The language-learning distance of Finnish and Korean to English

I’ve received some interesting correspondence in regards to my last post about the different between the Korean and the Finnish ESL education models.  Some feel that I have over-generalized my experience and claims, that there are many schools in Korea that teach English just as effectively as any school in the world and that their students speak English as well as any other .  I’ll agree (I don’t know what schools these are, but I won’t deny their existence).  When I say, “korea is ____” that is going to be, without question, an over-generalization and while I could do better and write more precisely, I probably won’t and it might be just as well to think of “korea is ___” comments to be more aimed at a  popular opinion.  Either way, criticism accepted.

A more interesting argument comes from those who accept the claim that the Finns do ESL education better, but say it has to do with language in general.  This type of claim goes something like this:  Finnish exists in a world where English is much more prevalent culturally and is much more closely related linguistically.  Korean is far removed from English and so it makes sense that Koreans would have a harder time learning English.

The Finns

And some say the Finns are a cold people

An interesting idea, to be sure.  Linguists of a sort have been asking questions like, “why do some languages seemed  to be more difficult to learn than others?” for awhile and it does seem like Korean is a harder language for an English speaker to learn than say, Spanish.

There is an important twist here though.  Finnish isn’t related to English any more than Korean is.  The story in the Korean Times even seemed to check into this and wrote:

“Finnish, dominantly spoken throughout Finland, is in the Altaic language family, the same as Korean.”

Here’s the even bigger twist—Finnish isn’t part of the Altaic language Family!  And there is no conclusive evidence that Korean is either.  Sincerely, I wonder how this sort of thing gets going in the first place.  Let’s start with Finnish.

Finnish is part of the Uralic language family.  Its prominent living sister-languages are Hungarian and Estonian.  Hungarian makes up 56% of the families’ living speakers, Finnish has 20% and Estonian at 4.2%.  The Uralic languages are mostly located in eastern Europe or northern Asia and are the kinds of languages we see dying out in favor of more imperialistic languages like Russian.

Uralic Family treeLet’s move on now to the idea of difficulty in learning English for the average Finnish speaker.  What would make that easy or difficult?

Let’s start with some basic grammar.  Finnish is an SVO language, meaning it organizes its grammatical parts like this: Subject –> Verb –> Object,  precisely in the fashion that English does.  This certainly would be helpful to the Finnish learner of English.  However, Finnish is also an agglutinating language.  Meaning, the various grammatical parts of a word are added, usually, by affixes.  English does this as well, but not to the same degree as Finnish.  Finnish does not use auxiliary verbs like English (may, will, to be), instead these functions are affixed onto the main verb.  Finnish also uses case markers to signal what is the subject and object of the sentence, meaning word order isn’t as important as it is in English. (The common quip “dog bites man” is nothing, but “Man bites dog” is news).

Lastly in grammar, Finnish doesn’t separate ‘he’ and ‘she’, which can lead to amusing comments by Finnish ESL learners. (similar to the funny comments English Speakers learning Romance [Spanish] languages make when learning gender agreement).

Onto phonology.  The central feature of Finnish phonology (in my eyes anyway, I love this) is what we call Vowel Harmony.  Vowel Harmony pops up in languages all over the world, not just Uralic languages, and can vary in its degree or how it is accomplished.  But the basic idea is that a certain vowel  in a word (which, in agglutinating languages can mean very big changes with things like, a change in tense or person) will change the quality of a nearby vowel so that they will share a certain feature.  For example, in Finnish, front vowels (hill, heel, hell) cannot be near back vowels (cute, cough).  This can make the progressive aspect difficult for Finnish speakers.  Words like ‘coughing’ where the [ɔ] and [ɪ] vowels would not co-occur in the same word in Finnish, but occur frequently in the English progressive aspect.

Finnish vowel harmonySome other phonological problems include the lack of the English [θ] (th) in words like ‘thought’, and no difference between tense and lax vowels like ‘heel/hill’.  And finally, stress.  English generally places stress on the penultimate syllable (a rule that changes depending on dialect.  For example the British la-BO-ra-to-ry and American la-bra-TO-ri ‘laboratory’), while Finnish places stress on the initial syllable.

An interesting sociolinguistic difference that I have not really looked into is how politeness is conveyed.  English conveys politeness with added words, such as “please”, even going to absurd (my opinion, of course) lengths with phrases such as, “would you be so kind as to….”  Finnish however, focuses on tone to convey politeness, which may make Finns sound very direct and abrupt when speaking English. (note: I am not saying Finnish has no word for please, or that they don’t convey politeness at all via words, just that the focus is more on tone.  The same goes for English, tone is important to politeness in English as well, it’s just that we focus on other things, like “please” more).

I have written previously about differences between Korean and English, so instead of doing that, I’m going to comment on the relative difference between Korean and Finnish to English.

To begin, word order.  This is a difference.  Korean is SOV.  And Korean often omits not just the subject but the object as well, leaving just the verb and its inflections along with tone to convey meaning.  To explain, it would be like saying, “Hungry.” To mean, ‘I am hungry.’  While using a rising, questioning tone, “Hungry?” to mean, “Are you hungry?”  English speakers probably have no problem with the question-form (“hungry?”) but the idea that “hungry.” Is a grammatical phrase is a stretch for English speakers, and I assume Finnish speakers as well.

Korean is, however, an agglutinating language like Finnish.  And as such, word order (when it is implemented) is not as strict in Korean as it is in English (the man/dog thing again).  Also, much like Finnish, Korean lacks the strict equivalent of “he” and “she” that exists in English.  Many of my colleagues have extensive problems with getting the right personal pronoun when speaking with me and I am actually surprised at the level of misunderstanding this can cause for me, though I am getting better at making sure I keep the referent in mind and simply applying “he/she” to whoever it is.

As far as Phonology goes, modern Korean does not exhibit vowel harmony like Finnish, but it used to.  Old Korean had a system of vowel harmony very similar to Finnish but was described instead in terms of “light” and “dark” or yin and yang.  In modern linguistic terms, it is a tongue root harmony (front –back) with a neutral (schwa) vowel that can swing both ways.  I always like a chance to point out Korea’s long-love of linguistics and the fact that Korean has a description that is definitively not linguistic for their vowel harmony shows how involved and knowledgeable the middle-Korean scholars of language were.  The vowel harmony exists still to some degree in diminutive adjectives and adverbs and some other forms, but is largely gone from the language.  Hard to say it makes speaking English difficult.

Stress, however, is a problem.  Unlike Finnish and English, Korean is a syllable-timed language.  (sometimes said to have no stress but that is technically incorrect).  Stress is spread equally across a phrase and can lead to some wonky pronunciations in English.  One of the reasons I am in favor of teaching Korean ESL leaners about English vowel reduction, as it necessarily reinforces and focuses the student on syllable-stress, while giving them the tools to predict how to pronounce any given word.

Other phonological problems similar to Finnish is the lack of the [θ]/[ð] sound.  Korean takes it a step further to [v]/[f].  It seems Koreans have a hard time putting anything in the space between their teeth, I wonder if they bite their lip less than English and Finnish speakers!

Finally, as far as politeness is concerned, Korean uses an extensive system of honorifics that don’t exist in English outside of kingly speech (speaking in 3rd person so as to not directly address someone higher than yourself, “if it pleases the king”) and things like “sir” and “ma’am”.  I’m not aware of the Finnish equivalent.

So, is it fair to say that Finnish speakers learn English easier than Korean speakers?  Probably not.  At least not based on the idea that the language itself is the reason Koreans have more difficulty learning English than Finns.  Culture may play a larger role and the relative “distance” of Finnish culture to European (which is closer to English culture) culture compared to the distance of Korean culture to American culture may be relevant.  I can’t say.

Based on the similarities that Finnish and Korean show, however, it seems like a forgivable mistake that someone, like the Korean Times reporter, might think they are from the same family.  The lesson should be that, regardless of whatever shame we might feel as either ESL educators or Korean-speakers learning English, the linguistic difference between Korean and English is probably not where we should lay the blame.

I might return to talk about why describing Korean as an Altaic language (as everyone around here who knows anything about language seems to want to do) is not fair at some later date.

Finnish and Korean English Education and the role the Native English Teacher

I recently watched a documentary about the Finnish school system called The Finland Phenomenon.  Finland ranks #1 in education by almost any worldwide standard or test and it was interesting to get a brief introduction to their school system, their methods, the culture of the country and how people view education.  But one thing in particular made my jaw and heart drop at the same moment.  The level of English-language proficiency of even the junior high level students was amazing.The Finland Phenomenon

I’m sure the documentary film makers cherry-picked the most proficient to do this activity, but still, the level of fluency was remarkable, even for a high-advanced second language learner of such a young age.   None of my students, as bright as they are, are at the same level or even on track to become so by the time they graduate high school.  Not in pronunciation, not in their grammar, not in their tone.

After looking into their education standards for foreign languages, I quickly found out that I am not the only one who has found a discrepancy between Finnish-learners of English and their Korean counter-parts.  The Korean Times ran an article in 2008 talking about this idea.  Here is part of the opening lines:

 “At the end of a nine-year primary education program, Finnish students can leave the school competent in speaking English, whereas for Koreans, speaking English is a distant hope no matter what kind of degree they have acquired.”

 I actually have no clue what the writer, Kim Se-jeong means by “degree”, but the rest of the phrase is understandable enough.  Whatever the goals of English education in Korea, conversational fluency is not the top priority in practice.

Back to the Korean Times:

 “Teachers (only) spoke English. If you had questions, you had to ask it in English. In the beginning (level), especially, you learn to speak without knowing much grammar,” the [Finnish] ambassador said. This is still the same after several decades. …

“In Korea, English education in schools has been a target of criticism for its lack of practicality.

“As far as I understand, learning English in Korea focuses on grammar and rote learning, which is not the focus in our system,” the ambassador said.”

And here is the real kicker: there are no specifically hired native English teachers.  The Finnish teachers of English, who are second-language learners themselves, teach English completely in English.  This is a problem for Korea to model.  The most current research shows that Korean English Teachers, even though they are educated to Teach English in English (TEE), revert back to traditional models of Grammar-translation and audio-lingual methods (rote memorization and translation).  In the abstract for the article, “It Cannot Be Done Alone”: The Socialization of Novice English Teachers in South Korea, researcher Sang-Keun Shin says:

 “Prior studies on novice teachers’ adjustment to the school environment have shown that many new teachers adopt the teaching practices of existing teachers. By exploring the reasons why new teachers with a proficient command of English end up conducting English classes in Korean, this study analyzed factors influencing the socialization of new teachers.”

In the past, Korea has tried to circumvent this problem by hiring Native English Teachers to fill the role of communicative education.  Of course, when you already have a full-time English teacher (Korean) it is hard to part with the same amount of money or benefits for another English teacher, whose skills would largely be redundant.  All they are really looking for is someone to perform TEE and help the students communicate more.  The other option is to lower your standards, which is what was done.  Don’t get me wrong here, Korea spends a lot of money on NETs (that’s why I came here in the first place).  But that huge expense isn’t what it should be for a professional teacher.

To teach in Korea, and particularly as part of the public school system (at least for GEPIK), you need only be a college graduate and have the equivalent of a “100 hour TESOL certificate” (I still have no fracking idea what the “100 hour” actually refers to.  People have explained it, but what it seems to come down to is about a 2 weeks class on TESOL).  So let’s understand that a little better.  You can be a business major, a physics major, a dance major, an anything major and as long as you take the equivalent of a two weeks TESOL course (compared to what students of applied linguistics do, you know.. the whole two year thing), you are good to go in Korea.  Hell, you’re pretty much good to go anywhere.

Unsurprisingly, the quality of the NET’s was below what Korea thought acceptable.  And English education reform has been (and will probably always be) a hot-topic while Korea continues to import Foreigners to do their teaching.  The current trend in thinking is to follow the Finnish model, and get rid of most of the NET’s.  Indeed, in my organization, GEPIK, we have been informed that positions for middle and high school teachers are being closed (with exceptions).  In all probability, I most likely won’t have a second year here in Korea.

And personally, I’m ok with that.  I actually believe this is the right step for English Education in Korea.  With one huge caveat.  Native Korean Teachers have to pick up the slack.  The NET’s have taken the blows for poor English education in Korea for as long as we have been here.  And honestly, we deserve every bit of criticism.  From what I have seen in the NET community, we are mostly a group of amateurs.  A huge part of the NET community, while grateful for the work, are more interested in travel.  Another portion of the NET community simply does not have the training in either Education or Language/Linguistics to be an adequate teacher of the subject.  Being a native speaker does not make you an English Language expert.  It makes you a speaker (what we call having “tacit linguistic knowledge” in linguistics).

But to the Native Korean teachers, well, remember that NETs were suppose to be a solution to a pre-existing problem.  Have you fixed the issues within yourselves?  Current research says, no.  But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done, and Finland has the model to follow after.

On Teaching Culture and Culture Tourism

My work developing “culture” lessons for my co-teachers assignment from the school district has me thinking a lot about what it means to teach culture.  I remember when my co-teacher asked me to do the lesson plans in the beginning, my first reaction was, “what the hell am I going to do with American culture in ten lessons?”  So I asked him what he specifically wanted and he said the normal kind of thing.  Holidays, fun things, idiosyncratic cultural things.

So I did.  I was fairly broad in my collection, I wanted to make sure there were many different types of culture represented.  I started with holidays (thanksgiving, Halloween, MLK day and 4th of july), then did sports (baseball, football), then came music (pop, indie) and then economic culture (black Friday, garage sales).

Something keeps bothering me about this project though.  I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until a few days ago when my 2nd grade students were given the task of reading a short essay on “cultural differences”.  Here is what they read:

 While traveling around Europe, I found out that every nation has one thing in common that their people most like to do.  For example, people in France love talking about women.  They talk openly about any woman’s appearance.  In the street, people sometimes stare at a woman and discuss how beautiful she is.  On the other hand, eating desserts is a common pastime in Switzerland.  Swiss women often go to cafes and eat ice cream or a large piece of chocolate cake.  They do this “just for fun.”  In England, standing in line is very common.  The English love to wait in lines, even when it isn’t necessary.  One time I went out to buy a theater ticket, and I was standing next to a gentleman.  He turned to me and said, “There is a line here, sir.” “Where?” I asked with surprise. “I am the line,” he answered politely.

It’s amazing how many mythical cultural stereotypes you can fit into such a small amount of space.  As the students read this aloud, I was, and still am, amazed that such a piece of work would be given to students without some form of clarification, or question/answer section that talked about stereotypes or how to relate these ideas to the students own culture. (e.g. “how do we speak about women?  Do you think the French are being rude?  What kinds of things do you think French people say about women? How is this similar to how we talk about women?”).

Tiger Mom

Stereotype can be fun too!

This kind of culture education is what we call “Tourist culture education”.  Meaning, let’s not worry about developing empathy and eliminating our biases against those we deem “other”, instead, we’ll tour the world, see “exotic” places, meet “quaint” people.  Obviously the intention is not malicious.  Like the essay above, the writer is trying to show a human universal: All cultures have ONE thing that EVERYONE likes to do.  The idea is simplistic and naïve, sure; but more importantly, it doesn’t quite get the student to question their own biases.

Instead, telling students about the “strange customs” of England and their love of lines may actually embed in the students a new cultural stereotype and bias.  When my co-teacher explained this part about England to the students, he tried to make it a joke (after a fashion).  The students, when they understood what happened all gave a slight exasperated sigh and a shake of the head like, “Those weird English people”.  And that was it.  No going on.  No questioning. Nothing.  So now, not only are the students not practicing empathy or learning the skills of operating in a multicultural society, they are actively being given NEW biases.

As Lousie Derman-Sparks has noted in the collaborative work Rethinking schools: An Agenda for Change:

This “tourist” approach doesn’t give children the tools they need to comfortably, empathetically, and fairly interact with diversity.  Instead, it teaches simplistic generalizations that lead to stereotyping rather than understanding.  Moreover, “tourist” activities do not foster critical thinking about bias, nor teach children to oppose bias. (pg 20).

We combat tourist cultural education by asking ourselves as educators, “what is the purpose of teaching culture?”  The answer certainly isn’t to “get a taste” of the world.  It is because in most places around the world, we live in a multi-cultural society and children need the thinking tools necessary to perform and navigate in that society.  Students need to be given the critical thinking skills to see through bias and actively empathize with someone who is different.

Going back to my lesson plans on culture.  I can admit that I have, in part, created and participated in culture tourism (I especially cringe at the Black Friday lesson).  In my defense, I did attempt to make the lessons relateable to Korean culture.  I think I did this well with the music lessons, where students could engage in American culture via their own culture and see how American music influences Korean music and now vice-versa.  For the lessons on Independence day and Thanksgiving, I tried to make it clear in the description that these celebrations have Korean counter-parts that can be used to ground the students understanding.  Asking the students to examine how they feel during their own National holidays and the pride and patriotism they feel and extending that to another culture.  This allows everyone to be proud of where they are from.  It also allows the teacher to discuss unhealthy patriotism, or zealotry.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I was able to do enough to stress the multi-cultural aspects and empathy.  Particularly in classrooms where students are used to getting fun-size essays that emphasize stereotypes.

The Courage to Teach – Part two: Covering the Field

Parker Palmer - probably teaching the shit out of something *right now*

Parker Palmer – probably teaching the shit out of something *right now*

See Part 1 here

For the last week or so, I’ve been relegated to pacing my classroom as my co-teacher preps the students for the finals they are taking this week.  It’s a special kind of demoralizing that says, “thanks for teaching all these classes! Now I’m going to take the rest of the semester to prepare the students for the test.”  But, I suppose you get used to it eventually.  On the plus side of things, I get a lot of time to watch and evaluate another style of teaching and how students generally react to it.

One thing really stands out to me about many teachers approaches to teaching, is the extremely diligent adherence to what we call, “covering the field.”  The expression is a little vague (intentionally, I believe). It becomes even more difficult to nail down when you design your own final exams and it isn’t clear there is a district, or state, or national standard that you are aiming for (except for, I guess, the fact that many schools use the same textbook?).  I may be wrong about the standards point, but I have actually asked to be shown such a set of goals and curriculum and as of yet, its existence has been denied.

So, in the case of my classroom, “covering the field” entails going over everything in the book.  Of course, much of what is in the book is helpful, but much of it is superfluous to an understanding of practical English, as it is used; and almost none of it is an attempt to give the students the tools for communication or for discovering linguistic phenomenon on their own.  What the book does do, is provide specific linguistic ideas (not based in actual usage) and present theoretical examples (at times grammatically-strained to begin with).  It is a safe bet that covering the book (equated with the “field”, I suppose… sadly) will ensure enough information that can then be tested on.

And I understand that the drive to “cover the field” comes from a place of integrity and ethics.  As teachers of a specific field, we have a responsibility to teach our subject fully.  We feel responsible, in some fashion, for the future success of a field we (hopefully) deeply respect and love.  As Palmer says:

“I often hear an inner voice of dissent: ‘But my field is full of factual information that students must possess before they can continue in the field’. … Like many other teachers I know, I fill the space because I have a professional ethic, one that holds me responsible both for my subject’s integrity and for my students’ need to be prepared for further education or the job market.  To quote many faculty who feel driven by it, it is an ethic that requires us to ‘cover the field’” (pg 123).

The problem with this “covering the field” approach is too well known to most of us.  Palmer continues:

“When facts about the subject are dumped en masse, students are overwhelmed, and their grasp of the facts is fleeting.  Knowing this, we might revisit the metaphor of covering the field, which unconsciously portrays teaching as the act of drawing a tarp over a field of grass until no one can see what is under it and the grass dies and nothing new can grow.  That is not a bad description of what happens to students in fact-laden courses: they fail to understand the subject, retaining the information just long enough to pass the test, and they never want to pick up a book on that subject again” (pg 124; bolds added).

Sound familiar?  This is essentially my relationship to the very fascinating subject of biology.  This is my relationship to Math as well.  I’m sure we’ve all got our subjects that we crammed for and then forgot everything about.  And for some reason, these types of classes have achieved a sort of badge of honor for teaching in this fashion.  Students become warriors for having trudged through the battlefields and foxholes of endless anatomy word-tests, barrages of biology and sieges of physics.  Leading to the most bizarre of phenomenon, that of the “weeder” class.  The purpose of which is to intentionally rid the subject of those who are not sufficiently motivated from the beginning, while at the same time giving those who do have the requisite motivation the arbitrary sense of self-satisfaction and brotherhood for having survived.

I’ll just insert a wildly unfounded and personal opinion, but it seems to me that the purpose of the Weeder Success“weeder” class is a holier-than-thou practice of the academic establishment that is simply unwilling (perhaps lacking motivation?) to approach their subject in a way that avoids the problems of a cover-the-field approach (additional info here).  People will speak of resources and the practicality of having too many students, etc.. valid concerns and I’m not going to propose solutions, just perhaps raise the thought that “weeder” classes don’t actually provide the benefit we think they do unless! The only benefit is to get rid of students.  In which case, I question the ethics of an educator who practices their trade that way.

I am, afterall, in a comfortable position to question and undermine the practices of what are generally University courses and education practices.  One can legitimately wonder what such practices have to do with a public secondary education, considering all their differences.  The actual critique is more fundamental to what it means to teach and consequently, what it means to learn.

With that in mind, the main concerns about ‘covering the field’ approaches, for educators and students alike are concisely listed below.

1)      Covering the field leads to a failure to understand on the part of the learner.
2)      Covering the field masks the methods and tools needed to be a practioner of the subject.
3)      Covering the field demotivates students.

In the next post, we’ll consider the above concerns by following Parker Palmer’s Holographic teaching metaphor and speak more specifically to the ESL context in application.