on the other side of the desk

on the other side of the desk

It’s become the dead of fall, giant leaves crowding the sidewalks and crunching underfoot. Winter is nearly here. But there’s still one more experience to recount from this eventful summer, full of beach getaways, international vacations, and smaller things like hikes and Pride. That’s not what colored the atmosphere for most of the summer for me, though. What really occupied most of my thoughts during this time was my Korean class at Yonsei University. While I learned a lot of words and grammar forms, I learned some more valuable things from my time there, which can apply to more places than just the Korean-speaking world.

Let’s take it from the top.

We started with a placement exam. When the results came out, I was floored by getting put in level 5 out of 8 levels (I was hoping for a solid level 2 or 3 after a year of study and a year of living here). So yeah. I was shook.  And throughout the entire class, while the other kids (I say kids, I was the youngest in the class by 5-10-20 years) seemed to have learned most of the grammar before, I was scrambling to pick up the pieces. I communicated mostly through jokes and baby sentences, but I was able to communicate.

We got to talk about such awesome things! Like ethics and politics and attitudes towards a lot of things. This isn’t the baby class in university going over things like “What is your name?” “I’m an American.” “I’ve lived in Korea for 2 years,” kind of things. This kind of class, we were talking about friends with benefits or sugar mama situations (no sugar daddies, luckily), alcohol tolerances, and regional differences.  This class was so fun and so challenging that I would definitely say it was the best decision I made this year.

Not only learning Korean, I learned a lot about teaching a second language from our professor. It was my first time being “on the other side of the desk” since I had started to teach, after all.

1. Anything that’s worth doing, it’s worth doing again.

Your entire grade is based on the results of the final exam. While I was most nervous for the speaking (as within the context of the class, my speaking was decidedly the worst), I should have been more nervous about listening. Listening has never been my strong suit. That was the only section I failed. A month later, I headed back for a retest (side story: I sat in the auditorium with all the other kids thinking they were all there for a retest. But in reality, they were coming to take the placement test for the next semester. So much wasted time.) I did pass the second time, and it felt more rewarding to go back and do it right than just let that failing grade stick with me forever. I don’t get a certificate or put any kind of certification on my transcript because of this, but it feels good to “do it right.” In addition, I promised myself that I could only buy that Yonsei letterman jacket if I passed. So.

2. Put good in, get good out.

In a language learning setting, both routine and good attitude are key. One of our classmates would always come in late, and then stopped coming to class altogether. I suspect it was the lack of regularity that got to him. Especially in an adult language learning setting where you can’t really get the students to do homework, the routine of going to class is all you’ve got. In addition, good attitude is the other half of the equation. If you’re not interested in the class, it will be hard to do well and learn anything, but reframing it with better intentions will put you in the right mood to jump in constructively to the conversation.

3. Don’t be a Matthew

A parable: I have a student named Matthew (I always refer to him by name because the contrast between him and my friend Matt, an insanely gifted language learner, is intensely ironic to me) who never listens in class. All of the other girls in his fourth-grade class make an effort, or will ask questions when they don’t understand. They are willing to talk about anything if I can open up the conversation in a constructive way. Matthew listens intently perhaps 10% of the class, therefore learning and absorbing way less. It’s not possible to pay attention all the time, but many times listening and following along in the book are half the battle to understanding what the teacher is saying.

I learned the same thing in Korean class. You will understand more if you’re dedicatedly listening and paying attention as much as possible in class than if you’re zoning out. You can’t get back that lost time of not listening, and it’s nearly impossible to pick up the thread of a conversation that has taken a new turn in such a fast-paced class. Thus, just listen and a lot more things will come naturally, like learning and understanding. (NOT easily, just more naturally.)

4. You don’t have to understand every word.

Another pitfall I learned to avoid is not getting hung up on understanding every word of every sentence, or even every sentence. Many times, I might get hung up on a word and lose the meaning of the whole rest of the sentence, or even more as I frantically tried to look it up. (Sometimes our professor would write the word on the board to make that easier). Instead, much like looking into binoculars, you must focus a little wider on the meaning and feel of the sentence as a whole, how it fits into what the person is saying. I also did not understand a lot of the grammar forms that were being used, but again this zooming out really helped me to get the gist of things.

It turns out, in communication (which is kind of what learning languages is all about, after all), you just have to understand “enough,” to make an appropriate response and show the speaker that you’re listening and understanding. It doesn’t matter that the professor is a fluent speaker basically talking to a third-grader-level speaker like myself, if you have a mind to express those ideas and you have a willing listener, try your best.

5. Different learning philosophies are not necessarily or better or worse than one another.

In our class, we had 2 Taiwanese students, a Japanese guy, our Korean professor, and 2 Americans including myself. This often led to lively discussions about cultural differences, but one day our professor commented on the different ways that Eastern and Western students learn. I’ve also encountered this divide teaching ESL for the past almost-2-years here in Korea.

In the U.S, the focus is on understanding and applying the knowledge. This sounds stuck-up, but the exact grammar forms aren’t as important as being able to get your ideas across, as being able to manipulate the equation to be able to do what you want it to do, or being able to explain something. It’s teaching bigger concepts rather than individual points. There’s a lot more focus on explaining, elaborating, and discussing things than getting everything exactly correct.

In Korea and the East, it’s all about memorization. My little students last year had a speech that was a couple minutes long, that they would memorize word-for-word from reading and listening to my voice recording, together with adding carefully choreographed gestures and expressions. At a college level, this leads to the students taking diligent notes or taking pictures of the board or powerpoint slides and feverishly studying a stack of notecards ahead of the exam.

This is not to say that one style is better than the other, just different. Western students may come across as less smart than their Eastern counterparts because they have less-correct answers, perhaps, when their understanding is better suited to essay tests than their Eastern counterparts. Perhaps a little bit of both sides would make for the best language learner.

6. Talking is just as beneficial as “real” instruction.

While you buy a book to participate in the class and hope to learn most of the material from it, often jokes and real-life talks are better than strictly sticking to the book. I don’t remember the days where we just practiced grammar forms and new vocabulary words. I don’t really remember the grammar from those days, either. Instead, the days that were more fun and really stuck with me are the days where we talked about our actual lives, our homelands, where the professor would listen to the details of our drinking escapades or dating lives with all the relish of a saucy aunt. So I can say from real experience that talking about things that students actually care about and getting interested in their lives really gets them excited to talk.

(On the subject of jokes, I’ve also learned that not being afraid to make fun of yourself as a teacher is incredibly valuable and humanizes you to the students in the best possible way).

7. Gestures, sound effects, expressions are more than half of communication.

You don’t come to a class setting to only learn from a book. You don’t come to a class to listen to a CD recording. Communication is about a lot more than reading and listening, even more than just talking. Real communication is kind of messy, as I’ve learned from my bilingual attempts to talk with my first graders. It involves a lot of dramatic, mime-like gestures, sound effects (seriously considering starting a podcast or radio show I like my sound effects so much), and silly facial expressions convey almost more than the words themselves. You pick up other people’s expressions, too. From talking with my coteacher, Miss Tiffany, last year I’ve picked up a lot of facial expressions, and I learned a great deal more from the Korean professor, too. It’s a delicate art and a big joke at the same time, communicating, but there’s no one right answer.

8. Load on the examples.

The more examples, the better. This is also a function of comedic timing. When explaining a new concept, it’s so important to have as many examples as possible, and writing them down so that the students can follow the pattern is incredibly important, too. When my fourth graders and I played “Fannee Doolee” last year, we filled an entire whiteboard with the things Fannee Doolee likes before the students caught on that it was a spelling thing rather than a spoken thing. The humorous frustration when learning a language is all part of the game, but providing enough background knowledge for the kids to form their own connections is also important.

9. You get what you pay for.

Let’s say these days I work for a significantly cheaper hagwon then I did before. Now, the best students can learn from bad instruction, but the middling to struggling students won’t be able to learn in these ineffective settings. In the same way, at the college level instruction you will also reap the rewards from less-effective instructors. Perhaps you’re paying for the name, but perhaps you’re paying for more effective instructors who better know what they’re doing, and better materials to boot. If you want to go to a free language exchange, it might help, but having the formal direction of a class is more useful to guide your studies and learning, at the very least.

10. Any learning is better than no learning.

That being said, any effort towards learning a language is commendable. I know people who have lived here for a long time who, so far from being fluent, can barely string together a single sentence. Much of the Western world insists that immigrants learn English when moving to our countries, when in reality we are not willing to do the same when the reverse applies. I’m not saying you have to be government-level proficient in whatever your current country’s language is; any effort to learn and better yourself is commendable, no matter how small it may seem. Any way you choose to learn is also good. If you learn best from listening to music or podcasts, watching movies, reading books, magazines, or twitter, whatever is best for you is good. I don’t want to cast aspersions on different learning styles, but just that you should do it earnestly and be a good listener or reader, whatever you do to learn it.

 

Anyhow, I’m indebted to this class. I can’t necessarily say I’m miles better than when I started, but I’m more confident. I learned so much. It’s the badge of a language learner to realize how little you know, and I’m still discovering the gaps even now, doing my best to patch them up.

A toast to language learning, teaching, and communication, with all of their twists and turns.

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