeed test, I mean so that they can spontaneously generate statements using it correctly.

At the same time, I think I’ve found the solution to the problem of having would-be English teachers demonstrate competency so that they can get a job. They must collaborate on a two-week textbook project with a native speaker, who is compensated with payment up-front and royalties if they help complete a book selected for national publication. (Fiddle visa laws so that native English speakers can do this work, the first year, and then supplement their ranks with the people that pass that first year in subsequent years.)

Most of the applicants, having insufficient English-language faculties, would be gone a day or two into collaboration when they end up completely unable to interact with their Anglophone collaborator, leaving only the applicants who can speak and write; by the end of two weeks, you’d have plenty of good chapters that could be cobbled into the skeleton of a book, and you’d have sorted out the most qualified set of applicants. Then test that smaller number of English-competent people for their teaching knowledge, etc.

It’d be a huge, wonderful winnowing process.

In theory.

In reality, what a nightmare that process would be. But you know, seriously, I betcha if the Ministry of Education hired ten competent Anglophone EFL teachers just to interview applicants, and even if it took interviewing all year round — there are a lot of applicants, and even a five minute interview with each applicant could serve if you know what you’re doing, but there’s fatigue and there are limits to how many you can do in a day or week — even so, if you actually manually winnowed the people with low practical competency, you’d change the whole game.

It’s one thing when the occasionally competent new English teacher shows up at a school and all the senior teachers, feeling threatened, hiss and bare their claws until she shuts up and starts doing like them. (Not speaking English in class, keeping it secret that she is taking a refresher course at a local University language center, etc. Which is exactly what happened to a friend of mine.) It’s quite another when the majority of the next generation of English teachers is competent, and parents start asking why the 7th and 8th grade teachers are doing such a better job than the 9th.

Anyway, all I can say is, either the sights are set way too high on the curriculum front, or way too low (or on irrelevances, like multiple choice test-taking ability) in the teacher-selection process. One or the other. In either case, something needs some adjusting.

But what do I know? I’m just one of those outsiders who has happened to witness the Korean EFL industry’s equivalent to the making of sausage and law.

And don’t even get me started on the stereotypes and the touchy subjects. Students discussing crushes or teacher favoritism in the classroom? No way! Raising the question of whether a cleaning ajumma moved something she shouldn’t have? That’s too risqué! (Even if it happens everyday, realistically speaking.) Part-time jobs, French classes, and playing in little rock bands? What are you thinking, those are adult pursuits. Teenagers don’t do these things!

By the way, what do Chinese people like? Yes, jajangmyeon and kung fu!

(For those who don’t know, jajangmyeon is just noodles in black bean sauce, the unfortunate Korean equivalent to what American Chinese food restaurants [or, at least, according to my friend Jean-Louis, Quebecois Chinese food restaurants] used to do with macaroni and soy sauce.  Chinese students I’ve known here have actually cried, or gotten angry, discovering just what it is Koreans think Chinese people eat. Then again, I always have to take a deep breath before pointing out not all Westerners eat hamburgers everyday, too. I’m told, though, jajangmyeon is just what Chinese railway construction workers here used to eat here, as it was all they could affordon their pay back in the heyday of infrastructural development in Korea. Not sure if it’s true, but it sounds plausible to me.)

And then there’s the little things that slip through, like a teenaged Thai girl referring to herself and other Thais in Korea as “foreign workers” (although she is a high school student!) or how it’s always Mom who’s helping the kid get to school on time or making dinner or whatever… It makes me get rebellious and try to slip in scenes where dad’s doing the laundry, or Mom’s going to the office, or dad’s taking his daughter fishing in the Han river, or whatever.

One of the oddest content objections? When a Thai character in the textbook is talking to her Korean friend, and then, at the end of the story, it goes, “Then she told me some other interesting stories about Thailand,” and someone said, “Isn’t interesting ambiguous here?”

And I’m thinking, this is a kids’ textbook.They’re not going to see that in a foreign language. But man, someone saw it. Because, you know, it’s Thailand. So I changed it to “funny stories,” and, yeah, funny is too ambiguous too. Too much suggestive ambiguity. I’m thinking this 13-year-old Thai kid is talking about how fun it was to go see movies at the Siam Paragon, they’ve imagining the Thai teenager telling stories about ping-pong shows in Patpong to her Korea middle-schooler pal. If that’s what we can expect from teachers’ handling of the growing multiethnicity in Korea, this society is in for a shock.

(One of my students spent a lot of time in the countryside this summer, and said she used the Tagalog word for hello quite constantly, for example.)

How did we resolve the ambiguities, by the way? Well, now it’s just “more stories.” Which, ironically, to a native speaker with a sense of humor, is way more ambiguous. But hey, that’s not the target audience.

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