Tuesday, May 31, 2011

To Native Teacher or Not To Native Teacher? And tests.

So... the old question is getting asked again, at Asian Correspondent about whether Native Teachers are actually needed or not (this time in the context of Hong Kong and Singapore). A YonHap news editorial from a few days ago discusses a new English test being developed by the Korean Education Ministry.

It fails to answer the question, "How will this test not be subject to the same phenomenon other English tests experience, where hagwons teaching that test appear, and drive up the price of education?"

Yet the motivation for creating this test is to make it so that students don't feel compelled to go to hagwons that teach to the test: "The new test is judged to be desirable as it aims to reduce students' financial burdens for private tutoring and it will have writing and speaking tests."

The editorial suggests making the test easier, or even pass-fail, to help ease the competition and pressure...

rendering the test useless as a measure of English ability.

In point form, then, because I'm tired of this conversation, and avoid it when I can. I could talk for twenty minutes on each of these, but instead I'm just going to throw them out there as food for thought:

Native teachers:

Good teachers are more important than native or non-native teachers.

Native or not native teachers is a false dichotomy: different types are better in different situations, different types of classes, and especially for different ages.

Materials designed to be used by the least-qualified sector of the English teaching population are insulting to the good teachers, as are other manifestations of such low expectations.

People tend to live down to low expectations, if that's all you offer them, after a while, don't they?

It's all in how they're used, not in their skin color... but we all know that, too, don't we?

A "native accent" is only something people should be concerned about at medium levels and up.

Idioms and idiom usage are overrated English skills, and in and of themselves, not worth the extra cost and stress of bringing in and dealing with native teachers. Idiom and Idiom usage should be quite low on the list of priorities for things to be taught.

Koreans should be exposed to a variety of English speakers' accents to improve their listening (bring in some Egyptian English teachers, I say)

Non-Koreans who speak English well are great at teaching some aspects of English, because they had to go through the learning process themselves. Any good English training program should see significant contributions from native and non-native speakers.

Good native teachers.  Lots of native teachers.  Native teachers at the low end of the pay scale.  Choose two of those three.

There are highly qualified native English teachers in Nigeria, Malaysia, the Philippines, India, and other places, who would be excellent teachers in Korea. Many of them probably take much lower salaries than first world (usually white) Native English teachers. The idea has been toyed with... if those teachers are not acceptable to parents, then there are other issues at work than just the desire for a "qualified native" teacher, and that discourse is a smokescreen for what's really going on.

If having white faces on the poster is what it's about, then we're dealing with issues of prestige. There's nothing particularly wrong with that, so long as we're calling a spade a spade, and in the same way you can't convince that gal that she's just as qualified for the job with or without a nose job, and that her handbag is no better or worse than another custom made handbag without the Louis Vuitton logo on it, you'll never convince her that the school with white people pressing play and pause isn't actually any better than the school with Korean people pressing play and pause. And if that's the case, the cheapest white face (unqualified? You can't tell that from a photo... until the hongdae paparazzi put some shit on the internet) will do, just like a low-end rolex is still a rolex.

My clue that it IS about prestige and aspiration, more than practical considerations: If it were about practical considerations, there would be almost as many Japanese and Chinese hagwons as English hagwons, and there would also be Arabic, Russian, Spanish, French, and German hagwons here and there.

What many Koreans get wrong about English education, or how many of my Korean students seem to want their English classes to work:

English is not like a driver's license, where you get your license and you don't have to worry about it again... but too many Koreans treat it that way. It's more like fitness, where you can go to the gym and get in shape, but once you achieve that sixpack, if you repsond by reverting to couch-potato ways, you'll go back to your couch-potato build. Koreans who stop studying and using English once they hit 900 will never speak English well. .... and they don't want to. English is a 'spec' for them.

('spec' - Konglish for credentials and qualifications of the kind that are listed on a resume - kind of like the 'specs' you check on the box of the computer you're thinking of buying, to check out its speed, storage, power, etc..  The fact the Konglish word is 'specs' is telling, if you ask me.)

[Update: oh by the way] If English is a spec, all that high-minded stuff about language as access to a different culture, and a different way of thinking, is moot. Just get your English teaching robot and heave away.

English is also not like other subjects in school, where you can close the book and shut off that part of your brain until the beginning of the next class, but too many Koreans treat it that way, and avoid English (other than the delightful nonsense of Kpop lyrics and advertising catch-phrases) as much as possible until it's time to open the textbook again. This will never work for learning a language. If a language is segmented and segregated from the rest of one's life, it won't "take."

The advice I give to people who ask:
If you go overseas, avoid hanging out with other Koreans in your class, and stay the hell out of Koreatown.

Speak English at home with your family. Start with an hour once a week, and as you get used to that, expand.

Turn off the subtitles. (Also: you absorb more English from watching one episode of a show ten times, than from watching ten different episodes.)

Read books a little below your actual reading level, instead of above: reading above your actual reading level is slow and frustrating. Reading a little below your level is fast, fun, and confidence-building.


조안나 said...

I agree with reading below your reading level. My minor was Spanish in college, and I'd have to read all sorts of hard texts that would take hours to make sense of. Not fun at all. Then when I was studying abroad, I read Harry Potter in Spanish. Since I knew the story and it was meant for kids anyway, it was a breeze to read and it felt really good reading a novel without trouble. Plus I picked up all sorts of magical vocabulary that I wouldn't have ever studied before!

Anonymous said...

It's all about the money, which means it's all about the hagwon, which means Korean parents aren't just paying for English but more importantly, for the "foreigner experience" i.e. clownshoes entertainer also known as "English teacher."

I realize that there are many South Koreans who resent the number of NET's here, or even how much they make, but as long as the hagwon are making healthy profits there will be native English speakers here.

I'm all for advancing new technologies (distance learning, phone and video English, etc.) but these internal Korean spats always seem to miss the larger point -- there's money to be made by bringing NET's over.

That said, your language learning tips are spot-on.

Anonymous said...

I also agree with reading below your level-- or right at your level. I taught 7th grade English in New York for a few years before I came to Korea and this was a requirement of all the students-- ESL or not. It's been proven that reading above your level will not help you gain fluency when you read. Four times a year we would have to test every kid to find out their perfect reading level-- it was tedious, but it really helped them in the end.

Unknown said...

Well said. The problem with Koreans is that their focus is not to acquire knowledge, but to get the test score to get into good college, good grad school, good jobs. The actual amount of knowledge learned is not important.

I remember before my family moved to the US, I was taking English classes in middle school... I didn't understand it at all, so I just memorized every word of the textbook from the beginning to the end, not knowing what the hell it means, and got a 100% on every test.

Regarding reading below your reading level, it's the same advise I give. However, when I first moved to the US and didn't know a single word of English, the first book they made me read in English classes (they saw my All-As on my transcript and made me skip ESL, I didn't know what they were saying so I just kept nodding) was John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath.

Took me ungodly long and painful to read, but improved my English dramatically. But I guess if I had a choice not to, then I wouldn't have read it.

I'm no Picasso said...

Just wanted to say: excellent post.

This Is Me Posting said...

First, awesome post.

I do disagree, however, with this point: "A 'native accent' is only something people should be concerned about at medium levels and up."

Accent should be dead last on the list of priorities. A "native accent" (or any accent for that matter) is completely dependant upon where you will be using it. If a Korean worker intends to use their English in business environments in Korea, they already have a "native accent." As we all know, American, Australian, British, Irish, Scottish (etc...) Englishes all sound completely different and sometimes are misunderstood between "native speakers" from differing counties.

What's far more important is pronunciation. Being able to distinguish between pin and pen, three and tree and not adding extra e/y sounds (churchy) are far more important. I think it's important that teachers point out and make that distinction between "accent" and "pronunciation," especially when addressing it with their students.

On the teacher's side of things: I always suggest learning IPA and understanding exactly what is happening in/with your mouth (what the tongue is doing, what the teeth are doing, what the lips are doing) when attempting to teach pronunciation. Simply saying: "No, say it like I'm saying it/say it like this..." doesn't work.



I always tell my students to read books they've already read in their own language in English. That way, they already know the story thereby shifting the focus away from story comprehension to language comprehension. I'm always amazed at how often teachers dismiss this type of learning tool.

And students: "But I've already read this book!" Yes. That's the point.

Anonymous said...

About the reading thing. I agree with what you, Robo, and several commenters have said.

I would just like to add some points that help me when planning lessons, setting homework, and when studying language myself.

Make a distinction between practice and study.

For reading practice, any material should be at or below the student's current level. It could be mildly challenging at times, but not to the point that a dictionary is required more than once every page or two. Also, this kind of practice is used to develop fluency (speed, smoothness, ease) and should include as much and as varied content with as little repetition as possible. Repetition will occur in the common phrases that pop up naturally in any text, and that's great for consolidation of the basics, but repeating to the point of memorisation probably won't do much for fluency. Graded readers and children's books are useful sources of reading material for this kind of fluency practice.

For reading study, short, challenging texts should be studied slowly, carefully, and repeatedly. Using a dictionary several times a paragraph is quite appropriate. Taking extensive notes, making flashcards, memorising words/phrases/passages/etc. are also things that serve this purpose well.

You may have heard of 'extensive practice' (fluency practice) and 'intensive practice' (which I think is often synonymous with 'study'). This may be a helpful concept for learners, as it can remind them of the value of both aspects.

Both practice and study are equally necessary. The amount of time dedicated to each can vary, but I believe practice should not take up less than half the language-learning time.

Language is a skill, so learning begins with intensive study, followed by extensive practice to consolidate what was learned and develop proficiency -- that's the skill part.

Many of the criticisms I hear about the problems with the prevailing approach to English education in Korea, as is evident in this post and the comments it has elicited, come down to this problem: language is viewed as a subject of study, not a skill.

CedarBough said...

nice post. agree with nearly every point. now if only anyone who has power in English ed policy in Korea would read this...

Roboseyo said...

TIMP: good points, well made.

Native pronunciation (and speaking speed) are things students should be exposed to, but you're right that they should not be the subject of near-fetishistic fixation from parents, etc.

I also spend part of a class explaining to students that "perfect" or "standard" pronunciation is a myth because the English speaking world has no "center" anymore, but that it IS important that sounds are different from each other (as in the examples you provided) - z/j b/v, f/p and some of the tricky vowel sounds.

In fact, I'd say that a student who studied English under teachers who spoke English as a second language, and whose first languages were Hindi, Arabic, Greek, Norwegian, and Swahili will be better prepared for the ACTUAL way English is used and spoken in the world, than someone who took all their courses from US, UK, Canada, NZ, Aus. Irish and S.African teachers.

Students like me because my accent is easy to understand... but that in no way prepares them to close a business deal with that Syrian guy who wants to broker a deal. My wife understands my English very well, but has trouble with other "foreigners" because my accent is so easy to understand (and she hears it all the time).

Anonymous said...

I'll pick a nit and say that "American mid-Atlantic English" is the center of the English world these days. (East coast of USA north of Virginia up to New York but _not_ New York City.) It's certainly the type of English that most Korean employers hope to get (my first boss in Korea stated flatly that he would only hire Americans, as long as they didn't have southern/southeastern accents).

This isn't to say it's "the best" English in a cultural or linguistic sense, but it's fairly neutral compared to other dialects.

But in the futre, who knows. It wasn't that long ago that a British accent was thought of as the gold standard (e.g., BBC World News radio). It could always change again.

Roboseyo said...

I think, Wet Casements, we're working on different definitions here:

When I said "the English speaking world has no 'center'" here's what I meant:

Center of the Korean Speaking World: Seoul. Korean dialect considered standard: Seoul Korean.

Center of the French Speaking World: Paris. Dialect considered standard: Paris French.
There's a french province in Canada, but they still taught us Paris french in school, even though Quebec's dialect is WAY different)

Center of the Thai Speaking World: Bangkok. Dialect considered standard: Bangkok Thai.

These centers dominate their respective business, cultural and political spheres. They are the most populous cities, the capitals of the most populous countries, the wealthiest cities, and the most influential in terms of media and politics, in the world of their respective languages.

Many of these are debatable:
Most Populous English city: New York
City with most media influence: Hollywood, London, New York, LA, and a few I'm missing.
Business Center: New York and London
Richest history: (arguably) London
Most political power: Washington DC
Countries with most natural resources: Australia and Canada
Preferred Dialect:
In East Asia: non-regional North American English (midwest is good; west coast is also very easy for listening; a lot of US news anchors are recruited from Canada because our accent is pretty neutral)
In Europe and former British Colonies: British English

Countries with the most English speakers: USA, India, Nigeria, UK, Philippines, Germany, Canada

There sure are dialects that are easier to understand, but unlike in 1600, when "The King's English" could have been considered the standard, and London's elite set the standard for "correct English," there isn't a standard accent anymore, unless you count the "American Standard" which American news anchors and actors are trained to speak, and "British Standard" which British anchors and actors are trained to speak, and which are only TRULY spoken by people who have been trained to speak them by diction coaches.

Telling an Australian, Irish, South African, New Zealander, or Scot that they spoke English "wrong" would put ME in the wrong... and that's what I meant by that statement. That some Koreans believe there IS a standard English reveals more about their perceptions of the English speaking world, than that actual reality of it, where a global operator is just as likely to do business with an Indian, a Nigerian, or a Filipino speaking native English, or an Iranian, a Chinese, or a Brazilian speaking it as a second language, as one of those speaking the "correct" dialect.

Anonymous said...

Canadians are neutral? What are you talking aboot? Of course, I'm joking, but here's a conversation I had with a Canadian co-worker about this issue regarding the 'aboot' joke from the US:

Him: "Canadians don't say 'aboot,' we say 'aboat.'" (thinking that he was saying 'about')

Me: "..."

That's about the only thing that stands out as being particular to Canadian pronunciation compared to 'standard' US English.

I think the word 'neutral' is perhaps not the best for the description of the standard pronunciation of a particular place. Using it gives the impression that you are equating it with 'unaccented.' Just because it sounds like you, or even like most people, doesn't mean there is no accent. Standard, yes; neutral, not really.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you politically, but practically there's a reason many hagwon in Korea require "North American" or "American" speakers need only apply. (It's quite common on Craigslist-Seoul.)

Roboseyo said...

@WC: There is... but in my (uninformed, unresearched) assessment, that's connected to issues of prestige and power (alignment with the most powerful economy/ally), and maybe aspiration, more than correctness - in hte same way that Harvard and the US Ivy league schools get way more play here than the elite schools in the UK, and that comments about Korea in the New York Times get more play than comments about Korea in The Daily Telegraph (London) or The Australian, for that matter. I never hear about Dokdo Ads in The Australian.

@Schplook: neutral might not be the best word... non-regional? regionally neutral?

Roboseyo said...


Anonymous said...

Umm... I think you're still missing the point. To me, it's impossible to say 'non' anything when refering to accents.

Some definitions may help (I did some research):

NEUTRAL - uncoloured; without hue; achromatic.

That's the closest I could find to match the meaning being used here. As you can see, it's not literally applicable, but I grasp the intended meaning. However, there is still a problem.

Imagine someone describing the daytime sky as neutral, when it is clearly blue. Just because it is usually blue, except when it's cloudy or at sunrise and sunset, doesn't mean that the colour it has is actually neutral, uncoloured, or without hue.

I see the description of any accent of English as neutral is similarly unsatisfactory. Just because one form may be the most common, the most highly regarded, or considered correct by the most educated people, it is nonetheless coloured in its own way.

You see the dominant variety of US pronunciation as neutral because it seems that way from your perspective.

Compare 'neutral' with the following word.

STANDARD - "denoting or characterised by idiom, vocabulary, etc, that is regarded as correct and acceptable by educated native speakers." (17th sense of 'standard' in the Collins Concise English Dictionary.)

Standard pronunciation is specific to a place and time. It has an ever-shifting hue. Educated speakers in the US from previous centuries might also consider modern standard US pronunciation to be unusually accented, strange even.

I've dribbled on long enough on this, but let me finish with a question: would you consider it reasonable for people to argue that the dark blue sky before sunset were more coloured than the light blue of midday?

Kris said...

Great, thoughtful post. And love the blog too.

I agree that there is a difference between practice and study with any language. Having the perspective of teaching Korean students in the States you could physically see those students who had mastered the language the best. Those students who made a point to speak English with classmates including other language learners (students from Mexico, Japan, Germany, etc) with their own blended accents, who went out to stores and shops without a group, and who listened to American music and TV without subtitles performed better and were more confident then their counterparts who were not as adventurous.

Students connect with things they are most familiar and comfortable with, which is often pop culture. As educators of ELL/ESL students you have to be creative in incorporating different components of that English into daily use beyond textbooks and workbooks. I think that is something all effective educators understand whether you are a native teacher or not.

Nite said...

This is so true....
I learned French in my American middle school and high school and while I had fantastic French teachers who were French, I had great French teachers who were
not French.

I think sometimes, non-native teachers are better because if they're good, they can see from the perspective of a non-native and teach accordingly. That perspective gives them an advantage.

I told my Korean mother this and she didn't believe me. She thinks native trumps everything.

Gomushin Girl said...

I find the native vs. not native argument especially interesting in light of my own experiences as a learner of Korean and Japanese. I started learning Japanese much earlier, and had a variety of different teachers. Some were native speakers, but at least half were non-Japanese teachers. While both sets of teachers were very effective, the non-Japanese teachers were extremely effective in communicating how to deal with some of the more complex points of grammar, simply because they'd had to learn it themselves and come up with strategies to deal with it.
However, all of my Korean teachers have been native speakers, and with virtually all of them there's been frustrating moments where not only am I having difficulty with the concept, they also have problems trying to couch it in terms that will be meaningful to me. It's so obvious to them that they don't always have alternative ways to explain things to students of different backgrounds.
Of course, lots of this has to do with the fact that there's simply better, more established programs and methods for teaching Japanese to western learners than there are for teaching Korean.