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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Let's Talk about English

I have to apologize for my absence from blog world lately, the homework load is proving to be a little more than I expected, and I started doing my tutoring this week for my scholarship. To sum up, I have been granted the opportunity to take part in the Global Leaders Scholarship. This scholarship gives native English speakers to chance to talk to non-native English speakers in a comfortable and stimulating environment. The university offers the E-lounge here, a free service to any student here at Chung-Ang who wants to improve his/her English. (keep in mind that English tutors in this part of the country typically earn up to $50/hour for their services!) Needless to say, I am excited to take part in this awesome opportunity to get to know some new people, and we have been having some great conversations! Another awesome part of the scholarship gives students the options to volunteer in an elementary school right off campus. I have been placed in a kindergarten class of 10-14 children, some of who speak English, and some who don't. Isn't this difficult you may ask? I have to say that after almost a month of living here in Korea, I am hardly phased at the concept of someone not speaking English, in fact...I expect it. What I am fascinated by however, is that humans find endless ways to communicate. Often I find myself using hand motions in restaurants and grocery stores, just hoping the cashier catches my drift. In my kindergarten class, children always will find a way to tell you what they need to...even if it means just taking your hand and dragging you to what they want to show you. So why is everyone here so hell-bent on learning English? 
Honestly, this is a topic even I grapple with when I consider my future job prospects and the advantages/ consequences. On the one hand, English tutoring is an extremely lucrative and...well, easy living here in Korea, as well as any other relatively wealthy country that considers English to be a necessary education. Anyplace you can find industrialization + money, you are bound to find an English learning community. All this gets me thinking however, what exactly are the consequences to English becoming a globalized language? Are I simply becoming a linguistic imperialist by teaching my native language to willing learners? This questions nags my mind often, especially when I consider that I am very possibly replacing a native's future career in education. It is a well known fact that parents here insist their children learn English. It is the only way to secure good job prospects, as well as academic respect, and a native English speaker is almost always guaranteed a job in teaching English over a non-native speaker. The problem is however, that the issue always weighs around money. While English is taught K-12 in public schools here for free, parents still attempt to have their children be the best and brightest in every subject, including and especially English. Those families who have money to pay for continuing English education classes, private English tutors and trips abroad to English-speaking countries consequently have a better chance at succeeding in a globalized world because of their enhanced English skills, and those that don't have little hope of standing out in such a competitive very archaic, and well...un-American. Aren't we taught that no matter your rank or social status, you can rise above it and become successful despite your circumstances? This is true in a world where English is the first language, but sadly...the opposite is hardly ever true. Non-native English speakers both in their native countries and abroad are praised for having excellent English skills, but when an American chooses to pursue language study in say, Japanese or German...the response is often something akin to..."oh really, how interesting! but what are you going to do with that?" We like to think that we have learned from our past days of imperialistic conquests in which we dominate other cultures through forcing our religions, our cuisines, our cultural traditions onto them...but truly, how is linguistic imperialism any different? I won't profess to have an answer to any of this, but I will tell you how I have come to cope with my own personal guilt with teaching English abroad...and the answer is simple: quid pro quo. I have relieved my guilt by making a promise to myself that I will never teach English in another country without at least trying to learn the native language myself. I will not pretend that my semester of learning Korean, and feebly being able to sound out Hangul letters  even compares to the hours upon hours students here spend trying to become fluent in English....but, it's something I tell my students all the time: it doesn't have to be perfect, you just have to be able to communicate, and as humans... we always seem to find a way. 

1 comment:

  1. This was a beautiful post. I know this blog is over 2-3 years old and that you may never see this, but I do want you to consider the potential benefits of having a universal language -- English. If you look at all the tragedies that have happened over mis-communication and language barriers, then a common language would not only prevent the majority of those problems, but also provide countless advantages.

    I will concede that a loss of the valuation of a country's native language is a tragedy in and of itself. Each language has it's own unique meanings and depth that can hardly be translated correctly into English. But I think the ability to communicate, like you said in your post, trumps anything else.

    So don't think of teaching English in the terms of linguistic imperialism. Think of it as simply giving people the ability an alternate means to communicate with people on an international level. English, for better or worse, has become the default language for international diplomatic and business relations.