September 8

When we were randomly assigned to our Zoom breakout rooms during online Korean class today, my German classmate popped up in frame. The first thing he said was, “Oh thank god, someone who speaks English.”

Oh honey. He’s only a month into living in Korea, and he hasn’t yet realized the depth of English fear.

We chatted as quickly as possible, a relief for both of us to talk in English before the teacher popped in to observe our Korean practice. This guy winked at me at least five times.

And honestly? I didn’t hate it.

C once told me that Germans are so good at English because “English and German are basically the same language”.

Uh, no.

Germans are good at English because the German public education system values study of the lingua franca that involves actual speaking, listening, and ties to the real world. Germany understands that to play on the world stage, we have to communicate. And for better or worse (or rather, colonialism) English has become that method.

It is a travesty that Korean students are educated on English for ten years and after graduation, cannot hold a basic conversation.

I don’t blame the students but the system has obvious and long-lasting repercussions. My freshman roommate nodded so hard I thought she might hurt her neck when I said that English teachers in Korea should encourage conversation, increase praise, minimize criticism, and toss the English portion of the college entrance exam in the trash because it’s garbage. I would love to converse with every English teacher who was ever mean to my freshman roommate and just obliterate them in front of their students.

Students are forced into hating English and seeing it as nothing more than a tool to get into university.

(There is no writing, listening, or speaking portion on the English part of the exam. Passages are at least two paragraphs long and clearly taken from Korean PhD papers that sound horrifically stilted, awkward, and pedantic to native speakers. You can have high level text passages without the absolute trash that students are expected to memorize lists of synonyms for in order to pass the exam.)

English stops being a language and starts being a torture device. Who would want to speak that? Who even has time in high school to practice speaking when it’s so devalued?

The CSAT English test, which largely focuses on measuring students’ reading comprehension ability, has long been criticized for failing to improve their pragmatic English communication skills. To address the problem, former President Lee Myung-bak attempted to replace it with a Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)-style exam, known as NEAT (National English Ability Test), during his term, but the project eventually fell apart.

Jung Min-Ho, The Korea Times

It’s especially strange because Korea has a very standardized and well constructed Korean language program at nearly every university across the country. Equal emphasis is placed on speaking, reading, writing, and listening.

I am at a loss for understanding, frankly.

In any case, these experiences show me a change after my next contract will be good! Maybe somewhere more diverse like Malaysia where the average citizen speaks three languages. Maybe Hong Kong for its interesting history and global footprint. Or maybe somewhere really far out there like Nepal, Russia, or Madagascar. Maybe I can transition to Europe with more experience.

I never want to be too comfortable or stop learning.

I haven’t left Korea in a year and Asia in 16 months. As my new expat friend said, “Oh yeah, that will get to you. You have to have a break from time to time.” I need a taste of something else to appreciate the flavor here. Covid certainly makes that difficult.

That’s not to say that things aren’t going well. They are! Now that I have the time, though, I’d like to take a trip home.

If 2020 permits.

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