TBV goes back to school: Selected diary extracts


This post is intended both as a preview of some upcoming posts for the 2.4 people who are waiting for news of my recently finished Korean language class, and also a way of reviewing my notes from the whole experience in preparation for writing more detailed posts. During the course I was reasonably diligent about writing for 30 minutes a day about things that I noticed in class and how I thought I was progressing. The extracts below are from those writings, and might give you an idea of some of my raw reactions to the course. Apologies for any unpolished language, shouting and insensitivity that may occur.

Day one:

“It strikes me on the way in that language classes are MENTAL! You can forget as a teacher that gathering in a place to speak in another language is a fairly extraordinary thing to do, and learners often don’t have a clue how they are supposed to behave in this context. When I get to my classroom, there are two girls sat in the dark. I smile and issue a greeting in two languages, which gets little response. Silence and awkwardness descends, probably because nobody knows what language to speak. We are well outside our comfort zones before the teacher even enters the room.”

“One thing I note is that there is no effort at all to create a sense of a group, and no talking to each other initiated by the teacher, though thankfully at least four of us manage to get some chatting done in Korean and get to know each other a little. This to me is a big negative and maybe something that Korean teachers don’t consider so much in class?”
“Oh yeah. Paying 26,000 won more for a textbook when I’ve already paid 700,000 won for the course? Piss off.”
Day two:
“I feel like someone has tried to make Foie Gras by stuffing my brain so full of stuff that it explodes.”
“We quickly got sidetracked onto a discussion about whether nose shape was as important to Japanese people as Koreans (it isn’t). There wasn’t any feedback or sense that the teacher was listening. In fact, she went out of the room for a time.”
Day three:
“I’m feeling quite humble today. One thing you are maybe not aware of in class is quite the level of confusion amongst your students. Perhaps it doesn’t happen to you, but if it does are you wont to blame the students for not doing paying enough attention or not checking with you? I have been guilty of this in the past, but no more! This morning everyone turned up with different versions of what we were supposed to have done and we had to check with the teacher exactly what we were supposed to have done. We were almost all wrong too!”
“I’m finding myself becoming more and more of a fan of ICQs, just because they’d give us a chance to go over what was said one more time. Even asking “Do you understand?” would be a nice chance to say ‘no’.”
Day six:
“The teacher explains all of the vocabulary first, and then asks us to read aloud, filling in the blanks on the hoof. This is near impossible and really annoying, especially as I’m discovering that reading aloud focuses all of my energy on making the sounds rather than understanding the words and therefore is not helpful at all. I wonder if reading a phonetic and non- phonetic language aloud is a different cognitive process?”
“The whole segment is basically a disaster for me. The teacher assumes I will know words like 특징 (point of difference), which I don’t, and I spend the whole time struggling to stay afloat. I imagine the same is true for others, but the teacher never stops to find out. Once we’re through the reading, there are some comprehension questions that he asks and then answers straight away. At very few points are we left alone to read or think in peace.”
“Then again, I’m yet to experience a lesson structured around a clear target, at least one based on spoken output.”
Day seven:
“One thing that’s bothering me today is the sheer burden of the vocab learning on this course. Every day we are given 30 to 40 vocabulary words to learn, most of which are new (to me at least), and every day we are tested on them. The effort to get all of those into my memory is severely affecting the amount of work that I can put into other areas of language learning such as re-reading or pronuciation and it feels limiting. It’s bad enough having to get up at 6 am without having to study all of the way to school too.”
Day eight:
“We do some listening, and she breaks us into groups to discuss the answers. This is difficult because the people I worked with didn’t really say much. We fudge with the tapescript until the teacher tells us the answers. We then listen one more time with the teacher repeating. This is helpful in terms of making sense, but I would surely like to work a bit harder on the things that I didn’t know or didn’t hear.”
“There’s a horrible moment where as a personalization thing I have to create an example of the difference between Korean and English girls. I struggle for something inoffensive, fail and settle for a fat/ thin distinction. The girl opposite me sighs.”
Day nine:
“I would say that the big improvement has been in using Korean for the purposes of being a member of my class. I’m feeling noticeably more confident about speaking in public and using the respectful style and honorifics to other class members, even if I’m the oldest and these could generally be skipped. The confidence though could easily be ascribed to a getting used to new environs as to any meaningful language development.”
Day ten:
“I’ve found that I’m not very good at remembering to use stuff in general in class, unlike another girl who seems to be able to remember to jam things we’ve learned into conversations in class. Part of the reason is that a lot of the grammar we do is pointed out as more written and formal register, but this shouldn’t be an excuse. Still, some planning time would be great and I feel like I’m being denied the chance to create anything with language. I feel like a lot of the speaking that I do in class is not oriented towards language development, but more towards sharing ideas.”
 “I’m beginning to think of fossilization not so much in terms of errors, but in terms of ways of getting things done in the language, and I think that written input might be the best way to destabilize it.”
Day eleven:
“I think if I hear another unrelated anecdote I am likely to sink deep into a pit of incomprehensible despair. But at least I’m understanding, right?”
“In fact, I had got a bit lost towards the end of the first point, and it was the pause, not any structural knowledge that alerted me to the fact that something new was coming. And here’s the thing: do we really, really need to teach people to listen for pauses? Am I just such a go-getting, switched on language learner that I don’t have to be taught this stuff?”
“A final question is how much teachers of English and other relative majority languages should hold teachers of relatively minor languages to the same professional standards. I have almost effortless access to a raft of literature, blogs, conferences and colleagues from which and whom to learn.”
Reading those quotes back they actually paint a fairly accurate picture of my experience: really fascinating, yet not always for the right reasons. However, it did yield a fair amount of learning and confidence in my second language, and provided some really interesting insights into teaching and learning too. Writing this post has helped me develop a long list of things to blog about in longer form over the next few weeks, so stay tuned if you’re interested.

7 responses to “TBV goes back to school: Selected diary extracts

  1. This was cool to read.
    A lot of teachers have written about what it’s like being on “the other side of the desk,” but your narrative goes a step further and makes it something like “the other other side of the desk,” in which you, the language teacher, take a language course and reflect on your own teaching and learning.

    ” Every day we are given 30 to 40 vocabulary words to learn…”

    Too many! And to be tested on them every day? Like you said, getting up is difficult enough at times. I see the value in assessing this stuff and I know that to learn a langauge, words must be learned, but even so, how about phrases? I’m reminded of Korean students who get x amount of English words to memorize. They are unrelated most of the time. Words are important, but perhaps words in context are even better.

    I agree with you: For 700,000, why not include the textbook?

    Good point about reading aloud as well.

    • Hi Ben (right?). Thanks for the comment and the sympathy. It was a really enlightening experience though, if not always for the most positive of reasons. The vocab load was insane, and I’m still doing 100 spaced repetition flashcards a day to try and get it all in. To be fair, the words were all in the readings and listenings that we did, so they were useful and seen in context. And, after lots of spaced repetition, I am actually producing some of them too!

      Also with the textbook thing, it’s more the psychological thing. I’d have been quite happy to pay 725k as a lump, but to get there and have to shell out more (and in cash so I had to go find an atm) felt annoying.

  2. Thank you for the post. Very interesting. This shows how we teachers normally learn to teach or get the idea of teaching: by watching our teachers teach. The vocab part made me laugh out really loud. That’s probably what his/her teacher made her do and maybe she found it effective herself? I personally like memorizing vocabs. I don’t think I am good at it, but I simply enjoy it (don’t know why..). When I just started learning Chinese, the size of vocabulary was crucial to me and I wanted to know as many as possible. I think my Chinese textbook had about 20-30 vocabs for every unit and I memorized 20-30 new vocabs every day (it was an intense course). I personally didn’t complain and enough time was given for me to digest them. But I agree that learning them in a more interactive and meaningful way could be better. I wonder how many of the vocabs that I cram-learned are still with me. And the anecdote…. on my.. I hated them when they got off the topic for too long.

    • I had no idea you spoke Chinese too! I definitely see the value in vocabulary learning, and in memorization. I’d say I even enjoy it too; there’s a nice degree of satisfaction in whipping through my flashcards, but the load on this course was such that even with my spaced repetition limits set to 100 new words a day and 100 revisions, I still wasn’t able to keep up with it all. It just felt like I was missing out on a lot of stuff because of how swamped by vocab I was, but that’s partly my choice I suppose. I think cramming actually isn’t a bad way to get up to a certain level of understanding in a language, and it’s from there you can start to use them meaningfully. This actually worked on this course – if you did what was asked, you memorized the vocab the night before, encountered it in readings and listenings during the class, and then reviewed again for homework. In conclusion, vocab and memorization good, but not at the rate of 60 words a day!

  3. Pingback: TBVGBTS: A quick course overview | The Breathy Vowel

  4. Pingback: TBVGBTS: Teaching Grammar/Lexical Chunks | The Breathy Vowel

  5. Pingback: TBVGBTS: Listening in a second language class | The Breathy Vowel

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