That wasn’t quite what I was expecting

While I lived in Korea from 2006 to 2009, I kept an extensive diary, most of which I shared on a travel blog. Occasionally I have browsed through it, and collected items about grammar, pronunciation, word choice etc. This selection might be called ‘That wasn’t quite what I was expecting’. For 18 months I worked at a language institute (hagwon) with mainly adult students of moderate to advanced levels. Here are some memorable moments (some editing, but otherwise verbatim). I hope this doesn’t look like I’m laughing at them. Some of the students involved were some of my absolute favourites.

Warning: mild course language.

One class was discussing holidays. We started with Christmas, which was then close, then other public holidays, then other celebratory occasions. One occasion in Korea is Pepero Day. Pepero is a confection like an straight pretzel dipped in chocolate, and Lotte or its marketing agents have instituted 11 November as Pepero Day, on which people give other people packets of it, or a big one. I asked (pretending not to know) “What is bepero day?”. A student replied “Well, 11/11 looks like sticks, and so does bepero.” I said “What about giving pencils? They look like sticks.” The student said “Food is more useful than pencils.”

One class was practicing ways to make a request in varying degrees of politeness, ranging from “Please do this” to “I was wondering if you`d possibly mind doing this”. The point is that a polite request is more likely to get a favourable response than a demand. One exercise was for a student to make a demand, see what response they got from their classmate, then reword it into a request as appropriate. One conversation ran:
Student 1 (reading from the book, to student 2): Lend me some money for an espresso.
Student 2: No!
Me: Try rewording that.
Student 1 (ad lib, to student 2): Lend me some goddam money for an espresso!

One of my classes was focusing on animals. I`ll mention that dogs are (occasionally) on the menu in Korea. One of the questions was “what characteristics are associated with each of these animals” eg industrious ants, busy bees, wise owls. We got to dogs, and several people said “loyal”, “companions” before one stopped the class by saying “delicious”.

One of the class books has an exercise about expressions based on numbers eg “Two heads are better than one”, “Seventh heaven” (which does actually have an explanation) and “Cloud nine” (which doesn’t). One of the expressions was “four-letter word”. I was trying to explain the concept of a four-letter word without actually using any. (I don’t want to be responsible for that! Though they’ve probably seen enough Wetsern movies and tv to have encountered most of them.) I explained that the rudest words in English all have four letters. Some students nodded knowingly, but one said “Excuse me, what does “rude” mean?”. I also had to point out that the phrase “four letter words” does not extend to words like “love” and “beer”. I mentioned this to Jonathan, who said “Oh, I tell them the words -” then reeled off about ten of them in a row. I also mentioned it to a level 6 class and one rather forthright woman said “You mean words like ‘f*uck’?” (Now that you mention it, yes!)

We were talking about beauty and handsomeness, and I asked if men can be beautiful and women handsome, and whether men can (or do) judge other men`s handsomeness and women other women`s beauty. The consensus was, yes they can and do.
One female student said “Often when I`m watching soap dramas, I look at the actress and think `Does she give blow-job?`”
The rest of us: (stunned amazement)
Her: (horrified realisation) “Oh, no, no, no! I meant `Has she had nose-job?`” Then, very quietly, “I`ve been watching Sex and the City too much”.

One of the level 4 students said that his dream vacation would be to Andromeda. Assuming that I’d heard him correctly, I asked why. He said that a fortune teller had told him that he had previously lived there. i asked how he got to earth, and he said that he had “borrowed” a human body. All .. right … err, let’s stick to the planet earth, shall we?


The same student had been away recently, partly because of a business trip and partly because of an eye infection he`d developed. He said today “David, you look better blurred than in focus”. I`m trying to interpret that as a compliment!

Two unsolicited testimonials from students:
“Nowadays you`re much funnier” – level 5 student.
“You`re weird” – level 6 student.
(Said within an hour of each other on Thursday.)

My evening classes both went well. [We were playing ’20 questions] One student chose me as her “person”. She confused the others by describing me as, among other things, “old, tall, not bald, handsome and European”.

One class was talking about personal appearance. One student said her father was 170 kilometres tall. I hope not.

One of the classes chose “shopping” as their topic. One conversation ran:
Me: “What is the last thing you bought?”
Student: (pause) “Adult things … you know, when you’re in bed and …”
Me: (quickly) “What is the SECOND LAST thing you bought?”
Student: “An English textbook.”
Me: “Please tell us about the English textbook.

I then worked at a government high school for a year. The students were obviously more limited.

[One difference between the hagwon and the high school was that at the latter, I co-taught with Korean teachers of English, which ranged from genuine cooperation to them sitting at the back of the room while I taught.] One of my Korean colleagues found some quiz questions on various subjects. One was “birds”. The question and answer ran like:
Me: This bird`s name begins with “k”. It lives in New Zealand. It cannot fly …
Student (puts hand up): Sheep.

Last week and this week I have been teaching a lesson based around “My favourite (food/sport/friend/movie) is _”. Some of the answers have been interesting. Unfortunately most students can`t say *why* that`s their favourite: “What is your favourite country?” “Togo”. (Yeah, right.)

I’d showed them a clip of Titanic as an example of romance movies. Afterwards –
Me: What is the movie?
Student 1: Titanic!
Me: Who is the actor?
Student 2: Leonardo da Vinci!
Me: Ummm …

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