Earlier today, a post went up over on Tumblr, which is rather complex and in many respects, an opinion I personally consider to be very valid. But I took some time, after my initial response, to gather my thoughts on the subject.
First and foremost, let me just say that I'm not here to debate the merits of native English speaking privilege. I think anyone who's put any genuine thought into the subject understands what being born into English grants you in this world, and what it, conversely, costs those, like our students, who are not born into it, but for absolutely no good reason I'm able to see are expected to learn it. Those are facts, not opinions, as far as I'm concerned. And like I've always told my students, I'm damn lucky I was born into English, because there is no way in fuck I could ever learn it.
I think it's also important to note my particular perspective on things at this point. Essentially, I am bailing out of this English baloney. You're never going to catch me saying that my job for the past five years has been pointless, or not "real". I don't think learning a foreign language is ever pointless -- it opens you up to considering and reconsidering things that you've always felt to be "natural", it makes you question communication and community, society and culture. It makes you question language. I think it's one of the most valuable things a person can do in their lifetime -- and I say that as a currently very invested second language learner, as well as a teacher, as well as a person who has devoted a lot to language.
However, I don't really see the point of that language being English. Other than the obvious reasons English is championed as the "global" language, as a privileged language, as a language of status, which I trust my readers all to understand enough about for me not to have to go into in detail right now (here's a bit more of my thinking about it, though).
What would I, if I were king of the world, ultimately like to see happen to English education in Korea? I would like to see it diminish, almost completely. Frankly, I would like to see it turn into an elective course open to those students who, for whatever reason, have a genuine interest in or need for English -- those who have dreams to live or travel abroad, or become diplomats, translators, or those who want to read English novels in English -- those who just find the language to be beautiful, or interesting. I would like English to become a choice. I would like to not have to look into the faces of my students when they ask me why the have to speak English in Korea and not have an answer for them, because I would like for every student who is in the room to want to be there.
That's the dream. But it's not reality.
The reality is that these kids need English to survive. Not real English, mind you, but test passing English. Job interview English. Resume writing English, to be reviewed by people who probably don't speak that much English. They need college entrance English, job security English.
Which is why I personally find the removal of the native English teachers from the public schools to be a band aid on the back ass end of the problem.
Make no mistake about it -- the removal of our positions from public schools is about budgets. It's about finally taking a hell of a lot of wasted money out of poorly utilized investments, and funneling it back into other areas of need. Which I would fully support, if it weren't for the only real good we are doing here to begin with.
This year, I'm working with a special group of about twenty students after school twice a week. These boys have dreams, interests and passions like the ones I described above. They want English -- they want to attend foreign and international high schools, they find speaking in another language to be fascinating and a lot of fun. They want international jobs, to travel, to interact with the world on a global scale. They want real English.
For two hours a week, we sit in the classroom and pore over English articles, have English discussions, and work on the boys' own written pieces in English. I'm not talking English writing exam essays -- I mean real written pieces in English, that communicate something that the boys have to say. They're putting to good use not only my native knowledge of the language, but also my training in writing and editing and my background in journalism.
The point of the class, from my own perspective, is to get these kids to see English as more than just an exam or a score -- as a communication tool, which is all a language ever should be.
And that is the dream of the native speaking English teacher in a Korean school. That's what we've heard touted at so many seminars and orientations and district meetings as our job and our responsibility.
But then the kids are shoehorned into our classes, without knowing so much as the alphabet or, frankly, giving even the slightest shit (and really, why should they?). And the kids are taken out of our classes at random to study the test material for their English exams in Korean.
You can't debate the merits of having a native speaker of a language handy -- you just can't. There is so much work that I do at my job that has no direct interaction with the students. I've written about it before -- how I spend a great deal of my work day assisting the Korean English teachers themselves, editing exams, checking exam answers they are unsure about, editing their classroom materials, explaining idioms, answering questions the students have come up with that they don't have the answers to. Those tasks are endless, but they are assisted greatly by the fact that I trained in writing and language for four years and worked as an ESL teacher before coming to Korea, and generally know what the fuck I'm talking about. We don't need to get into the minute details of what would make a better English teacher, Korean or foreign, because the quality there runs the gamut on both sides. But the general presence of a native speaker should be only beneficial.
Which is not to say that native speaking teachers are automatically more useful that Korean English teachers. As the original writer of the post referenced above pointed out, Korean English teachers understand learning English. They understand learning English as a Korean, and the particular nuances of how and when their students will need to engage the language. That is something that a native speaker will never understand. And a good Korean English teacher will wield great skill in addressing those issues, just as a good native English teacher will in their own quarter.
But I guess what it always comes back to for me is this: The kids need this language to survive. In the most superficial sense possible, but they do. And some of them need it on a more real level than others. And as long as that's a fact, I think it's important to keep an eye out for those kids like the ones in my after school classes. The ones like, for example, Jihoon, who don't have the time or money to attend hagwon, because they are busy helping their parents run the family restaurant. Kids like Jihoon will be competing with kids who have had the very best English education money can buy since the time they could walk, for a very limited number of places at the international high schools like the one Jihoon wants to attend.
And my other students will be competing against the same kids after high school to pass their university entrance exams, and after that, to get their TOEIC scores up to compete in the job market.
And what will they miss out on, in comparison to those kids attending 100% English hagwon with 100% fluent English teachers, when their English teachers can't correct their writing essays for the exam with accuracy? Because they can't pay for better.
This is not a Korean problem. This is a worldwide outlook on institutionalized education that needs to fucking change. Test scored and standardized exams, one singular methodology of the way kids are supposed to learn (with many branches and theories, that all come back to the same base) -- labeling kids as "disordered", because they don't fit inside a very tiny little box, and one very particular way of processing information, and even bigger problem with class, and view of physical labor in relation to intellectual labor. It's complicated. It's more complicated by language and racial hierarchy and neocolonialism and, above all else, capitalism. It's a huge subject. But when we narrow it down to the very specific field which we are dealing with, I don't get it.
I'm not here to champion Western methodology over the Korean education system, or talk about the crappy native English teachers, or the crappy Korean English teachers. The truth is, I believe the job demands the best of both. And I believe the best should be expected from both. But the problem is not going to go away with the casting out of foreign teachers from the public schools. The problem is only going to end when Korea lets go of mandatory internal English.
Maybe letting us go is a step in that direction. Only time will tell, and soon enough it won't be any of my concern anyway. But I'm sorry to say that I don't see the merit in that first step being taken at the expense of the kids who can't pay, but who will still suffer the consequences down the line.