It’s my birthday – woot! It’s also the ninth anniversary of starting work on my first stay here. If the owner/director or secretary of the hagwon saw my date of birth on my application or associated documents, they didn’t say or do anything. I didn’t tell anyone (I am ambivalent about birthdays at the best of times, and don’t like drawing attention to myself) until mid-evening, when I mentioned it to an American colleague, and we sat on the stairs drinking duty-free whiskey out of paper cups from the water machine and eating duty-free chocolates I’d bought on the plane.
This year, it’s the end of my first week of work. The timetable is scheduled so that most of the foreign teachers have no classes on Fridays. Officially, we are still ‘at work’, and are expected to do work-related things. I have a lot of administrative things to do, and am trying to plan next week’s lessons, the first from the textbooks. The problem with new classes and new textbooks is that I have no idea how long any activity will take. I can estimate, and I could be entirely wrong, one way or the other. Next week’s lessons are also going to be disrupted by a compulsory standardised test.
This week’s lessons were ‘getting to know you’. I have three classes, each of which has a two-hour lesson twice a week (Monday and Wednesday or Tuesday and Thursday). Monday and Tuesday’s lessons were very slow for various reasons (mainly unfamiliarity on both sides), but Wednesday and Thursday’s were better (much in one case, slightly in another and unfortunately disrupted for various reasons and in late afternoon heat with no airconditioning in the third). (Teachers are also assigned to a range of classes which are optional for the students, but highly recommended, such as 1-on-1 coaching, small groups or special topic classes, but they don’t start until next week. We are also required to keep a certain number of office hours at set times, so that students can come to see us, but I haven’t been assigned an office yet.)
A few language points remain in my mind. One student said ‘My brother is a soldier who in the army’. This is, of course, a perfectly communicative sentence; there is no doubt about what he means. The explanation and correction there is relatively straightforward. Another student wrote ‘I am a soldier who save my country from Japan and North Korea’. The correction is easy enough, but the explanation isn’t. Almost every sentence with ‘who’ can be broken down into two simpler sentences. After a few questions, I realised that his thought was ‘I am a soldier. I save my country …’. But in standard English, that’s not the thought; it’s ‘I am a soldier. A soldier saves his/her/my/our country …’. The student was probably referring to his compulsory military service, not to being an enlisted soldier, in which case he would be at the armed forces academy and not a standard university.
I have taken to writing across the top of the board ‘a/an/the, -s/-es/-ies, ’s/s’, at/in/on/to/of’, these being the most common mistakes which students were making. From next week I will add two more ‘-d/-ed/-ied, -ed/-ing’. But what is a ‘mistake’? Many languages function perfectly well without a copular verb (‘My brother is a soldier who in the army’) or verb inflections for person (‘I am a soldier who save my country’). Another student said ‘My brother go to karaoke’. Is there anyone who doesn’t understand that sentence simply because it is ‘wrong’ grammar? Teachers jump up and down about this sort of thing (well, I do), then understand perfectly anyway. (The student said that sentence in the context of present simple statements about what people do. If it had been in the context of past simple statements about what people did (last night, last weekend …), it would be more problematic.)
I have to encourage students to speak, and to speak confidently, but I have also have to guide them towards standard ESL English.