Code Switching in Global Relationships: A Brief Conversational Analysis

Introduction

Part one of this two-part series set down some useful theoretical concepts for understanding the dynamics of power and authority in language use between international couples. This post reports on some preliminary data collected on myself and my wife. While the methodology isn’t completely pure (more on that below), I was happy to find that the concepts I had been learning about do seem to appear not just in my speech but in my wife’s as well.

This post will get right into it. First, I’ll set out the specific questions I started this project with and then give a bit of background information on the language history of my wife and myself and briefly describe conversational analysis as a tool for description. I will finish with a description of our conversations, with some examples and the conclusions they elicit. But first! Here is a brief and useful image that explains briefly code-switching in Singapore.

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The Political Economy of Language Use In Global Relationships: Some Useful Concepts

jdy_hawaii_1377_fin

A picture from my recent marriage to my Korean wife

  • This essay is the result of a research project I conducted into the code-switching patterns between couples who share different first languages. My wife is Korean; she also speaks English and a bit of Japanese. I am American; I also speak Portuguese and a bit of Korean. Together, we speak a bit of lots of things.  I was always paying close attention to the use of language between us. But it wasn’t until I was introduced to Jan Bloomaert’s Sociolinguistics of Globalization that I realized I wanted to know a lot more.

Introduction

This post intends to examine the intersection of bilingualism, biculturalism and globalization in the private and public lives of international romantic relationships. It is something of a cliché to mention the ever-globalizing world when prefacing research which appears to be due in part to the technological and educational effects of globalism. However, in addition to the political and demographic interest this subject holds for many people, researchers and lay-persons alike, this particular crossroads of language use provides an elusive opportunity to examine language acts which are by definition, private.

The Korean context of international marriage is an interesting setting due to historical governmental restrictions on the practice and the now open phenomena in the globalized. Little sociolinguistic research into the language use of these new couples has been completed as of yet (see Lim, 2010). This current study will begin first with laying the foundational theoretical work and tools used by previous researchers to examine language use in international couples. Then, using that framework as a guide, we will provide a methodology for examining a small case study of international couples in Korea.

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I’m not lesson planning because blog

My 7th graders recently spent some time trying to figure out the difference between “because ______” and “because OF _____” in preparation for their midterm tests.  It caused a whole lot of consternation, even though the answer is fairly straightforward and easy to follow.

Simply, “because [reason]” is used to introduce a secondary clause; while “because of [reasons]” is used, like prepositions do, with noun phrases.

“I can’t go tonight because I have too much homework.”

“I can’t go tonight because of work.”

Simple.

Unfortunately, 7th graders have a hard time understanding the difference between Independent Clauses and Noun Phrases (Hell, I had trouble with the idea of verbs in 7th grade).  So it can actually be more tricky than normal to explain at times.  But since I don’t actually teach grammar, this responsibility mostly fell on the shoulders of my co-teacher.

However, it took almost everything I had to not teach the kids my favorite grammatical structure, which completely breaks this rule.

The “Because reasons” structure.

It’s an emerging usage that I’m sure really annoys a lot of people, but I just can’t get enough of it.  It think it’s funny in almost any situation.  Twitter is abuzz with this usage, here are some examples.

As you can see from the examples, the usage doesn’t exactly replace the “because of” structure.  Instead, it carves out it’s own little category within.  “Because reasons” is used to exaggerate the meaningfulness of the reasons.  Something like,

“I can’t go tonight (and it should be completely obvious why that I’m not even going to waste my time explaining) because reasons.”

Or, it used when there really aren’t any reasons, but the speaker wants to promote their proposition anyway, like this example:

because reasons 1

However, because the “because reasons” structure is used either jovially or emphatically, it can be misused, particularly in situations when stating the reason is actually necessary. Take this example:

because reasons 2

Notice that the writer actually then produces the reasons for disagreement.  The “because reasons” usage feels out of place.  Which is not to say it is ungrammatical. It seems as grammatical as any other use, it just feels less appropriate, or at least less funny.

The grammar of “because reasons” involves the adverbial conjunction “because” changing its part of speech into a preposition.  This is actually more interesting than it sounds, as it is not everyday that a new word becomes a preposition.  Language mavens may lament what they call “Zombie nouns”, but the truth is, one of the beautiful facts of English that words can move in and out of certain categories (like nouns to verbs, or vice versa).  But not all word categories easily do so.  Prepositions are one such category.

“It is a little difficult”

In the “apartment” I live, I fit: a bed, fridge, closet, TV, a small folding table, kitchen area and a bathroom with a washer all in a smaller space than my room in my parent’s home. It’s small.

No bother.  I do not demand much else than what I have, though it would be nice to have room for company.  What I have in place of room, are white walls and one picture of my family.  I have facebook also, of course, which offers as many pictures and opportunities to communicate as I’d like.  But I only have one real picture, that I can feel with my fingers; and no room for chairs, that can be occupied by a companion.

While the white walls, on one hand, can drive a person crazy; they can also narrow my focus onto what it is I am striving to do here in Korea.  I have little room, literally, for distractions.  I don’t even have room for a bookcase, in the event that I decide to forget the harsh realities of Northern South Korea and lose myself in fantasy and abstractions.

The white walls though, they do not keep the loneliness out .  There is always a window through which I see both opportunities gone by or not yet realized.  Some of which are fantasy, some of which are potential.  As focused as I try to be, it is hard to not find myself looking out the window at times.

“So why do you stay?  How can you stand it?”

I am asked that a lot.  In part because I am a habitual complainer, but also because people recognize the difficulty of the situation.  And not everyone would trade places with me.  My answers are rarely satisfying to others and I imagine I don’t paint the most beautiful picture of this lived experience.

Robin Williams has shown me how I want to answer that question though.  In the movie, Dead Poets Society there is a short, seemingly unimportant scene (so much so that I am having trouble finding it on youtube) where Neil comes to Mr. Keating for help dealing with his father. While Keating makes some tea, Neil says, looking a picture of a beautiful woman playing the chello on Mr. Keatings desk:

“She’s pretty.”

“She’s also in London.  Makes it a little difficult.”

“How can you stand it?”

“Stand what?”

“You can’t go anywhere.  You can’t do anything.  How can you stand being here?”

“’Cause I love teaching.  I don’t want to be anywhere else.”

The last line is deftly delivered.  It is pointed, quick and obvious.  There is no thinking; teaching is fundamental to Mr. Keating.  Most, if not all, teachers understand that phrase, “I love teaching”.  Not many of us got into this profession for the love of something else.

But it is the second sentence, that answers Neil’s question. I don’t want to be anywhere else.  What does Keating want? Before this moment, it’s not even a question on our minds. His wants outside of teaching are obscured.  But in this scene, Keating is someone with love and a life outside of the private school he teaches at.  With a life outside the cramped office and white walls that keep him focused on his work.  “It is a little difficult” is said modestly.

— This scene starts with Mr. Keating sitting at his desk, working, but not focused.  He keeps looking at the picture of the woman on his desk.

And yet

I love teaching.  I don’t want to be anywhere else.

Linguistic change in Korean kinship terms

Not too long ago, I was made aware of an interesting linguistic phenomenon involving the Korean kinship term, “hyung” (형).  Usually, this term is used only between younger males and their older brothers/close friends as an honorific term.  But it seems that some, college-aged, women are also calling their older male friends “hyung.”

Despite the insistence of some on the internet that this does not happen, or that it is simply a fluke or a speech-error, I have witnessed half a dozen or so instances of this phenomenon.  And while many people simply have no interest in the subject or want to down-play its role in the Korean language, as an amateur linguist I am very interested in the socio-linguistic motivations for women to use ‘hyung’ instead of ‘oppa’.

Scholarly information seems to be limited on the subject and because I am not an expert in Korean linguistics or sociology, my ability to accurately describe the situation is no better than most of the ignorant masses on the internet.  Which, by the way, includes¸ many average Korean people.  So, with that, here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

1) This linguistic act is mostly used by the 18-30 demographic.  It is possible that older speakers use it to an extent, and perhaps younger speakers use to some extent. (though the little data I *have* collected suggests that people younger than college-age do not use this term).

It could be that this is necessarily an 18-30 linguistic feature.  And not a linguistic change occuring in the 18-30 demographic.  Which would mean that as the women who are currently 18-30, leave their 30s, they may abandon the use of “hyung”.  This would suggest the usage is specific to a certain group or register.  As the photos show, it is considered a “university” usage.  It could also be that as the 18-30 women age, they will continue to use it, marking a broader linguistic change.

2) This linguistic change is being led by women and is above the level of conscious-awareness.  Here, we are specifically talking about the use of ‘hyung’ by women (which is really the only interesting usage).  But it is also possible that ‘onni’ could be used by men to describe older women, or in some other fashion.  As of yet, however, the only data I have seen suggests only women are making the kinship gender switch.  It will be interesting to see, in the future, whether or not all men, or some subgroups of men, make a similar kinship-term switch.

In conjunction with reason (3), this change comes “from above”, meaning it comes from a dominant social class (the middle), appears in careful speech (meaning, speakers choose overtly to say it) and is driven by extra-linguistic factors.

3) This linguistic change is happening mostly in the middle-class.  An interesting part of this phenomenon is that is it popularly acknowledged as something that happens in Korean universities. Suggesting that both before and after university, women are not expected or it is not considered appropriate for women to call older men, ‘hyung’.  This is a very tenuous hypothesis at this point, I’m basing it mostly under the assumption that those people who are attending Korean Universities are mostly middle-upper classes, and then making a guess that upper-class women don’t use ‘hyung’ for older men based on the idea that they have little need for social mobility, as they are already on top.

It would be interesting to see whether or not this linguistic change is more popular at less-prestigious universities or technical schools, where there are fewer of the upper-class attending.

This point, if true, is interesting in that it might suggest something about how women use ‘hyung’ as social capital.

To conclude, I invite any native speaker with anecdotes or other information, intuitions, to leave me a message somewhere, in the comments if you wish.  It would be very helpful to me.  If anyone knows any scholarly work that I get a hold of, I would love that.  And, of course, if you think I’m wrong about any of these hypothesizes, correct me!

The Senses as Metaphor

Over the Korean Thanksgiving holiday, I had more than a few opportunities to talk with friends and strangers in Korean.  Such opportunities are always a mixture of self-loathing and confidence-building.

I had a thought one night after coming home from a full day of mumbling my way through conversations in a department store, that my level of fluency in Korean is at least 80% determined by the willingness of the listener to try to hear me.  It is amazing what a cooperative conversational partner can do with whatever it is we should call my Korean language ability.

Conversely, it is equally distressing how little I am able to communicate with someone who either chooses not to hear me, or through their own shyness/fear or inexperience, cannot hear me.  Suddenly all those inspirational stories, phrases and advice about “listening instead of speaking” I’ve received have new meaning.  It’s not that someone who listens more is better than someone who speaks, it’s that the vast majority of communication is accomplished on the listening end of it all.  Speech is necessary for listening (though, clearly not for communication), but even the most eloquent speaker can be misunderstood by a poor or inexperienced listener.

And I say inexperienced sincerely.  Listening, while the birthright of most humans, is a skill, chiseled by effort and time into a fine work.  It is not a passive skill nor does a person who listens much more than speaks a passive person.  It is a laborious effort for most and comes easily only to very few people.  I suspect there are a few “good listeners” out there who are really just quiet, which is not exactly the same, though if one wishes to develop listening, being quiet is a place to start.

My thinking about listening led me to this idea: First, sense words (sight, sound, etc) have secondary meanings in English to convey the meaning “I understand”.  The first to come to mind was, “hear”, as in “I hear you.”  A phrase I have come to really like due in small part to the movie, Australia.  My idea being that while many of the words for senses can convey understanding, words for “speaking” could not.  Here are a few:

“I hear you.”
“I feel you.”
“I see.”
“I’m touched.”

I thought I had stumbled upon an interesting phenomoneon (by which I don’t mean to imply I am the first).  However, I soon realized that “speak” can also be used to convey understanding:

“That speaks to me.”

Though I find the structure to be interesting, in a way I’m not particularly clear on yet.  The “speaks” example is slightly different in meaning (they all are) than the others, and “see” is really the only one that strictly conveys the idea, “I understand”.  The other tend to also imply a sense of empathy or other emotion.  “speaks” for example, seems to me to say something like, “I’m struck by this” or some other sense of wonder.  “touch” suggests connection, sympathy or gratitude.

So my idea is wrong, in addition, I can think of no way that the word “taste” is commonly used as a metaphor for understanding. “Delicious” is often used to convey a sense of goodness about something other than taste-oriented senses, but understanding isn’t one of them.  If you’ve got one, let me know.

Language Exchange Lament (and a lesson plan for Listening)

There is a popular method for informal language learning here in South Korea (and I’m sure other places) that goes by the name “language exchange”.  The name is appealing.  It suggests a business-like approach to the learning of a language, a fair trade in which you give and then take equal shares of a product.

LanguagePartners5

This is what people think is going to happen at a language exchange

Unfortunately, “language exchange” is probably a misnomer for the most part.  Rarely do two people at these events exchange equally and often what is exchanged isn’t exactly a product of the greatest quality.  Most exchanges are, after all, informal events.  So I suppose they can be forgiven on that point.

Language exchanges suffer from two problems, 1) generally one language is favored and 2) if by chance one language isn’t favored, then language acquisition is ignoring a very important piece of the “four strands”, namely, listening.  In language exchanges, what normally is done, is each participant speaks in the target language they are trying to learn to a native speaker of that language.  So I would speak to a Korean in Korean and they would speak to me in English.  This is a fine drill in itself, but it ignores entirely the very important skill of listening and receiving authentic feedback (note: I’m not talking about overt feedback like, “say this instead” or “that was really good!” but covert feedback.  The type where you say something, it is understood and the other person responds authentically.  This sort of feedback is vastly under-acknowledged and far more important than overt feedback).

What actually happens

What actually happens

Of course, other types of language exchange combat this problem by designating a time limit and specifying that during a certain amount of time only English will be spoken and then only Korean in the next time period.  Of course, these events are usually only a couple of hours long and it can be difficult to regulate these periods effectively. If done correctly, this type of language exchange satisfies my complaint.  It is my experience (having visited several different language exchanges around Seoul) that this does not happen regularly.  English is usually the dominate language used by everyone.  I have found one exchange where Korean is the dominate language and I continue to frequent that exchange, though like I noted before, it’s hard to call it an exchange, as I don’t really give anything in return, just take.  I suppose maybe friendship is my gift, not a fair trade, I think!

So what does “listening” look like in a language class as opposed to an exchange?  Well, here’s my go-to method.

Ordered Sentences and Pronunciation Distinguishing

Materials Needed:
pronunciation Powerpoint slides (or pictures that you can hold), listening material (audio or transcript to read), copy of transcript cut into individual sentences for every (or groups of) student(s).

Performance Objectives:
Students will be able to (SWBAT) distinguish between two similar sounds ([i] and [I]).  This is accomplished first by repeating real words after a native speaker.  The speaker draws attention to the position of the articulatory tract.  Using fake words, the speaker draws attention to the sounds by elongating them.  Students mimic the speaker.  Students are then given three minimal pair words (fake or real) one of which does not contain [i] or [I] and the speaker says them one after another.  Students must say which word doesn’t contain [i] or [I].  Students are then given two pictures, each representing a minimal pair of [i]/[I] words.  The speaker says one of the words and the students will point to the picture that represents the word.

SWBAT put the transcript of an audio piece in the correct sequence by listening to a full recording of the transcript.  Students will have a pre-determined amount of times they can listen to the recording. Students will evaluate their performance in pairs, by comparing with their partner how they ordered the transcript.  As a class, the transcript will be read.

SWBAT listen and repeat the transcript (or a portion) from memory.  Students will follow the teacher (or a leader) in a rote-repeat fashion once.  Students will repeat again, waiting 3 seconds, then 5 seconds, between hearing and speaking.  Finally, students will attempt to repeat the transcript (or portion) purely from memory.

SWBAT produce the transcript (or a portion) following a native-speaker rhythm.  Students will follow the teacher (or a leader), repeating the transcript.  The teacher will emphasize stressed syllables within words and stressed words within phrases.  Students will mimic the teacher’s technique.  Students will produce the rhythm again first waiting 3 seconds, then 5 then 10 between listening/seeing and speaking/doing.

Warm-up: (1-5min)

Objectives: Students will prepare their articulatory tract for correct pronunciation by stretching their mouth.

Instructional Strategy:
lecture, whole class work

Sensory Learning Style:
audio, visual, kinetic

Task Description:
Students will follow the teacher (or a leader) in stretching their articulatory tract by alternatingly rounding and stretching the lips, opening and closing the mouth, sticking out and putting in the tongue, moving the tongue side to side and finally by doing a vowel chant (a,e,i,o,u).  Finish with a yell if you’d like!

Presentation: (1 min)

Objectives: Prepare students for what the class will be about

Instructional Strategy:
lecture

Sensory Learning Style:
audio, visual

Task Description:
Using a powerpoint, or some other material, describe to the students the tasks for that day.  Explain briefly the key objectives, which is successful listening.

Practice: (10-15 min)

Objectives:
Students will be able to (SWBAT) distinguish between two similar sounds ([i] and [I]).  This is accomplished first by repeating real words after a native speaker.  The speaker draws attention to the position of the articulatory tract.  Using fake words, the speaker draws attention to the sounds by elongating them.  Students mimic the speaker.

Instructional Strategy:
lecture, whole class work, individual work

Sensory Learning Style:
audio, visual

Task Description:
Using a text, or a prepared powerpoint, draw the students attention to the specific sound (in this case, the [i]/[I] distinction).  Show them words that change only when that specific change happens (e.g. a minimal pair) such as ‘heel/hill’ or ‘seat/sit’.  Using several examples, have the students repeat after a native speaker (or someone in the class who can produce the minimal pairs well enough.  It might be better for the students to hear a non-native speaker produce the sounds correctly, in order for them to hear or believe they can produce the sound themselves).

From there, move on to made up words (this focuses the attention purely onto the sounds, without any interference from semantic or lexical questions).  Slow down the sound, have the students say just the sound for a few seconds and then finish the word (i.e. siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii-t/ seeeaaaaaaaa-t).  Speed up slowly.

Pronunciation Powerpoint

Practice: (10-15 min)

Objectives:
Students are then given three minimal pair words (fake or real) one of which does not contain [i] or [I] and the speaker says them one after another.  Students must say which word doesn’t contain [i] or [I].  Students are then given two pictures, each representing a minimal pair of [i]/[I] words.  The speaker says one of the words and the students will point to the picture that represents the word.

Instructional Strategy:
lecture, individual work, whole class work

Sensory Learning Style:
audio, visual, kinetic

Task Description:
Following the powerpoint, show three words which are minimal pairs, two of which have [i] and [I] and the last which does not.  Say the words in order and have the students decide which word does not have [i]/[I].  (Another option is to say the words in a random order and have the students order them 1,2,3).

Finally, show two pictures on the screen which represent a [i]/[I] minimal pair.  A picture of a ‘hill’ next to a picture of a ‘heel’.  Say one of the words and have the students point or gesture to the correct picture. Repeat several times with various word pairs.

Presentation: (10 min)

Objectives:
SWBAT put the transcript of an audio piece in the correct sequence by listening to a full recording of the transcript.  Students will have a pre-determined amount of times they can listen to the recording. Students will evaluate their performance in pairs, by comparing with their partner how they ordered the transcript.  As a class, the transcript will be read.

Instructional Strategy:
whole-class work, pair work

Sensory Learning Style:
audio, visual, textile

Task Description:
using a prepared script or audio have the students listen to a conversation or monologue of one or two paragraphs, depending on level.  Have the students listen through once.  Before listening, prompt them with questions to answer after listening like, “what is the main idea?”  “who is speaking?” “what are their names?”  “what is the main problem?”  After that, discuss briefly the answers.  Next, hand out the cut-up scripts to the students.  Have them spread them out and look at them.  They can begin putting them in order if they think they know.  Tell the students they will have 2 or 3 opportunities to listen to the recording before you begin again.

Listen to the audio.  Pause between turns to allow the students to think about the order.  After 2 or 3 listenings, have the students compare their order with a partner.  Have them reconcile any differences.  After that, go through with the class the correct order (have the students read them in order, one student per sentence, for example).

Below is a gallery of my own attempt at using this activity.  I used the Intermediate listening activities from a very useful website for learning Korean called “Talk to Me in Korean“. It is the Iyagi – Intermediate lesson. It is a little bit above my Korean level, so it took me a little longer to get it finished, and I used a lot of dialogue.  For my Middle School Students, I will use anywhere between8-15 sentences, but not more than that usually.

Practice (10 minutes)

Objectives:
SWBAT listen and repeat the transcript (or a portion) from memory.  Students will follow the teacher (or a leader) in a rote-repeat fashion once.  Students will repeat again, waiting 3 seconds, then 5 seconds, between hearing and speaking.  Finally, students will attempt to repeat the transcript (or portion) purely from memory.

SWBAT produce the transcript (or a portion) following a native-speaker rhythm.  Students will follow the teacher (or a leader), repeating the transcript.  The teacher will emphasize stressed syllables within words and stressed words within phrases.  Students will mimic the teacher’s technique.  Students will produce the rhythm again first waiting 3 seconds, then 5 then 10 between listening/seeing and speaking/doing.

Instructional Strategy:
whole class work, pair work

Sensory Learning Style:
audio, visual, visual

Task Description:
using the same script the students used for the ordering activity, read the sentences one by one (or choose a couple of sentences or dialogues to work on) with the students repeating. After going through once.  Repeat the activity, only have the students wait 3 seconds before repeating.  Do the activity again with 5 seconds, and then 10 seconds.  If it is a dialogue, you can try to have the students do it from memory (they will have the sentences in front of them from the ordering exercise, if they need them).

Virtues and Weakness, Cross-culturally

I often find that who I think I am, and the things I value, present a completely different image to other people than to myself.  That who I think I am, often is interpreted as something that I personally do not identify with, in the minds of other people.

Cross-cultural communication is a tough nut to crack (in small part because languages and cultures have so many idiomatic expressions!).  What one culture views as pedestrian can be scandalous to another.  What one culture values highly is ignored by another.  A recent example in my life involved describing a picture of a new friend as “gangster”, a harmless semi-joke in my cultural-dialect, but which caused a fairly confused reaction that could have been hurtful.  Thankfully, we both worked to a place of mutual understanding.  One where I won’t call her “gangster” again, and she learned to understand and forgive my not-funny joke.

damn-it-feels-good-to-be-a-gangster

But often our perceptions of others, particularly “others” of a different culture go as unchallenged assumptions by both the assumer and the assumee. Partially perhaps because one or both are consciously unaware that the assumption has been made.  In other circumstances, the Assumer assumes without seeking clarification from the assumed.  Leading the Assumer to view the actions of the other person through a very different lens than the assumptions that color the view of the assumed.

This is all abstract.  Let me get personal.

Here is a short list of qualities that I find virtuous, and want in myself:
Doubt
Critical thought
meekness
empathy
equality
vulnerability

Here, now, are some examples of how what I feel is a personal virtue, are seen as faults or weaknesses.

– A former roommate of mine who I hadn’t seen in a long time came up to me and started with this, “Hey! So you still bitter or what?”  (doubt, critical thought).  It took me by surprise and it also hurt a little bit.  But my non-conformity to some beliefs that he held meant in his mind that I was primarily, bitter, for not accepting those cultural mores.

– A Korean girlfriend once told me she didn’t like having to “lead” with a boyfriend.  That it was the man’s responsibility to make (most) decisions in the relationship.  In an attempt to identify with her beliefs (empathy) I taught her to tell me, “be a man!” whenever she felt I wasn’t being “boyfriendish” enough.

That quickly turned out badly, as I don’t care to “lead” a girl around anymore than she wants to.  (equality).  I believe women are my equals and have an equal say in relationship decisions.  Telling me to “be a man” was essentially the same as dragging my confidence into a dark alley, mugging it, taking all its cash and then spitting in its face for good measure.  I ended up moving in the opposite direction of “manliness” with her.

– I once asked a close Korean friend to watch a TEDtalk by Brene Brown on vulnerability, and told them, “I really like what she says and think vulnerability is a really important character trait for me”.  I wanted my friend to understand me a little better, and they wanted to learn English better, so.. win win.

They watched a part and when I asked them about it they said, “oh yeah, that video, I think it’s about weakness?” (Brene Brown says this is one of the great myths of vulernability, that it is “weakness”).

These examples often make me feel vulernable in a not-so-good kind of way.  As if the things that I spend my time trying to cultivate in myself end up only defining me in a completely different and undesirable way.  But these examples are also more clear cut.  If I were able, I could clarify with each of these friends and maybe come to a place of understanding.  This is because the Assumer (my friends) showed me what they think of my virtues, which hurts, but also offers an opportunity for understanding.

I have in the past, referenced my “fears” as a teacher and also how I understand myself as a teacher.  Those things have certainly changed overtime, but what continues to nag at me, is how what I am doing in this classroom is percieved by my students, their parents and Korean society at large.

And equally, I fear that what my students, their families and Korean society value, may be greatly misunderstood on my part and misrepresented in my mind and words.  Often it is only in hindsight that one realizes the assumptions or opinions one holds against another are fabrications in their own minds, and don’t reflect actual reality, to say nothing of the reality in the other’s mind.

The sad, beautiful fact

Surrender is the moment when you say, “I bet every single one of those 1,000 books I’m supposed to read before I die is very, very good, but I cannot read them all, and they will have to go on the list of things I didn’t get to.” – Linda Holmes, NPR

sadIt is safe to say that my life has, at least, one defining and dividing moment.  That moment is the day (or as it turned out, dayS) I boarded a plan and traveled to Brazil for two years.  Until that moment, I had no dreams of travel.  I had no dreams of meeting people very different from myself.  I had no dreams of learning new languages (my high school experience taught me that I was, in fact, incapable of learning languages).

Of course, while I and many others may say we want to see, learn and experience as much of this world as we can; we also know, at least intuitively, the same insight that Linda Holmes points out about the World’s literature.  There is too much.  You can’t.  You won’t.

Like Holmes, those of us who want to (and I honestly think that “those of us” is actually “all of us” to varying degrees) experience as much of the world as possible know and accept that “sad, beautiful fact”.  We find it inspiring in itself, that humanity has created a store of culture, story and knowledge that could never fit into the life of one single human.

It is indeed a type of surrendering, to realize that there are simply too many people in the world.  I will never come to know even superficially 1% of the people in the world.

But this version of Ms. Holmes’ “sad, beautiful fact” is even more heart-wrenching.  I imagine it is a very rare statement, hearing one say, “oh, I wish I could have read the Lord of the Rings one more time before I died.”  For the vast majority of the great books, we seem to find a once-reading, quite enough.  We seem, in general, to fulfill our need by getting through Shakespeare, Twain, dickens and all the rest, at least once. But not necessarily more than that.

Rarely, in the adventure of understanding people, is it satisfying to meet and speak with people just once.  Indeed, the act of meeting an interesting, beautiful or compelling person once is like an addiction.  And separation can and does lead to a withdrawl-effect that my Brazilian friends would call Saudade.  An affected longing for the past.

As I progress in this meeting of people, I am just now realizing what I am getting myself into; which is essentially a very broken heart.  Every Thursday night, I think about my closest of friends at the University of Utah.  Our rituals now shattered in our scattering.  We rarely have contact now, even though those few people had a transformative impact on my thinking.

On warm nights, I feel the absence of sand, a volleyball court and my friends from the English Language Institute.  People from all over the world converging in one place at one time.  We are now scattered once again.  People who I didn’t realize until it was too late, that I felt a deep and abiding connection to.

Eating at a Brazilian restaurant will invariably send me introverted and contemplative.  It is difficult to express just how much I love and miss my dear friends in Brazil.  Saudade, I suppose.

These feelings are not the providence of the traveler alone.  All of us feel this, to one extent or another.  I write as if I have stumbled upon some inspiring insight into the human experience in the age of globalism.  I haven’t.

We all feel the pain of losing a loved-one.  The moving on of friendships; the separating of families.  Suck it up, we might say.

And that does seem to be the truth of the matter.  At some point that I am not entirely sure of, we must stop lamenting (at least publicly) the loss of our friends to time or distance.  At some point, the letter, or the e-mail, or the Facebook Message no longer seems to hold the same emotional “hit”.  Old friends just ‘know’.

As I am discovering, some feel a slight sense of discomfort at this kind of longing being vocalized.  Perhaps it is the chronic nature of the lament.  Every so often, we remember each other, how much we miss each other and it is quite a pain (literally) to tell each other once again.  We dig up old feelings, perhaps unveiling some feelings for the first time.  We bring them up, once again, just to feel their warmth and then bury them again, because it still hurts.

Until, it seems, we find our place.  “Our place” varies widely.  It sometimes is in the hometown you were born in, sometimes it evolves naturally from the life-plan your family sets out for you.  At times, “our place” is in an unexpected place, with unexpected people.  I suppose some people never find their place in the world, and as such, must continually struggle in a way more directly with these feelings.

Right now, I am lamenting the logical conclusion of the life that involves traveling, experiencing and meeting people.  It is the “sad, beautiful fact” that you will never keep up with all the people you will meet.  And even the people you feel a potentially deep connection with, may slip through your fingers.

This is true for everyone, not just the traveler.  Even if you never leave your childhood hometown, you will have siblings get married, grandparents will die and friends will move away.  There is, however, a comfort of knowing your place in the world.  Of either “surrendering” (in the sense Holmes describes) to it, or “culling” it; forcibly making your place.

The traveler (as I know it) has a strange and vague path towards making a place for themselves in the world.  The romantic version of the nomad is something like The Alchemist.  Where a simple boy, unable to obtain his childhood love, goes on a great journey through North Africa, through the merciless Sahara and finds his “place” and love in (naturally) an oasis-town.  It’s a beautiful story; not necessarily realistic, even as a template.

What the traveler gains in broad experience, they can lose in deep understanding.  It certainly has been wonderful to see all these places and to know (to the degree possible) the people in my life.  But the nature of our meetings, even with people I feel a profound connection, dictates only the most superficial of dives into the relationship.  Leaving us (or at least me) knowing there is a deeper connection to be discovered, but that will almost certainly never be explored.  A sad, bittersweet and yet beautiful fact.

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