Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Today I had a talk with a fellow teacher about, "Critical Thinking" and how our students have no real concept of the idea at all. If you a usual reader of my blog, you know that once a semester, I try and do a critical thinking exercise. It has been a total failure each time that I have tried to do it. I will try and do something a little different this year with it and see if it works or Will I have the same results as prior.

I saw this from seoulsearcher's blog and it struck me that he was correct and that we are teaching wrong. We are teaching the students book English and we should be teaching them basic survival English.

I have always tried to teach my students normal words that we would use in the USA, so if, or when, they get their, they will have at least a basic chance of understanding the words that are being spoken to them. Please read the article below and feel free to leave any comment.

On Learning A Foreign Language

For a brief period in the late 1990s, I had a chance to work at Yonhap News Agency, South Korea’s government-controlled newsgathering and disseminating organ. Like most other companies, Yonhap hired a group of new employees, just out of university, in the spring every year.

Since big news organizations, including television networks and mass-circulation dailies, had become the most popular employers among young Koreans, the newly hired reporters were selected from literally tens of thousands of applicants.

Those chosen were the cream of the crop, as they say. And understandably, 10 out of the dozen young men and women who were hired by Yonhap in that particular year were graduates of the nation’s top institute of higher learning—Seoul National University.

During their apprenticeship, they went around by turn from one department to another for one week to be introduced and learn, as it were, the tricks of the trade.

When they came to the foreign news department, I asked them what they had studied in the university. And to my surprise, quite a few of them replied that they had majored in English. I further learned that they had mainly read such works as Chaucer and Milton at school. “Wow,” I exclaimed in spite of myself, “that’s difficult stuff.”

Then, I noticed that I wasn’t the only one who was impressed by their academic background; one of my colleagues, a British-born editor, overhearing our conversation, asked them some simple questions in English like what kind of journalists they eventually wanted to become.

However, none of them provide him with a reply longer than “yes” or “no.” Were they so shy or diffident by nature that they couldn’t respond to his questions in detail? Or were they actually unable to say anything in passable English?

“It’s amazing,” the British friend said afterwards. “They are supposed to be the smartest kids in this country, and they must have studied English at least ten years and yet none of them could converse with me in English.”

“Something is wrong with the foreign language education in this country,” he said, shaking his head.

I could readily see his point, but I must admit I couldn’t quite agree with him, because I was in their shoes myself when I was their age several decades earlier.

In 1957, when I decided to go to America to work my way through university at the relatively ripe old age of 25, I thought I had a rudimentary command of English. After all, I had taken language tests at the Foreign Ministry and the U.S. Embassy and passed them without difficulty.

Prior to the tests, I studied the language for one year as an English major at a university. What’s more, I had had some opportunities to “converse” with American GIs off-and-on during the Korean War as our regiment had often been deployed on the frontline side by side with American units.

With some $30 in my pocket, I arrived in New York in June 1957 to work during the summer to earn some money before leaving for Lincoln, Nebraska, to attend the state university there. Fortunately, I had a friend who preceded me to the United States by two years, and thanks to his help, I got a job at a sheet metal company as an odd-jobs man at the factory.

But to my chagrin, I found myself utterly unable to communicate with my fellow workers. I could not understand what they were saying, and I could not make them understand what I was trying to say. For all practical purposes, I was almost deaf and dumb; I was barely able to understand the work orders the foreman gave me through gestures mixed with—believe it or not—some Japanese words (he had been stationed in Japan for several years after the Second World War).

Despite the language difficulty, my fellow workers and I soon became great friends. During the lunch break, for instance, we went out of the factory, sat against the factory wall on 48th Street and 11th Avenue in Manhattan and ate our sandwiches, while exchanging jokes and jeering at passing girls in mini-skirts.

At first, I couldn’t make out what they were saying among themselves and laughing at, but in time, I began to grab some of their meanings here and there. I also realized that the language they were using was quite different from what I had learned in my textbooks; they were speaking the real, “living” language steeped in the life and culture of ordinary Americans.

Another difficulty with the language—though of a somewhat different kind, but nonetheless serious and requiring an urgent resolution—was awaiting me at the university as well.

Before the first semester began, I was asked to write an essay (I wrote about my first job at the New York factory that summer). And it so happened that what I wrote somehow impressed the members of the board of admission and as a result, I was granted an unexpected scholarship. For me, they also waved the requirement for all foreign freshmen to take a special English language course.

These developments restored a bit of my confidence as far as language was concerned. But that was shattered once again in the first class I attended.

I was not only unable to understand the joke the professor cracked at the beginning of the lecture (most American professors do, don’t they?), but also to keep up with the professor’s lecture and jot down notes.

Feeling the attentive eyes of the students sitting next to me, and ashamed of my inability to write down what the professor was saying, I kept turning the pages of my notebook after writing a few words or sentences. Pretty soon, I was almost half way through my brand new notebook when the professor was only 10 minutes into his lecture.

Finally I gave up and decided to borrow the notebook from an American student. And this practice, I’m ashamed to admit, lasted a long time before I started managing to make legible notes of my own in most classes.

More embarrassing situations arouse when I watched television with American friends. The popular programs were usually late night talks shows, like The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Whenever Carson said something funny during his famous monologue or told hilarious jokes, my friends roared with laughter while I remained stone-faced, not knowing what they were laughing about. Or I just smiled sheepishly in embarrassment. I was often infuriated at myself for not being able to understand what were apparently simple jokes.

Anyway, it took a long time before I realized that understanding and speaking a foreign language involved much more than anything that books and teachers in classrooms can teach you. A language is rooted deep in the culture of a people. And at the same time, language changes constantly as the life of the people who uses it changes all the time. Old words and expressions die while new ones are coined and come into vogue. That’s why you cannot really claim you can speak a foreign language unless you understand the culture and ways of thinking.

You cannot burst into laughter at their jokes unless you know what’s happening in their society or country. And this is the reason why it takes time and more than a superfluous knowledge of a people and their society in order to understand their language and speak it fluently like a native.

In that respect, I was fortunate to have been able to mingle with the workers at the sheet metal company in the first few months of my life in America. I was also fortunate to work in restaurants every summer during my university years, waiting tables, and talking with people while I was serving them. Indeed, it was in these places where I dare say I learned the “living,” or colloquial, English, if you will, more than in classrooms or from books.

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