A (Brief) Tale of Two Answers

Vaguely School/Exam related (awesome) song

It’s exam week here, and I’ve had a couple of days off. Sadly, I’ve had to fill them completely with MA studies, as I had got a bit behind owing to making exams and, far more excitingly, presenting at the KOTESOL International Conference with the #KELTChat team. I wish I had more time to write about this, but I’m not sure that I do.

Anyway, I’ve already finished my grading my exams, but in doing so came across a couple of slightly problematic and troubling answers. I thought I’d share them with the class, and I’d be interested to hear what anybody else thinks about this, particularly if you’d have acted differently.

Both the answers were to the same question, a writing question on my level 1 exam which asked students to describe themselves, using certain words as prompts. Two of these words were ‘skin’ and ‘body’.

The first problematic answer came to the ‘skin’ prompt, in which one answer was “I have yellow skin”. This raises certain difficulties for the marker. Clearly if I uttered this, it could (would?) be taken as a fairly racist epithet, but what of a Asian student with limited linguistic resources? Is this an appropriate self-description? Is it influenced by Western racist language? Could it cause offence to other people if used in public by the student (about himself or others)?

In the end I marked it as wrong, as we had discussed skin colour in class, and how it may well be a sensitive issue for both Koreans (generally pale skin is seen as the ideal here) and other races. I had suggested using darker or lighter as slightly softer terms for describing people’s skin. Given that the exam was designed to test what we had talked about in class, I felt I was justified in marking this as wrong, but what would you have done?

My other troubling answer followed the ‘body’ prompt. The only girl in the class described herself as ‘heavyset’. This is a girl who, while fairly short, cannot possibly weigh more than 50kg. She’s certainly not anywhere near fat, or even remotely unhealthy looking. Again, the beauty ideal here tends towards the very slim, and she obviously considers herself bigger than that. I would strongly question her use of ‘heavyset’ though. However, given that this issue didn’t arise in class, I didn’t feel right taxing her a mark for it. If I get a chance to talk to her about the exam though, I would really like to mention it to her quietly. Again, would you have done the same?

Thanks for reading and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.




4 responses to “A (Brief) Tale of Two Answers

  1. That’s a great question, I would love to know what everyone thinks. I’ve had the ‘yellow’ one a few times from Chinese, Korean and Japanese students. I got the feeling – although don’t know for sure – that this may be something that they say, comfortably, in their own language/culture. I asked them about it and they said something along the lines of “there is black, white and yellow, how else are you supposed to say it??” And I did kind of struggle, suggesting things like “olive” and “golden” as more positive alternatives – but knowing that’s not quite right! Anyway, in English it does have racist connotations. And I also feel it is kind of an old-fashioned expression too, in the same box with something like “chinaman”. I feel a bit uncertain about marking students as ‘wrong’ for using this word – it is inappropriate, at least to a native English speaker, but it is possible…the error is due to lack of awareness of the connotation and maybe an L1/L2 cultural difference?
    Another reason to perhaps be generous is that the exam kind of invites this problem by requiring people to comment of skin and body (weight) – 2 things that most Br/US/Aus native speakers have learned are best not mentioned most of the time! Of course awareness of these sociocultural issues is important too, so if you felt like you addressed the issue fully in class, it may be ok to grade on this.
    To me it’s not unrelated to your approach with the ‘heavyset’ comment – which I agree with you on. I suppose you have to think about what you are marking the learners for. If it is understanding the meaning, spelling it correctly and using it in a syntactically appropriate way, well – there you go. You can’t penalise anyone for false modesty, low self-esteem or poor body image, but you can and should raise their awareness of issues, potential problems and connotations…Anyway, interesting question and looking forward to more answers!!

    • Hey Sophia,

      Thanks for taking the time to leave such a great comment!

      With the benefit of hindsight I probably wouldn’t set this question again, but I do think that personalization is particularly important. Virtually every activity that I do in class has a personal element to it, so I think this should also extend to exams. The key to this activity was the students describing themselves accurately and approriately. As I said, given that the yellow skin issue came up in class, I didn’t feel too bad about marking that answer down.

      The flipside of this, as you say, is Korean culture, and any language teaching treads the line between the target language culture and the students’. Korean are much more up front about talking about bodies, so it felt ok putting it on the exam – I’m just concerned about this girl’s body image.

      I’m glad you brought up the case of your Asian students. I was interested, so I asked my girlfriend about Korean people describing themselves as “yellow”. She said that as a people Koreans sometimes describe themselves as “황인종”, (hwang-in-jong) which would translate as the yellow/golden people. This has no negative connotations in Korean (fairly obviously as they are referring to themselves!). However, she did also say that nobody would actually talk about an individual having “yellow” skin – the terms “dark” and “light” are used instead. This doesn’t actually change my view of the (in)validity of the answer, but does provide some interesting background at least.

      Anyway, thanks again, and good luck with the last few bits of your MA! 🙂


  2. Tough questions. I probably would not have marked either as wrong. Personal identity is difficult to express in L2 (its even difficult and touchy in L1), especially with limited ability. I would have a difficult time marking anyone wrong on questions that dealt with how they choose to identify themselves.

    But, I also don’t know the full context of the class and what you said you covered in relation to the test question. I still would hesitate to put a right or wrong answer on how a student describes him/herself.

  3. Hey Gordon.

    Long time no hear. How are your studies going?

    You’re absolutely right that people should have a right to choose how to identify themselves. However, it’s also in their interests to convey that identity using language that reflects how they wish to portray themselves. A lot of the reason that I marked the skin color answer wrong was that we talked about the problems with using “yellow” in English. We didn’t talk so much about “heavyset” (though I suspect the student in question is still not conveying exactly what she wants to) and therefore I viewed it as personal choice and marked it OK.

    Another reason was simply that “heavyset” was part of the vocabulary for the unit, whereas “yellow” was not (“light” and “dark” were). To my distaste, at the end of the day I have to examine something, hence the line drawing here.

    Anyway, thanks a lot for your comment. It really helped me to think a lot more about this issue, and how I might approach it if it reappears in the future.



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