정 and The Four Loves

Broadly speaking, it is always a delicate task whenever a foreigner attempts to speak with any amount of insight on the major cultural tenets of their host country. Specifically, it is perhaps even comical that an American, someone from a country and culture founded a mere 300 years ago, would even attempt to comment on a cultural phenomenon of a people that goes back before the Roman Empire.

Certainly many people with far better understanding and authority have spoken on the Korean idea of 정(jeong), and as such I have no illusions of blowing anybody away with some sort of previously-unheard-of analysis.  As a matter of fact, I will be relying on an authoritative source that is already written by a westerner, for a western audience, Daniel Tudor’s Korea: The Impossible Country.

BookBut, hopefully I can take a little different approach to all this.

I’ve commented about this before; but stereotypes, while often over-exaggerated, can help a person unfamiliar with a culture take their first steps towards understanding.  Also helpful, is finding a way to relate your personal experience to the new things you are learning.  Which, in popular belief, may be something close to impossible.  Jeong is often cited among a host of “emotions for which there is no word in English”.  (Linguistic protip: anytime anyone says, “there is no word for X in language Y”, they’re bullshitting you.)

The truth is more nuanced, of course, and often deals with the ways cultures focus attention or categorize important cultural mores.  In the case of jeong, sure, there may not be any single word that matches one-to-one in English. But, this is not the same thing as saying cultures based in the English language don’t feel similar emotions, or have words for explaining those emotions.  English-speaking cultures have simply cut up their categorical slice of pie differently than Korean, meaning they are focused more on certain aspects of these emotions; or approach them in a different way.

Let’s keep in mind that we are evolutionary beings; it would be hard to imagine a sense of emotion that one group of humans feel that another is categorically unable to feel as well, or that somehow your language decides this for you.  Such an argument, at the very least, requires a dump-truck of evidence.

WITH THAT (nearly 400 word) disclosure, let’s get into it.

First, some explanation (I know, what was all that before this?!).  My favorite book (seriously.  Not just “one of my favorites” or “I realllllllly like this book”.  This is my singular. Favorite. Book.) is C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves.  In it, he describes and looks at how we approach our relationships (from a Christian perspective, but also applicable to British/American culture in general).  I will list them here, and then we will use them to compare and maybe help explain some of what jeong is to Koreans, using American/British words and meanings.

4206989_f520My first draft of this essay droned on and on and on, trying to iron out all the details, peek behind every shadow and sweep every corner to make sure I wasn’t drawing false conclusions, or saying something else equally laughable.  It kind of ended up being a drag. The initial idea for this came from reading Tudor’s book and thinking, “Hey! This reminds me of stuff I read in Lewis!”  So, this time around, I’ve decided to simply quote the texts with simple introductions and let you, the esteemed reader find meaning in it yourself.  Or not.  I mean, whatever; I won’t be offended.

The Four Loves is broken up broadly into, duh, four categories.  They are:

Storge – Affection
Philia ­– Friendship
Eros – Romance
Agape – Unconditional love

The reason Lewis uses these four Greek terms is that, in the Bible, each of them are often loosely translated to “love” in English.  This cover-term is sufficient in a general way, but is also necessarily vague.  Lewis breaks down our “love” into the “four Greek ‘loves'”.

To begin, Tudor:

“[Jeong] is not felt purely within the heart or mind of an individual but is a connection that exists “between” two or more people, with [experts] likening it to a cord linking people to each other” (pg 92).


“”Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travellers” (pg 67).

“You will not find the warrior, the poet, the philosopher or the Christian by staring in his eyes as if he were your mistress: better fight beside him, read with him, argue with him, pray with him” (pg 71).

Jeong as it relates to country:

“Skeptics may contend that jeong sounds very similar to love or friendship.  To an extent, this is true, but unlike love or friendship it may exist between members of a group as large as a geographical region or an association or society: people from the same hometown, soldiers from the same regiment, and graduates from the same university or school can feel a sense of strong mutual support and obligation based on jeong” (pg 93).


“Love never spoke that way. It is like loving your children only ‘if they’re good,’ your wife only while she keeps her looks, your husband only so long as he is famous and successful. ‘No man,’ said one of the Greeks, ‘loves his city because it is great, but because it is his’” (pg 28).

“In reality, a few years’ difference in the dates of our births, a few more miles between certain houses, the choice of one university instead of another, posting to different regiments, the accident of a topic being raised or not raised at a first meeting–any of these chances might have kept us apart” (pg 89).

Jeong is irrational:

“Between those who share it, jeong is ‘beautiful’ and ‘makes us human,’ says a manager at POSCO, Korea’s largest steel-making firm.  It inspires people to do more for each other than they know makes rational sense. … Jeong is ‘unreasonable,’ according to one Korean company executive, and ‘makes it necessary to do things one otherwise would not do.  It is the opposite of logic’” (pg 94).


“Affection, as I have said, is the humblest love. It gives itself no airs. People can be proud of being ‘in love,’ or of friendship. Affection is modest–even furtive and shame-faced. Once when I had remarked on the affection quite often found between cat and dog, my friend replied, ‘Yes. But I bet no dog would ever confess it to the other dogs!” (pg 34)

On the so-called “hateful Jeong”:

“It is even possible to have jeong with a person one does not like.  For example, the expression “miun-jeong” (hateful jeong) describes the bitter interdependence of an old married couple, or of co-workers who cannot stand one another but would feel bereft if one of them were to leave the firm. One acquaintance of the author confided that the reason he married was that he felt this kind of jeong – in contrast to what we might term romantic love – with his partner, despite their constant rows and apparent unsuitability to each other” (pg 93).


“In my experience it is Affection that creates this taste, teaching us first to notice, then to endure, then to smile at, then to enjoy, and finally to appreciate, the people who ‘happen to be there.’ Made for us? Thank God, no. They are themselves, odder than you could have believed and worth far more than we guessed” (pg 37).

Finally, my closing thoughts, written after reading Tudor’s chapter on jeong.

“정 is at once the cover-term for any emotion between people and the most specific element of that relationship.  It is the conduit through which other emotions find motivation.  정 maintains the passion of romantic love, the sense of worry and preoccupation of gift-love, the inescapability of need-love and the durability and unexpectedness of affection.”


Language and Authority: Why languages disappear

Language and Authority – part 1

We began this discussion on the broad topics of defining language and we found it more difficult than perhaps popularly believed.  This time, we will discuss the trend of language decline in the world and why it is not simply a matter of natural language death, but directly tied to our policies and attitudes towards language, culture and other humans.

“…we must do some serious rethinking of our priorities, lest linguistics go down in history as the only science that presided obliviously over the disappearance of 90% of the very field to which it is dedicated” – Michael Krauss, Journal of Language, 1992

Endangered languages represent a limited and expiring supply of potential research possibilities not just for the field of Linguistics, but all the cognitive sciences.  To a linguist, however, the disappearance of many of the world’s languages is particularly disheartening.  To the outside world, however, disappearing languages is not only not cause for concern, but many view it as a net positive. We will take a look at the issue of disappearing languages and why linguists are concerned.

To any linguist,The most concerning issue is that evidence suggests that somewhere around fifty percent of the languages spoken now, will no longer be spoken by anyone in the world within this century (Crystal 2000).  To a linguist, this means that if these languages go without thorough documentation, we will never know, to the extent those languages provide, the full range of human language.  We will be ignorant, but what’s worse, we will not be, as linguist Ken Hale describes it, “blissfully ignorant” (1998:194) because we will have watched it occur.  There are probably hundreds of thousands of languages that have come and gone in the history of humanity– of those languages we will never know what we are missing.  Of those, our ignorance is less jarring.


But even a language that has been documented (meaning, a grammar has been scientifically defined and explained; a working dictionary has been created; and a body of cultural texts based on oral history published), there remains many areas of scientific study that are impoverished without an actual living community of speakers.  The sociolinguist, the second-language-acquisition specialist, among many others.

The Real Problem

This line of thinking, however, misses the larger problem.  Science for the sake of science is not the answer.  The world opporates on a much broader level than simply “knowledge”.  Where linguists have failed (in the past, we are much wiser today) is in underestimating the role politics and authority play in deciding the direction of science.

Nora England in Language:

“Many of us have been used to thinking that our work is pure science-that the most compelling reasons for doing linguistics are to know how specific languages work and what language is. The widely accepted Western idea that knowledge in and of itself is valuable for society is often the only justification we need to do what we do.” (30)

Later, quoting a Mayan leader, Cojti Cuxil:

‘It is difficult, above all in Guatemala, where Ladino colonialism reigns and where the very Political Constitution assigns informal functions to Mayan languages, for linguists to define themselves as neutral or apolitical, since they work on languages that are sentenced to death and officially demoted. In this country, the linguist who works on Mayan languages only has two options: either active complicity in the prevailing colonialism and linguistic assimilationism, or activism in favor of a new linguistic order in which equality in the rights of all the language is made concrete, something that also implies equal rights for the nationalities and communities.” (England, 31).

Some point out (rightfully so) that language decline and death is natural and has happened regularly over the course of history.  Latin is the most popular example.  A once powerful language that commanded the world but eventually died out.  No one laments the death of Latin.

Nor should they.  The death of Latin is sad, but its end had more to do with diaspora and the spreading of Latin to the world than anything else.  We can see this is true, because while Latin is dead; French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanch, Italian and many, many other languages are still living a robust life. All are the children of Latin and were once considered “vulgar” forms of Latin.

There is a very important, and absolutely critical, difference between the death of Latin and the imminent death of many languages in the world today.

Here it is.  The great secret truth that everyone knows. Many languages and cultures die because people in power-positions decide it should be so.  Very little more needs to be said to convince the scientific world that languages need to be preserved.  Convincing the general public and governments poses a much grander task for linguists and minorities.  Starting with possibly the greatest concern, that language loss appears in many cases to be caused largely by discrimination and genocide.  Consider Leanne Hinton:

“Before there was a United States of America, Europeans and Native Americans had already had close to 200 years of contact, much of it hostile, with great harm to the natives.  War, slavery, massacre and removal were the main order of the times.  The linguistic symptoms of this harm included the demise of many languages.  On language maps of North America depicting Native American languages, part of the southeast has a giant blank spot, where languages disappeared so quickly and completely that nothing at all is known about them” (Hinton 2001:40, italics added).

map.usaThe loss of these languages before linguists could document them is lamentable.  However, it is to an even greater extent, incomparably horrifying what this “giant blank spot” represents in terms of lives lost and cultures destroyed.

Lets take a moment to think about this.

The Cause

Government policy may still effect endangered languages without such extremes as the genocide of the Native Americans.  Krauss was very generous when he said, “Governments generally favor one language over another” (1992:4).  And the reasons for favoring one language usually rest in identity.  As was mentioned in part one, When establishing the then new United States of America, the American hero, Noah Webster was quoted as saying, “Culture, habits and language, as well as government should be national.  America should have her own distinct from the rest of the world…” (Nunberg 1999).  It is easy to see who is part of any particular culture, when that culture is defined by a certain usage of a certain language.  This allows for ideas like nationalism, unity and linguistic pride to flourish. (Much more to be said on this subject specifically, in part 3).

More often than not, this national pride swells up in a multicultural area.  Nationalism is chiefly concerned with conformity to a specific set of tenets and cultural mores from the dominant culture.  This conformity comes at the expense of the minority cultures.  This is and should be a major concern to linguists and the world.  When people lose pride in their culture, heritage and language, the most common action is to abandon them.  At this point, it no longer requires an authority to actively enforce the language shift (though as we have developed, the government policies and ideals of the majority group are always playing a part).  Colette Craig says that one of the major victories in her efforts to revitalize Rama, spoken in Nicaragua, was:

“the new awareness of the value of the language… this awareness can be articulated by some of the last speakers, as well as teachers, leaders, and community members-that the language is a ‘good’ language, that it has enough words for a dictionary, that it can be written, that it can be learned, that it has rules of grammar” (Craig 1992:23).

Again, let’s stop and think about that.  What if someone said to you, “Oh English? you mean that incoherent babble of bastardized German and French? that’s not a language.”  Surely you would scoff, and point them to the largest collection of literature in the history of the world as exhibit A.  Minority languages don’t have the benefit of a large corpus of written language, keyboards may not adequately represent their language on the internet and the rich people of the world explain that this is what a language is.  Its ability to be written down.

This logic is  circular and begs the question.  All languages begin as spoken languages and then develop written forms.  To suggest that a language isn’t a language if it isn’t written is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of language.  But I suppose that is the point.  The majority of people in authority either knowingly or ignorantly misunderstand what language is.

The fact that Rama has rules of grammar, that it has words that can go into a dictionary should be taken as granted, based solely on the fact that it is a natural language, but it wasn’t.   This is because the real problem isn’t with a language, the problem the authorities have is with the people. The language is simply a shibboleth that identifies the targeted minority.  The rhetoric against a language can be internalized by even the minority groups, and eventually everyone just knows that language X isn’t a real language; not like language Y, obviously.

The Solution

In opposition to the nationalistic oppression many minority language communities face, the linguist can help legitimize a language, by giving it the things the world says constitutes a “real” language.  They can write dictionaries, publish books and write programming codes and develop computer technology that embraces these cultures.  Giving them a place on the world stage of the internet.

mayanBut if the Mayans, the Rama, the Hawaiians, the Welsh, the Navajo, and many others teach us anything; it is that, in the end,  the real decision to revitalize a language or not lies entirely in the wants and wishes of the speech community.  No matter how interested a linguist is in revitalization, the evidence suggests that the plan will fail if the community is not behind the push (Ash 2001).  Not until the people decide to make it their own, does a revitalization project work.

What can be said of these arguments in their current form, is that humanity is doing something very drastic to affect the world’s languages.  And for a large part, humanity is quite passive about it.  People are much more likely to get active for causes involving ecology, genocide, healthcare and civil rights, than they are about languages alone.  If linguists want to continue the progression of linguistic research as it is now following, they have great incentive to enter the marketplace of ideas and start changing global (by changing the local) perspectives on language through forms of persuasion, on top of rigorous debate of what our arguments are for persevering endangered languages.


Ash, Anna et al.  2001.  “Diversity in Local Language Maintenance and Restoration: A Reason For Optimism”.  Hinton 19-39.  Print. 1 Sept 2010.

Cameron, Deborah. 1995.  Verbal Hygiene.  Routledge, New York.

Craig, Collette, 1992.  “A constitutional response to language endangerment: The case of Nicaragua”. Language, 68:1.  1992.

Crystal, David., 2000.  Language Death.  Cambridge Press, United Kingdom.  2000.

Dorian, Nancy C. 1993.  “A Response to Ladefoged’s Other View of Endangered Languages.”  Language, 69:3, 575-579.

England, Nora C., 1992.  “Doing Mayan Linguistics in Guatemala.”  Language, 68:1.  1992.

Fishmen, Joshua A., 1991.  “Reversing Language Shift: theoretical and Empirical Foundations of Assistance to Threatened Languages”.  Multilingual Matters, Pennsylvania. 1991.

Grenoble, Lenore A., Linsdsay J. Wahley, Ed. 1998. Endangered Languages: Current issues and Future Prospects.  Cambridge Press, United Kingdom.

—,—. 1998. Toward a typology of language endangerment. Grenoble 22-55.

Hale, Ken, 1992.  “Endangered Languages”.  Language, 68:1.  1992.

—,—, 1998.  “On endangered languages and the importance of linguistic diversity”.  Grenoble 192-217.

Hinton, Leanne and Ken Hale, ed.  2001.  The Green Book of Language Revitalization in Practice.  Academic Press, California.

Hinton, Leanne, 2001.  “Federal Language Policy and Indigenous Languages in the United States”.  Hinton 39-45.

Krauss, Michael, 1992. “The World’s Languages in Crisis”.  Language, 68:1.  1992.

Nunberg, Geoffrey. 1999 The persistence of English. Norton Anthology of  English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, 7th edition, 1999.

Whalen, D.H., 2004.  “How the study of endangered languages will revolutionize linguistics”.  Linguistics Today – Facing a Greater Challenge.  Ed. Piet van Sterkenburg.  Johns  Bejamins, Philadelphia, 2004.

The Fine Line of Praise


Even if it is your job

Excepting the few very self-confident extroverts, most foreign language students exhibit quite a bit of shyness, or fear of judgment, that holds back their willingness to really engage in the language-learning environment.  I personally fall in this category.

It is a struggle, being on the educator-side of this problem, knowing how to best help the student’s progress.  On one hand, you don’t want to be too critical; on the other, you don’t want student’s errors to fossilize to the point that they are unlikely to fix them.  This very delicate problem has led some teaching approaches to try and guide students down a path that involves as few mistakes as possible.  They introduce new words/phrases very delicately.  Rosetta Stone is run in this fashion.

Fundamentally, I cannot agree with a methodology that is based on the premise, “Don’t make mistakes”.

While learning Portuguese, one of my teachers told us, “You will only learn the language after you have made 50,000 mistakes.  Make your first 100 mistakes today.”  This idea is more daunting, but, in theory, places the student in a classroom that says, “mistakes are expected, mistakes are good.”  This framework appeals to me more. However, in the end, I feel that both approaches are blind to a very important reality to most learners.

Language learners can be, and are, demotivated by both negative criticism and positive criticism.

Earl W. Stevick, in A Way and Ways, says it this way:

Most teachers are willing to agree that negative evaluation may sometimes be harmful to the student, but I have found few who are ready to see that positive evaluation is almost as dangerous a tool.  It seems to be the evaluative climate, more than the content of the evaluation, that does the damage.  Consider the following, an account by a middle-aged man:

“I learnt French in high school and in college.  Outside the classroom I found numerous opportunities to use the language in valid social situations.  The language flowed forth with a steadily increasing fluency  After a gap in usage from 1960 to 1975, I took an intensive advanced French course taught by a Frenchman, with success.  Again the French flowed fluently forth and increased.  Immediately following this intensive course, I returned to my home city, where a friend who was a native Parisian said, “Let’s speak French now.  I want to hear how well you do it.”  My heart did a highland fling, the cold sweat poured off me, goose pimples sprang out, breathing became hard, and the French section of my brain shut down with a bang.  I could only answer (in English), “What do you want to test me for?”  This friend and I have conversed quite satisfactorily on subsequent occasions, but not then” (pg 23).

a-way-and-waysThis of course, applies far beyond just language learning.  It is a rare gift indeed that when spontaneously petitioned, the dancer, the singer or any other talent; is able to produce something representative of their true abilities.  Stevick continues:

Gallwey, the tennis coach, tells us that if you opponent’s forehand is giving you trouble, you may find it to your advantage to compliment him/her on it, saying, “Wow! Your forehand is really hot today! What are you doing?”  This frequently has the effect, says Gallwey, of activating the other person’s Critical Self, which immediately sets about interfering with his Performing Self. (pg 24)

My own experience, in learning both Portuguese and Korean, has been similar.  After I had lived in Brasil for about 18 months, I had become fairly conversationally fluent.  If conversations were brief, I could fool a native speaker into thinking I was Brazilian myself.  One day, a man said hello to me and followed with, “Tudo bem? (how are you?)” to which I responded, “tudo bem. (all is well, I’m good)”.  The next words out of his mouth were, “Wow! You speak perfectly!”

Certainly, I had perfected the intonation, pronunciation and appropriateness of a simple greeting, but I was disheartened.  I was disheartened because I knew I could only disappoint the man (who I liked).  I responded with, “Ah, well, give me a few moments and you’ll hear my accent.” To which he responded, “oh yes, I hear it now.”  It wasn’t a soul-crushing moment, it wasn’t the end of my language learning; but it also didn’t make me want to speak, which, if we were in a language-learning classroom, would have been a problem.

Here in Korea, the native Koreans are fairly unaccustomed (to be… delicate) with foreigners speaking Korean.  In fact, it is something of a stereotype that foreigners often come to Korea and never learn a single word. (I imagine this is a very, very small number of people, but I hear it often said).  I often receive absurd amounts of praise for simply saying, “hello” in Korean.  It would be comical, if it didn’t happen nearly every time I spoke the language.  The native speaker will often give me a thumbs up, make an “ooohhhh!” sound and then say something like, “you speak Korean very well!”  The praise is obviously overblown, since the next thing they say I almost always don’t understand and have almost zero ability to respond to.

A few more examples, from Stevick:

I have had smaller-scale, but quite analogous experiences myself, with speakers of German.  With one, we had just finished what I had thought was a reasonably fluent, and mutually interesting, conversation, when she said, “Oh, I like talking with you.  You use such correct grammar [compared with most foreigners].” I avoided all further opportunities to speak German with this person, because just the memory of this remark would create an evaluative climate for me.  Yet before, and after, with other speakers, I have thoroughly enjoyed using the same language.

“Languages which I have enjoyed studying are, of course, more available to me than those that were not enjoyable.  Nevertheless, my ability to use even the former depends significantly on the cues received from native speakers… In a situation where some specific communication is the goal, I used Japanese fairly fluently, but in big cities, the reaction to a sentence from me in Japanese was often, “oh do you speak Japanese?” followed by a rather awkward exchange in English or Japanese.  In a communicative situation, I am seldom at a loss for words, but if someone urges me, “Say something in Japanese,” I tend to stick to formulas.  Similarly, “I hear that you speak Japanese very well” is less satisfactory in eliciting a Japanese response than any non-evaluative conversational utterance in that language would be.” (pg 23)

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t; it seems, doesn’t it?  If we need to be careful of negative criticism, and we need to be careful of positive criticism, what the hell can we do?!

The secret is in the foundations of why we learn second languages to begin with.  We want to communicate.  Think about the last conversation you had with a native speaker of your own language.  How often did you complement them on their fluency?  Unless they recited a rather long piece of poetry, chances are their language-use wasn’t part of the conversation.  You showed them praise by not drawing attention to their fluency.

You show praise for good language-use by showing you understand what they said.  In the language-classroom, this can be done by repeating back to the student what they said and saying, “did I understand you correctly?”  Asking follow-up questions like, “I see, what about…?” When asking for simple responses, not saying, “good!” every time is helpful. (Though, “thank you” may be very appreciated, if authentic).

Sometimes students will make such errors that you will not be able to comprehend what they are saying, obviously it would be inappropriate to act like you did understand.  Again, the point of learning a language (for most learners) is to communicate; show them you want to communicate in authentic ways.  Ask:

“Do you mean…?”
“Did you say (x)?”
“Can you repeat that?”

Unfortunately, in these situations, students are often socialized to fear judgment when they perceive they made a mistake.  This is woefully true in Korea (and I notice, for myself as well).  After asking one of the above questions, my less-confident students often bury their heads in their arms; embarrassed to say anything.  The important thing is to try and create a classroom environment that can eventually break through this embarrassment.  A part of that process is not overly-criticizing their performance, nor manufacturing praise for the sake of praise. Authenticity seems to play a significant, and yet vague, role.

Some final words from Stevick to conclude:

…I am not saying that one should never praise students, just as I would not say that a surgeon should never use a scalpel.  But praise is two-edged, and very sharp, with more potential for damage than many teachers realize.  Perhaps the beneficial elements in praise are the information it carries (comparable to a tennis player’s seeing that the ball hit inside the line), and the feeling that one has given pleasure to another human being (the teacher).  The negative elements are self-consciousness, and the expectation that the pleasure-giving performance ought to continue.  The trick is to convey the positive without the negative.  But this is a very subtle matter. (pg 24)

Describing Nature


I don’t know what to say about the school schedule over here in Korea.  It is, all at once, breathtakingly stupid and perfectly reasonable.  I don’t know whether to rise up and fight it or applaud it (though I will certainly do neither).  The school year here ends on Christmas Eve (right after final exams) and then the students have the month of January off.  Then, in the middle of February, the students come back for 1-2 weeks.  The purpose is for the kids to get their test scores back (which takes all of half a day).  The students then circulate through the classrooms and.. pretend to learn? There is a reasoning that says this is an opportunity for students to get feedback on their skills and do some remedial work or extra work.  Mostly it seems they watch movies.

In fact, during one class with my graduating 9th graders, they put on a movie (in Korean, not English.  I’m not complaining, just pointing it out.) and when the class ended (but the movie had not) the teacher from the next class period came to the room, told the students they could stay and then watched the movie with us.

I don’t mean to say this teacher was lazy or wrong.  In fact I think it was as good a use of time as anything else.  She is a really nice person and a good teacher.  That’s what happens when you put one week of school randomly in the middle of two very long breaks.

The next thing that happens when the school is between semesters is that I am not informed about anything.  I understand there is a big language barrier (and I am working on it, some are incredulous) and that the school does a good job making sure I have a space and resources to work.

Nevertheless, at some point it can no longer be legitimately called a ‘quirky cultural difference’ when, as I show up to work (8:30am) when no classes are in session, I am greeted and told there are students in my classroom and that I am going to teach a conversation class for the rest of the week.  At some point, it just becomes douche-bagery.

I much prefer to work within a schedule (and I always have) and so the spontaneous and random changes that often happen are not exactly my idea of fun; but I am also a decent worker and will adapt.  I can still manage my job, even if things aren’t how I like them.  In that spirit, I threw together this lesson for the conversation classes.

In this lesson, the students will spend a good length of time using the English ability they have to be as descriptive as possible.  There is essentially only one kind of activity in the lesson and it is recycled a few times over, in progressively more difficult and interesting ways.  This iteration focuses on nature (and could go even further into Environmental protection), but that is mostly just a framework to work in.  This same lesson could be used with any set of pictures or any framework.

Descriptive Nature


 Materials Needed:

  • Several pictures depicting nature, cities and pollution
  • Paper or whiteboards for drawing
  • Movie Wall-E

 Performance Objectives:

SWBAT activate and list words and phrases familiar to them relating to nature and the environment.  This will be done by presenting a series of pictures, some of nature, cities and pollution.  Students will be schaffolded until they are presented with a final picture that they will control the descriptive process entirely.

 SWBAT describe a picture to another student who cannot see said picture using only English.  Students will use the words activated from the warm-up to help their partner draw a picture of the visual they are presented with.  Students artwork will be used to compare between pairs of students how describing in some ways may be more effective than others.

 SWBAT describe a scene from the movie Wall-E to a rotating partner.  Half the students will watch a scene, and then it will be played again while they describe it to a partner who will try to draw it.  At semi-random intervals, students will rotate one space and continue describing and drawing.  At the end, the pictures will be compared to the actual scene.  Switch roles and Repeat.

 Before Class:

Ensure that there are enough materials for drawing and that the pictures for reference are available.  Also prepare the movie Wall-E loaded at the correct scenes.

 Warm-up: (10 min)

Objectives: SWBAT activate and list words and phrases familiar to them relating to nature and the environment.  This will be done by presenting a series of pictures, some of nature, cities and pollution.  Students will be schaffolded until they are presented with a final picture that they will control the descriptive process entirely.

 Instructional Strategy:  pair-work, whole class

 Sensory Learning Style:  visual, audio

 Task Description:

To begin the class, present a particularly vivid (but still describable) picture of nature.  Let the students look at it for a moment and then inform them that they will list all the words and phrases they know that describe the picture.  Perform a quick demonstration, describing a couple of aspects of the picture (colors, shapes, phrases) to give them an idea.  Perform a comprehension check.  Ask students, “What are you going to say about the pictures?”

 Give the students 2-3 minutes to look at the picture and think of words.  Begin the conversation yourself, draw attention to a specific area or thing in the picture and ask probing questions about that thing.  “What is this? (a tree) What color is the tree? (green) Is the tree big or small?  What is the shape of the tree?  Are there any other colors in the tree?”  Continue guiding as needed.  Point out another area and let the students direct the conversation more and guide less.  As the students speak, write the words on the board to give the students a visual of words they may know, but not know how to write.  Leave on board for entirety of class.

 Using more pictures, repeat process until upon presenting a picture, students offer up words and phrases spontaneously.  Provide a couple of new words and/or phrases the students may not know.

Presentation: (20 min)

Objectives: SWBAT describe a picture to another student who cannot see said picture using only English.  Students will use the words activated from the warm-up to help their partner draw a picture of the visual they are presented with.  Students artwork will be used to compare between pairs of students how describing in some ways may be more effective than others.

 Instructional Strategy: Pair-work, classwork

 Sensory Learning Style: visual, audio, textile

 Task Description:

Organize the students into pairs, have one of the pair face the board and the other opposite of their partner, so they cannot see the board.  Explain that you will show another picture and that the partner that can see the board, will describe (using as many words and phrases) the picture to the student that cannot.  The blind student, using a whiteboard or a piece of paper, will draw the picture based on their partners description.  Perform a demonstration with a picture from the warm-up.  Have a student face away from the board and describe the picture as the student draws. Emphasis that students may only use English to describe the picture.  Perform a comprehension check, pointing to another pair, “What does this person do with the picture? (describes it).”  “Can they use Korean? (no).”  “Can this person look at the picture? (no).”

 Show the first picture, and let the students begin.  Circulate and help any students who are having trouble beginning.  In order to maintain the description in English, if you hear Korean, enforce some sort of consequence (make the students start over, erase their whiteboard, have them switch partners, etc..).  Same thing if the blind partner looks at the picture.  Make sure the punishment isn’t seen as diminutive or judgmental.

 After 5 minutes (or when the students have finished describing/drawing) have the students present their pictures to the class.  Discuss why some pictures look the way they do.  What words or phrases did the student use to get their partner to draw more details or more specific details (did you give spatial directions? “on the right there is… above that there is…”)  Switch roles, present a new picture and repeat the activity.

 Practice: (20-30 min)

Objectives: SWBAT describe a scene from the movie Wall-E to a rotating partner.  Half the students will watch a scene, and then it will be played again while they describe it to a partner who will try to draw it.  At semi-random intervals, students will rotate one space and continue describing and drawing.  At the end, the pictures will be compared to the actual scene.  Switch roles and Repeat.

 Instructional Strategy: pair-work, class conversation

 Sensory Learning Style: audio, visual, textile

 Task Description:

Explain to students that we will move on to video now.  Show the movie title (wall-e) and explain that we will do the same activity as before, but differently.  In pairs, students will watch a scene from the movie, while they try to describe what is happening to their partner.  Emphasize that they will get more than one chance to see the scene.  Next, explain that in this activity, students will rotate partners every minute (or so) and that they must continue describing the video to their new partner (who is drawing).  Perform a demonstration with a different, shorter, scene and a couple of students.  Describe the scene to one student who is drawing.  After a few minutes, say, “rotate!” and have a student next to you step in and start describing to the person drawing.  Continue only until the students get the idea (which should be quickly).

Perform a comprehension check. “What does the partner watching the video do? (describes it).” “what does the other partner do? (draws).” “what happens when I say, ‘rotate!’? (we switch partners).” “Does the person drawing rotate? (no).”  Emphasize that the same rules apply about using English or glancing at the video.

 Begin, circulate and enforce the rules, help and motivate the students.  Make sure to keep the scene playing.  Stop the scene if needed to provide input or answer questions.  At the end, present the pictures (which should vary moreso than the picture input).  Have the students switch roles. Repeat.

Potential scenes:
Opening scene, polluted Earth (1:00-6:00)
Space Dance (57:00-1:00:00)
Robot Rebellion (52:30-55:00)


Authority in Language: Definitions

—   I have made note over the past few posts a desire to attempt to write on the idea of “Authority” in language.  This essay, and the one or two that will follow, will be that attempt.

Language vs. Dialect

It is indicative of complexity, that in the science of Linguistics  the terms “language” and “dialect” are rarely definable in a categorical way.  Linguists use many other classifications and examples to clarify just what exactly they mean when speaking in terms of either.  We speak of varieties, of codes, of families, of continuums, and perhaps these terms do clarify a little better what we mean when we talk of Language.  Some linguists make use of metaphor to help, like the phrase, often attributed to Einar Haugen that, “a dialect is a language that did not succeed”.  Phrases like this may be unnecessarily vague, but they may also be consciousness-raisers, making us consider, perhaps in new ways, just what exactly the speaker meant.

There is a very real social stigma against the use of the term “dialect” to describe any so-call “standard language”.  As Haugen points out,

“Americans are generally resentful of being told they speak ‘American dialect’” (Haugen, Studies, 498).

Such a statement could easily be said of any speakers of any dialect of English, but it most adequately applies to Standard Languages who do not view themselves as dialects at all, as is the case with American and British English.  Currently there is a similar dynamic occurring between American and Australian English, where the former is viewed as an encroaching enemy, with its influence being called, “Americanisms” (Burridge).  Regardless of how many words and phrases have already been borrowed from American English, any attempt now that is recognized as such, is unanimously denounced from the educated to the uneducated; the upper to lower classes.

Importance of Nationalism

While it may not be popular to say so socially or politically, every Standard Language has its beginnings as a competing dialect amongst many others. Consciously-aware or not, when the speakers feel they need a standard, all dialects are initially viable candidates  but only one is going to push its way to the front.  Many factors come together to decide which dialect will be elevated to the standard.  Usually, it is the dialect of the powerful; this can mean political, social, economic, or possibly all three.  Most usually, the dialect that is chosen is the one with a “long tradition of writing and grammatical study” (Haugen, Studies, 503).  Written languages have a prestige, perhaps because it engages the other senses, like sight, that purely oral languages seem to lack.  Thus, the community symbol of the rising standard language is often the grammar; and the community hero, the grammarian or group of grammarians, that are viewed as authorities.  For example, Samuel Johnson and his English dictionary of 1755.  And when the patriots of America wanted to show their separateness, it was Noah Webster who wrote a new dictionary, saying,

“Culture, habits and language, as well as government should be national.  America should have her own distinct from the rest of the world…” (qtd in Nunberg).

And it was Webster’s grammar that became a symbol of Americanism and Noah Webster himself as an American hero.

This nationalism is an aspect of humanity that extends far beyond the scope of language, but language does inhabit a crucial part.  In Haugen’s book, Language Conflict and Language Planning, he describes the feelings of the Norwegians when they began the process of renaming cities from Danish to Norwegian after they separated politically:

“Norwegians got a real sense of regaining their own country by bringing the distorted spellings of the Danish period back into line with local pronunciation and native linguistic history” (108).

In this instance, Norwegian, which is by many definitions still a dialect of Danish, was a dialect that “succeeded” after many years of failure.  The pushing force behind its rise from mere dialect to prestigious language was nationalism and the view by the speakers themselves that they were and are different.

Politics; not Linguistics

Another oft-quoted apocryphal statement of Linguistics, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy” highlights the important difference.  In the time leading up to Norway’s independence, they had been under the rule of Denmark and as linguists observe often, the speakers of the dominating or encroaching language view the speakers of the conquered area as not really all that different; that in reality, they are just dialects of the same language and should be one people.  The conquered often see things very differently and want to up-play just how different their language is.  (Almost exactly the case of Cantonese and Mandarin).  In the case of Norwegian and Danish, the differences may be very small but they mean the world to the respective peoples.    Whether or not Norwegian is factually a dialect of Danish, to the Norwegians, is not important.  What held Norwegian as a dialect of Danish for so long is not a linguistic question, but political.  Denmark had the army and the navy to prove that Norwegian was a dialect and up until the turn of the 20th century, they continued to have that power.

22235011French is another example of political and linguistic power.  The French continue, to this day, to be antagonists of dialects in their geographical region, such as Breton and Provençal, among others.  The beginnings of their proactive condemnation go certainly to the French revolution and perhaps before.  “It is characteristic that the French revolutionaries passed a resolution condemning the dialects as a remnant of feudal society” (Haugen, Studies, 502).  Anything that could be tied with the old government, could be brought down, and when the revolutionaries army and navy proved stronger than the monarchy’s, the resolution took a solid place in French policy and culture.  To be French is to speak French, and only French.

These political stresses, as well as social stresses, create a distinction between linguistic have’s and have not’s.  A standard dialect is a dialect that has progressed and acquired domains, most usually in writing, of prose and science, but also politically and economically.  This creates classes of developed and underdeveloped dialects.  With the developed dialect having the most domains of use, while the underdeveloped dialects lacking in certain domains.  In order for the underdeveloped to overcome this and become relevant  the end goal seems to become relevant in the domains of science and politics (Haugen, Studies, 504).  Such a change may at first seem almost impossible, but over time, underdeveloped dialects have in the past, overcome their low status.  Examples such as Prakrit replacing Sanskrit and Latin yielding to the various romance languages give hope to the speakers of marginalized dialects (Haugen, Studies, 505).

But this change is much more subtle and slower, it may even be unnoticeable.   It is often said that there is no one place in history where one can say the transition from Latin to the Romance languages occurred, but it did happen.  What we need to focus on are the rights of speakers of minority dialects. Even in the case of Latin,  it eventually relinquished its hold on the domains of power.  And with the change, we can see that perhaps the statement, “a dialect is a language which didn’t succeed”, needs the addition of, “yet” to be complete.

Works Cited

Burriage, Kate. Linguistic cleanliness is next to godliness: Taboo and purism. English Today,  26 (2):3–13, June 2010.

Haugen, Einar.  Language Conflict and Language Planning.  Harvard, 1966.  Massachusetts.     .

—.  Studies by Einar Haugen Presented on the occasion of his 65th birthday – April 19,     1971.      “Dialect, language, nation”.  Ed. Evelyn Firchow, et al.  Mouton, 1972.  The Netherlands.

Nunberg, Geoffrey. The persistence of English. In M. H. Abrams, editor, Norton     Anthology of     English Literature. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, NY, 7th edition, 1992.

Learning Names

catmemeA struggle for NETs, particularly those who have many students, is learning the names of all your students.  I guess I am lucky in that regard, I have under 80 students altogether and in some classes, I have less than 20.  Learning names has been, nonetheless, a taxingly difficult task.  Korean names have always sounded bizarre to me (and I was embarrassed to discover that this difficulty doesn’t go both directions, at least for some Koreans.  They have no difficulty with English names).

It may just be my lack of familiarity with everything Korean, but I am getting better at hearing something that “sounds like” a name, and categorizing it as such.

I am ashamed to admit that even after 5 months, I don’t know even half of my students names.  I have tried a few things, but just getting conversations going is a difficult task, setting aside my precious little classroom time to learning names seems wasteful.  And yet, research shows that our brains activate different regions when hearing our own names as opposed to other peoples names.  I’m not sure what the conclusion of that is, but it is something.  Our names mean something different to us.

Add to that, most NETs don’t learn their students names, which gives the students more excuse to discredit the NETs ability (They don’t even know my name), even if only below their conscious-awareness.   Or, some English teachers do the very strange thing of assigning (or letting the student choose) an English name. (this blogger does a great job of explaining it).  It would be very interesting to see if the same regions of the brain activate when hearing your birth-name, as opposed to a chosen or assigned name.  I suppose it may be fun for the student, it may help them immerse in a foreign culture (though, I’m not sure what that means in the Korean classroom).

Many times when I meet a new person, they will introduce themselves with an English name.  I’m not quite sure what it is; but for me, on my side of that conversation, it feels less-than authentic.  It feels… false.  I understand that the intention is good-natured and not in any way an attempt at deception.  But on the other hand, I am giving you my intimate detail, my name.  You have given me a handle, a nickname, an ID, something which masks.  It’s kind of like someone introducing themselves by saying, “Hey, just call me PaRtY-TiMe!”  I almost always ask the person what their “korean name” is and they usually show a look of surprise, say something like, “really?” and then give me their name.

Now, certainly, I have to hear the name more than once.  And often they have to walk me through the pronunciation, and maybe it is this conversation they are wishing to avoid.  But, for me, it’s about being equals with another human.  You know my name, please, help me know yours.  Let’s start this relationship, of whatever depth or length, on equal ground.  Let’s not handicap it by giving preference.

–I have a lot more to say about Korean identity and the presumed American linguistic “authority”, but we’ll leave that for another time.

In summary, it is hard to learn names.  So what do we do?  Well, here, I am going to present one idea.  Facebook.  No, not the actual facebook, but a paper-facebook.


facebook template – link to PDF file

The original idea came from an ESL resource site that I have, embarrassingly, forgotten the name of.   This particular rendition is highly modified however.  The original included the profile picture and background space.  But the iconic Facebook top-boarder and Timeline look are my additions.  Originally, it looked more like a traditional pen/paper journal, with question prompts and lines.  As you will see, this particular version allows the students more creativity, (and it could allow even more, or restrict it, depending).

I will say, the original question-prompt-lined-response style probably directs the students to use written language more, and that is certainly a worthy objective.  My objective was different.  I wanted to learn names.

So I let them loose.  I gave them a quick tutorial using my own and my niece’s facebook profiles (my niece is about the same age as my students).  They didn’t really need the tutorial, but I hoped it gave them some ideas to be creative.  A jumpstarter.

I split this activity into two class periods.  The first was devoted to filling out the profile part. The profile picture, background, friends, about and likes.  The language aspect was me circulating through the students as they talked with each other, wrote things down, and did some artwork.  I would ask students things like, “You like ‘league of legends’.  What do you like about it?”  “Who are these drawings of?”  “How do you spell your name in English?”

To be honest, it was nice.  I was able to engage more students (though not in any great length) at a personalized level.  They didn’t need to be focused on a particular grammatical structure or lexical item, it was just a conversation.  I wonder if my lessons shouldn’t be more like this in general.

I also discovered a big embarrassment for some of my students.  They don’t know how to spell in English.  For some of my students (the 3rd graders) it is too late for me to help them there, they are on their way to high school.  Hopefully their new teacher can help them out.  I did what I could, helping them at least write down their name.  But I will need to focus on that for the next semester.

The second class period was devoted to the “my favorite thing to do” box.  I did this two different ways.  With my 1st graders, I had them write down their favorite thing to do.  I circulated and helped and questioned them.  Then they passed their papers in a circle and “commented” on the previous persons profile.  I tried to let them be as free as possible in their expression and hoped they wouldn’t devolve into cruelty.  Thankfully they didn’t.

The other version included watching the Disney short Paperman.  

For the most part, I chose this video because it doesn’t use language.  I didn’t need to prep the students to hear certain words, and I didn’t need to play it more than once for them to get it.  Besides, it’s a sort of cute story.

After watching, the students “commented” on it.  Again, free expression.  I didn’t put any restrictions on their words but you certainly could, to get a more directed effect.  For example, some of my students didn’t write full sentences (something that happens on facebook, though I would like to make sure they follow accepted facebook-language social protocols before they just write fragmented sentences freely).  But you could ask them to write any number of more specific things.  For example, you could split them into groups, or pairs and give them specific things or events or visuals or sounds in the video.

You could ask them to write two sentences about why they didn’t or did like the video and then give it a grade.  Anyway, point is, lots of options.

–To end, here is some of the work of the students.  First an 8th grader.  She spent a lot of time doing the drawings.  Her “favorite” thing to do says, “I like to go to bad (sleep)”.  A common (and telling) comment among the students.


This young woman wasn’t too interested in the drawing, but her comment on the video led to some good responses.


This one gets included as winner of “Best Artwork”.  Very light on the language.  Her interests are, simply, “boy”.


A personal favorite here.  The young lady’s “favorite thing to do” is to “sexy sing”, (sing sexy songs? I suppose?  I’m not really sure what she means by this.  Maybe “sexy singing”? )  I saw the boy who wrote the only comment and I asked him what he meant by “nothing” and he said, “Nothing to say.”  or in our parlance  he gave her the “…no comment” dismissal.


And finally, the most impressive profile linguistically.  The young lady was an over-acheiver and answered the question in the box before I asked them to comment on the video (notice her answer, “sleeping”).  My favorite comment at the end, about the video, “people are disgust[ing].  Because very tall and big.”facebook5