The Foreigner Fallacy

“They said most English teachers use students for money and show no respect to Koreans and have an arrogant attitude to us because they can speak English. One friend said they want teacher who has qualification of teaching, and another friend said he thinks native English teacher doesn’t really care about their present job. They are more like a traveler than a teacher.” –24 year old female Korean

I don’t want to simply re-write what has been spewed non-stop on the internet about Native English Teacher’s effectiveness here in Korea.  The Lament of the Native English Teacher is a story old as the position itself, and I’ve commented about it already.

But I wanted to relay some anecdotes that I have been collecting recently that peeked my anxiety.  I have been, over the last month or so, carefully asking my Korean friends (all in their 20s) how they felt about their NETs in high school.  It’s a question that has to be timed just right.  They all know I am an NET and they would never willingly say something they thought I might find offensive.  But if done carefully, they are more than willing to tell me their thoughts.

If I had to put their collective perspectives about NETs in Korea into one sentence; it would be something like, “I don’t really remember.”

It is rare for a student to ponder their former teachers, I suppose.  (As a teacher myself, I do it all the time).  But with a little pushing, memories come back.

For the most part, my friends viewed their NETs as novelties.  A kind of oddity.  Something to be endured.  Significantly, not one of my friends said they felt like they learned anything meaningful about language from their NETs.  To be fair, I’m sure if they thought about some of their other Korean teachers, they could come to the same conclusion.  I am not certain I learned much from some of my high school teachers.

However, there is a difference.  With a Korean teacher, “not learning” comes down to being a bad teacher, or a disinterested student.  For NETs, the alleged reason they didn’t learn much, if anything, is because they couldn’t understand them.  It wasn’t a matter of bad methods, under-training or laziness (persay).  To them, it was simply a cultural and linguistic problem, irresolvable.

And that is, very seriously, a problem.  I don’t mean to say it’s an actual problem, what I mean is, it is a very serious perceptual problem that the students conclude because it feels obvious.  Here is the stereotypical view:

“Frankly I don’t feel good about that foreigners get a offer to be a teacher in Korea. I think people come here for doing so called “teacher thing” so they can get some money and have fun at the night time.”

“A few days ago I read a newspaper article on native teachers. According the article: Korean parents and students like Korean teacher who can speak English well more than native speaker. That means now Koreans also know native speaker doesn’t help to improve their English.” – Teaching in Korea from a Korean perspective – A Girlandtheworld Girls Of The World interview

It is a blatant non-sequitor to go from “parents and students like Korean teachers more” to “native speaker doesn’t help improve their English”, but what I’m driving at is the perception.  And that is certainly very real and popular.  Here, in the same article, the young woman shows outright the disconnect between the average persons understanding of modern language teaching technique and the reality.

“In my case I learnt how to write good article in English at my uni. My teacher was one of good native teacher I’ve met, and he teach with passion but the problem was only a few students could understand what he said.” 

Second language education, theory and methodology recognizes that “negotiating for meaning” is an important part of the language learning process.  Meaning, not understanding everything your NET says is not bad teaching, necessarily (though, it certainly can be).  It forces the student to listen and formulate hypotheses that can be tested.  A good language teacher recognizes a good hypothesis and can evaluate that as learning, even if the student’s hypothesis is wrong.  For example, the common way to form the past-tense in English is add ‘-ed’.  Everyone knows there is a huge list of exceptions.  So when you teach ‘-ed’ and your student then says,

“I flied to New York last week.”

You can be confident the student understands the rule; even though on a test of grammar, that student would be “wrong”.  More importantly, the student has a tool with which to create sentences with words they have only just learned.  I’m not aware of a verb “to splarf”, but if one were to splarf  in the simple past, it would probably come out, “It splarfed.” and not some other variant.  This was humorously demonstrated by cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker when he wrote an article and titled it, “Why no mere mortal has ever flown out to center field“.  The claim being that in baseball, the verb ‘to fly’ was reanalyzed as a new verb (or at least a new sense of the verb) and was thus assigned the default simple-past morpheme.

It was never an absolute phenomenon  (to fly is a common verb), so you’ll find a mix of “flew” and “flied” in the corpora, but ‘flied’ has, over the years, become much more common than ‘flew’.

But that kind of teaching is very different from the traditional method.  Languages in general force teachers and students to try different classroom approaches and techniques because only a very few progress using traditional lecture, “sit n’ git”.  (Of course, in general, the lecture is slowly giving way to other styles).  However, the effect is amplified in language courses.  If your students aren’t prepared for it, and it is presented by a foreigner then it is easy to misattribute the problem to the foreign-ness. (As an aside: this line of argumentation still baffles me in perhaps another way.  What is “learning” if not feeling a sense of discomfort? Either in your current knowledge, or in the way you obtain it?)

— So what of all this?  I suppose for myself it is a coming-to-grips with the realization that while my students seem to like me, seem to be happy to see me; their memories will likely not include a sense of having learned from anything I did.  You have to kind of sit on that for a moment.  For myself, my own way of coping with this sad reality comes from a familiar place.  C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves.

“…The proper aim of giving is to put the recipient in a state where he no longer needs our gift. We feed children in order that they may soon be able to feed themselves; we teach them in order that they may soon not need our teaching. … The hour when we can say ‘They need me no longer’ should be our reward.” Pg. 50

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4 thoughts on “The Foreigner Fallacy

  1. What motives Western teachers in South Korea? I can hardly believe all things are bad but I have not read any expat teacher account that says I love this and it is great. From what I have read the country contains some very hostile and unpleasent individuals plus pissing and spitting on every streetcorner. Also, why don’t the South Koreans use Filipinas/-os if they dont like the Western? Asias cheap English speakers. Is it really down to their image of Asias greatest and Phillipines the lowliest? I know they like to use their 3-400 USD a month labour in the Philippines.

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    • It’s not all bad here. There are some hakwons and public schools where the foreign English teachers are treated badly, I’ve known a few people who can tell you stories about those places. I’m not sure what actually motivates people to come to South Korea, myself. I came here because of the job opportunity for teaching English, which is something I wanted to try while in university. I came to Korea in 2009, and got the job through a recruiter in my hometown. I guess there is some “mystery” to Korea as it is known as the “Hermit Kingdom”. Once I arrived and after getting settled in, I realized it’s not too different from where I grew up, except that sometimes Koreans look down upon foreigners because they’re “different”. Living here has its pros and cons like anywhere else, and I guess you just gotta love the good things here and try and deal with the bad as best as you can.

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  2. All things certainly are not bad. I would separate the “living” and the “working” in Korea. Living in Korea has been a very good experience. The bakery I go to often is run by a very nice couple, who love to see me come in. Service is genuine and they love an opportunity to speak, whether it be in their English, or an attempt at my Korean.. usually a mixture of both. I have a small group of very loyal and close friends that I spend time with regularly.

    Teaching has its own difficulties, that I hope this post is more clear about. The “fallacy” is in the thinking that when two people from two cultures disagree, that the disagreement is one of “culture”, when the exact same disagreement may come between two people of the same culture, and in that case it would be a matter of logic or reason. This blog isn’t really about “living” in Korea, as much as teaching. I have posted several lesson plans and other things that *are* positive about the teaching aspect here. But many of the things I want to discuss are inherently difficult, no matter where you are, and may come off as negative sounding.

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  3. Thank you for explaining to me :). I think Asia is fascinating in many ways, but with all the bad press I have read about S.Koreas attitudes and values, I would have to learn a lot different to wish to go there. Recently I have a met a very sweet Korean person, so maybe I will.

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