Category Archives: Korean

TBVGBTS: Listening in a second language class

This is another post in a series of posts stemming from my experience taking a Korean class at a university in Seoul. Other posts about the class, which might help with the background, are linked at the bottom of this post. This time I want to share some of my experiences with listening to recorded materials (ie. coursebook listening materials, not teacher talk or other students) as part of a wider discussion of the role of listening materials in the classroom.

The first thing to say is that listening to recorded materials requires an awful lot of attention, especially if the book that they are drawn from is pitched at a higher level than the students can comfortably handle, as ours was. As a teacher and a student, I believe that listening is by the far most difficult skill involved in language learning, but I think that impression may well partly come from the way we deal with listening in the classroom. Note that I’m deliberately avoiding saying “teaching” here, because this course went a long way to confirming what I’ve suspected for a while: that “teaching” listening is more or less impossible, and my experience of listening to recorded materials on this course might have helped me to understand a bit better why this is so.

The problem is that, if Skehan’s limited attention hypothesis is to be believed, we have a limited amount of brain power to devote to whatever we are doing.  If this happens to be listening to L2 speech above a level that we can comfortably understand, more or less all of our attention is going to be directed at trying to make sense of it. By way of illustration, at times during listening activities I found it helpful to close my eyes and listen; blocking out visual signals seemingly freed up a bit more processing power for decoding audial ones.

So how do we help students to process difficult listenings? The textbook way seems to be to use “listening strategies” (take a look on this page and see if you can find out what even one of the oft referred to “listening strategies” is), or “metacognitive strategies”. The problem for me is that even metacognitive strategies demand cognitive resources, and these, as we’ve seen above, aren’t readily available during difficult listenings. “Then the listening’s clearly too difficult,” I hear you chirp. Well, yes, but if it was easier then we wouldn’t need all these strategies in the first place – we’d just understand it.

I’d also suggest that pre- and post-listening tasks surely are a function more of the contextless nature of listening on English courses rather than anything you’d actually need to do in the real world. “Ah! Here is a picture of a goat in my textbook. I hence predict that I may hear information pertaining to horn configuration, or an anecdote about one of the greedy buggers eating the sleeve of a favourite jumper.” (Goodness, I should write a listening textbook – it’d be amazing!). In the non-textbook world this kind of schema activation is pretty much unnecessary because all of the context is already provided: if you’re listening to something in the real world, you most likely know what it is and what you expect to hear anyway. It’s only when you completely decontextualise a listening, as well as removing all of the visual support that the real world would offer, that you have to spend minutes of valuable class time getting students to reconstruct it before they listen (for a textbook writer’s point of view on this, see @pterolaur’s post here).

All of this ridiculousness might stem from two sources. Firstly, the need for coursebooks to provide listenings as part of a “four skills approach” or a “balanced curriculum”, or whatever.  Fair enough, I suppose, though I’d suggest that in a decently communicative class students will get a lot more useful audial input from fellow students and the teacher, especially with activities like live listenings, which might also be more efficient due to less contextualization, as well as not being contrived to sledgehammer home some arbitrary language point. Secondly, I think teachers feel a certain pressure to “teach”. You have to be seen to be doing something more than just pressing play and saying “listen to this and see if you understand it”. This leads to the kind of teaching that I experienced on the Korean course: teachers getting us to listen for how many points are made in a listening, when it’s pretty obvious even from prosodic cues like pausing and intonation where one point stops and another begins. This is not what I need to know from a listening; I need to know what the content of those points is, and that is a far more difficult proposition. I think it’s also worth saying that listening pieces vary so much in their structures (compared to writing) that, outside of very specific examples, it’s not really worth teaching structure either.

So what do I need from teachers as a second language listener? I see a lot of advice about getting listeners to accept less than 100% understanding. This seems fine, but teachers have to accept that below a certain percentage of words understood (and this will be high number, I’d say at least 80 and more likely above 90), all but the most rudimentary of listening for gist or very specific information activities will be extremely difficult. Furthermore, understanding below this level would more or less rule out any of the input becoming uptake, not that I think that listenings really provide much in this area anyway due to real-time processing making it near impossible to focus much on form.

What might be useful is if teachers could train students to listen in a different way to the L2 than they do in an L1. I’m in the realm of hypothesizing here, but listening to recorded materials reminded me of a really  interesting listening activity from my MA studies. It featured a man talking about a journey (in English), but only at the end did it become clear that he was recounting a time that he was ripped off by a taxi driver. The purpose of the activity was to show how when we listen we automatically construct and update mental representations and hypotheses based on what we are hearing as well as past experience. However, when listening in an L2, this process is fragile and subject to breaking down because there’s not enough understandable input, or because the listener suddenly encounters a word or run of words that are not understood, and so the updating becomes impossible, and the mental representation stalls or breaks down. The disorientation caused by a run of unknown sounds should not be underestimated, and so helping students to reorient themselves after losing the thread of understanding could be an important strategy for learners. It doesn’t, however, seem eminently teachable.

More sensible teaching approaches link clearly to features of pronunciation (Rachael Roberts has a great example in the video in this post) and I could possibly see a role for the learning of common lexical chunks or discourse markers in this vein too. One time I remember my understanding in Korean breaking down was when someone talked about an “angular chin”, a phrase I’d just been taught but hadn’t really internalized the pronunciation of yet, and I discovered this in a second playing of listening at slower speed.

The teachers’ approach to listening on my course seemed to be to play the listening at full speed once, look at our puzzled expressions, and then play it again at reduced speed, sometimes while translating it into more simple Korean for us. My jury is still out on the effectiveness of this because even though I understand much more when the listening is slowed down, I feel like it’s still too ephemeral for any kind of concious learning, though I do wonder if it might be used to develop a kind of listening fluency. What I would have liked, but never got time for, was some time after the listening to read a tapescript, look at the parts that I didn’t understand, and try to figure out why I didn’t understand them. This would have at least led to greater satisfaction, but perhaps few generalizable gains.

It’s difficult for me to see past massive amounts of audial input as the principal development driver for listening skills, and therefore this has been a bit of a depressing post to write, because I want to actively help my students to listen better. There are some interesting suggestions in John Field’s presentation here, though as outlined above I’m not totally sold on the idea that basing teaching on L1 listening strategies is entirely helpful. One example might be listening for the stressed words in an utterance (nuclear stress). It strikes me that there’s a lot of information contained in weak forms: I clearly remember a listening from the course that featured a man and a woman discussing their personality traits. I got all of the traits, but missed most of the pronouns, so had no idea who had which trait. This was all in Korean, which I don’t believe has such clearly marked nuclear stress (though I may be wrong), but it struck me that a lot of the information that I needed would possibly hidden in unstressed syllables and weak forms in native English. One real positive of Field’s presentation however is the recognition that any listening strategies or processes that we teach need to be repeated to the point where they become automatic, for reasons of limited cognitive resources given above.

Listening to Korean during the course has changed the way I think about listening in my classes as a teacher. I didn’t use textbook listenings that much before, but I might well think about banishing them entirely from the room and relying on my own voice, the students’ voices and anyone else that I can rope in to provide input. I’m hoping it might be sufficiently contextualized by what we are doing in class to to skip pre-listening tasks. Post-listening tasks might involve summarizing or analyzing a tapescript, but really, would it be so wrong just to sit students down and ask them to listen?

Links to to other posts about this Korean course

TBVGBTS: Presentations for learning

I recently took a three week intensive Korean course at a university in Seoul. As part of the class, I had to make two presentations in Korean: a five minute presentation in which I introduced and described a Korean person I had met, and a fifteen minute presentation on some aspect of Korea that I had researched. Both presentations counted towards my overall speaking grade on the course. The English course that I teach each semester also asks students to make two assessed presentations of 3 and 5 minutes, so in this post I want to explore my own foreign language presenting experience and the insights into teaching that I gained from it.

What use are presentations?

The impression that I get from my students is that while they don’t look forward to or enjoy presentations, they do see them as a useful and valid task for assessing and improving their English. My view as a teacher is that presentation skills (in any language) are generally pretty important in life, but that as a language learning tool they may be of less use to my students, who I see as needing much more practice in the extemporaneous speaking department. As a student, I was less than thrilled to see them on the syllabus because a) I was terrified and b) presentations seem to require an inordinate amount of work on a course where the workload was already fairly high. However, I certainly gained several things from my presenting experience.

Firstly, one of the things that I don’t pay a great deal of attention to when teaching presentations is the need to use an appropriate register. Teaching time is short; English register is relatively elusive. In Korean, things are a little clearer: presentations are given using the highest deferential verb endings, and so it is much easier to move your your speech to a very formal register.  This was the one piece of advice we were given pre-presentation, and the presentation was the first time I have ever needed to use that register in a serious way, which was excellent practice.

For the longer presentation, I actually tried to give a proper research presentation, so I created a quick survey comparing Korean and non-Korean beliefs about non-Koreans’ lives in Korea and tried to analyse the results. This was a really useful experience because I could foresee a point in the future where I might have to do this for real. This might be something to think about for my own teaching, where the presentation tasks are much less “real-life” – although how I could make them more so remains a bit of a mystery at present. One reason for making things as realistic as possible is that I felt like I retained phrases like “qualitative analysis”, “objective viewpoint” and “on the other hand” fairly well without having to work very hard on memorizing them specifically.

Planning and preparing

It seems fairly well documented in research into TBLT that pre-task planning time often leads to gains in accuracy, complexity and fluency during the task. This is something that I generally try to leverage during classroom activities, though usually in the form of thinking rather than planning time. Both presentations during the course required me to write and submit a script for correction (no mean feat for a fifteen minute presentation!), and it struck me that this is essentially planning time for an oral task taken to the extreme.

Planning in this way has both advantages and disadvantages. Writing a script definitely increases the complexity of my sentences as well as giving me the chance to think about what “feels” more Korean, rather than just saying the first thing that comes to mind to get my point across. It also gave a useful space for experimenting with and incorporating some of the structures that we had come across that were more suitable for formal contexts. All good so far then, but all of the above then introduce the very real possibility of planning a speech that is much more complex than you’re really capable of memorising or delivering with any fluency. The other surprising aspect that struck me was that having written a script, there suddenly occurred a very pressing need to stick to the bloody thing! This generally doesn’t happen to me when presenting in English, where I’m quite happy to dive away from what I had prepared, but in Korean led to the creation of note cards so detailed that they may as well have been a script. I’m honestly not sure how this affected my overall presentation, but it leaves me pondering things for my own teaching.

I tend to go back and forward between recommending scripting and not scripting for my students. Half of me thinks that creating a presentation from speaking with just notes to guide to gives you a better chance of natural delivery and remembering what to say. On the other hand, I feel like writing a script might benefit clarity and complexity. In the future I’m tempted to outline both approaches and let students decide as to a large extent I think it’s going to depend on what makes you feel more confident as a presenter and what you want out of the presentation.

Affective factors

I referred to confidence (or lack of it) above, and this is just one of a whole range of affective factors involved in presenting. Of my first language presenting experiences, I’d say, to paraphrase a quote of dubious origin, that I prefer having presented to presenting, but in a second language the face-threatening pitfalls are more numerous: memory blanks, worrying about extemporizing and the lack of strategies to talk your way out of problems being the worst of these. Interestingly, the prospect of making grammatical mistakes is among the least of my worries. In other words, it’s the lack of control of potentially embarrassing situations that bothers me, rather than any linguistic deficiency.

Another interesting affective factor was the strange sense of security that using a more formal register of Korean gave me. I have two theories as to why this might be so. Firstly, it may be seeking the approval of the audience (well, the teacher at least): I know I am getting roughly the right register if I am adding the right verb endings, and at the very least I am seen to be making an effort to respect the sociocultural values of the classroom and the target language. Again, I have some control over how I present myself, which makes me feel better. The second theory is that formality breeds distance; we are more polite with strangers than we are with friends, and I wonder if it is the distancing aspect of using a formal register that helps me to feel kind of detached and professional. I certainly find myself channelling every suited and booted, clicker wielding speaker I’ve ever seen give a straight-laced and uptight speech in Korean when giving my presentation.

Again, it might be helpful at this point to try to bring this back to my classroom, and how I can help students feel more confident. Clearly, if I feel the pressure of register given my limited contact with Korean, my L1 Korean students are likely to feel it all the more. Incidentally, I have had students ask me on more than one occasion how to use the equivalent of Korean high speech in English. I tend to fudge an answer, but the simple thing to do here when teaching presentation skills might be to point out that English has no solidly defined higher register, and that presentations are often given in a much more colloquial style anyway. It could be worth looking at general tendencies such as pronouncing every word (“going to”, not “gonna”), and also key phrases with politeness embedded (“Please take a look at…”).

Nonetheless, from my presenting experience, the best way to tackle teaching register might simply be through a process of trial and error. My second presentation went way over time, and I had to run through the final few slides completely off script. This required the use of quite a few communication strategies to buy some thinking time and signal that I was summarizing, one of which was (over)using the Korean word 그냥 (Geunyang, “Just”). The feedback afterwards was that this was where I’d departed from the formal register. The lesson here perhaps is it’s very difficult to predict what elements of a complex performance might come off as in the wrong register until you see an actual performance. The key thing here is to make sure that the feedback comes as part of the process, not at the end. It really annoyed me that I used a lot of lower register connectors ((이)랑, Korean fans) rather than higher (와,과). I had no idea, and to my further frustration a classmate confessed that she had incorporated that feedback into her presentation directly after mine (“That’s my feedback! You can’t use it!”).

Conclusion

All in all my presenting experience was considerably less terrifying than I thought it would be. It helped that I was familiar with the audience and the surroundings, and that I got to present twice (the second time was much better). In terms of what I learned in terms of teaching, I would aim for more options of how to prepare (though reading should still be heavily penalized), as well as a good practice stage with useful feedback. I should also try to ease student concerns about register as well as teaching a few more stock phrases, and perhaps some strategies for what to do if it all goes wrong. Presenting in a second language is rarely going to be easy, but this way it could be a bit less stressful for everyone.

TBVGBTS: Teaching Grammar/Lexical Chunks

A word of warning: if you’re looking for clear and definite answers about whether we should teach discrete items of grammar and/or lexis in this post – or anywhere for that matter – I both fear for your sanity, and suspect you will be disappointed. However, if you’re interested in a few anecdotal experiences from the Korean class I took recently (see below for links to other posts), read on.

Let’s first be clear about what we’re discussing here. It’s been pointed out, quite rightly in my opinion, that the line between grammar (more often than not meaning verb morphology) and lexis (meaning words and phrases) is a thin and blurry one. The theory goes that when teaching polite offers, it is probably easier to define the underlined part “Would you like to go to dinner with me?” as a whole chunk of language, rather than breaking it down into a modal plus a main verb with infinitive complement (if those are even the right terms). However it is defined and taught though, this is what I want to discuss in this post: a pre-selected, discrete item  presented for learning by the teacher or the syllabus, the kind of which makes up the majority of general English courses. For the moment I’m going to leave aside single words and very short phrases – those are for a future post.

My Korean course seemed to be organised around topic and text; judging by the somewhat scattergun approach, discrete items seemed to be selected based on their appearance in the texts rather than any linguistic developmental theories. Items were presented in the book as a kind of gloss below the reading with a formula (interestingly using English word classes – something like “N을 통해” /”Through [noun]”) and a couple of example sentences in Korean, which I often found fairly unhelpful is ascertaining the function of the item.

If the items were selected on the basis of appearance in texts, there would seem to be one major disadvantage: items will tend to appear more in writing than speaking. In a general course this leads to a serious imbalance between written and spoken registers, and for a learner like me who is much more focused on speaking, there is an inevitable switching off when the teacher says “written grammar”, leading to a serious lack of will to try to use it, not to mention a similar lack of opportunity. However, I do notice one of my classmates trying to use this grammar in speech, and I presume she is doing it for practice purposes and not because she doesn’t realise, and I wonder how helpful this might be.

One thing that I found unhelpful with the presentation of grammar functions was when they were presented in terms of a simpler function. Female teacher was very fond of presenting items like this: “you can say this easily as [something that we already know]”. She’s trying to be helpful and connect us to existing knowledge, but at this point my brain says something like: “if I can say it easily like that, why should I bother to learn to say it in a more difficult way?” (Wait, I’m just a rubbish language learner, aren’t I?) Maybe not, because for me there needs to be a comparison between the simple form and the complex form and their subtle differences, but this is not forthcoming. I will refrain from being too critical of the teacher here though, as I can think of times where I have done similar, for example presenting three different ways of expressing the same function at the same time, without pointing out how they might be different or considering that learning one might be enough for that class.

The teaching of grammar and chunks on my course could best be described as PP (the P that’s missing is produce), but there’s not even much presentation going on. Female teacher (sorry to keep picking on you, but you were the worst offender here) vaguely directs our attention to the example sentences and expects us to guess from context, but I am frequently unaware of the fact that I was even supposed to be looking in the first place. Even if I was, two example sentences with no explanation is simply not enough to grasp the concept, especially when there may be unknown vocabulary in those sentences, and the sentences are essentially decontextualised anyway (with hindsight, I realise I could just have looked back at the text to see the sentence in context, but it didn’t occur to me at the time). The result of all this is that while I’m still trying to grasp the basic meaning of the sentence, the class has moved on to the controlled practice stage.

Practice is facilitated by the workbook. We are given parts of sentences, and sometimes have to complete a matching exercise to establish the semantics. Then the task is to write out the sentence including the language item we are practising. Except it isn’t, because every teacher asks us to speak our answers immediately. Now, I like to think I’m ok at grammatical manipulation, but when the presentation stage has left me with such a thin grasp of the concept, this seems rather unfair, and I wish for some time to sit down and figure out quietly just what is going on. A further grievance is that of the half-personalisation that forces you to start a sentence that you really don’t want to complete. To return to my previously published diary extract:

“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.”

Again, I can remember more than one occasion where I have asked students to do an exercise first orally, and I’m sure I’ve set similar half-personalisation exercises too. In future I’m at least going to consider the difficulty and newness of an item while deciding how best it might be practised, and also give students the opportunity to change or completely rewrite practice sentences.

It’s after the controlled practice stage that the teaching process ends. Just like that. This is partly because there are three or four short grammar points to cover from each unit, and so we rush on to the next one in order to fit them all in. On reflection, I don’t think the grammar was that important to the course designer; it’s only there to facilitate understanding of the texts. Ironically, I have often not even noticed the grammar/chunk when reading the text and have instead just skipped over it. This might explain some of my lack of interest in the grammar we are being taught – it doesn’t have enough semantic or functional weight to be worth learning. Here, I think, I’ve come to the point. There is very little recognition that the language that we are being taught could or will ever be used to do anything, nor that production of a feature is in any way important for understanding it or incorporating it into my Korean. This is partly the fault of the book, but some blame must also lie with the teachers. All the things that I might associate with this kind of language work –  goals, planning time, feedback, contextualized examples – are missing. In short, there is no teaching.

It is no surprise, then, that I can’t think of a single discrete item that we were taught on the course that has subsequently appeared in my spoken Korean. However, I have found myself using several features that I encountered in reading and listening texts; features that I was previously dimly aware of. Perhaps this tells us that language acquisition is a gradual process of becoming aware, noticing and finally using. Maybe the production stage of a PPP lesson and its various equivalents are superfluous. Still, I would like to have been given the opportunity to find out; I feel strangely cheated by not getting the chance to experience a single lesson with a grammar focus and clear output goals, even though I don’t believe that’s a particularly effective way of teaching.

I want to finish with a note on my teachers, who I have been fairly critical of in this post. All of them seemed to me to be to be friendly, patient, enthusiastic and wholehearted people with excellent content knowledge, and I was very happy to be taught by them. I am very much unaware of the forces in operation outside the classroom such as time or institutional pressure. I’m also aware that I see the classroom very much through Western eyes and there are all kinds of lurking prejudices that colour my perceptions. Thus, I hope you read this post in the spirit of honest enquiry, and I will leave you with some questions to ponder.

  • Is teaching like this enjoyable for the teacher? (How) do they think they are helping the students?
  • How representative is my classroom of other language teaching contexts in Korea? I am thinking in particular of English taught in schools.
  • I know that two of these teachers have MAs in foreign language teaching. I presume that they must have come across communicative approaches, PPP and the like? What stops this filtering into their practice?
  • Am I just being unnecessarily critical here?

Cheers,

Alex

Links to to other posts about this Korean course

TBV goes back to school: Why I’m taking a Korean course this winter

Hi.

This winter university vacation I have found myself with a lot of free time. Given that my pasty complexion means parking my corporation on a Balinese beach for the winter poses a serious health risk, I decided to instead take a busman’s holiday by doing a three week intensive Korean course at a university language center in Seoul. And further given that Michael Griffin put pressure on me to do so in front of the ENTIRE INTERNET, I will try to share some of my experiences and try to find some relevance to teaching and learning that might enhance my own practice.

I realise that I am not alone in this kind of endeavour, and in fact I am in some esteemed company: Scott Thornbury’s (De-) Fossilization Diaries rather set the bar for blog-based accounts of language learning, although I intend this to be less an overall picture of SLA and much more a few pieces focused on the experience of a teacher/learner on the other side of the desk  – a bit like Ken Wilson’s Diary of a Language Learner without the catty comments about my classmates’ dress sense.

My (Adult) Language Learning Background and Goals

Leaving aside my smattering of school French and German, I have learned two languages to some degree during my adult life. During a year working in Guatemala, I took free Spanish classes at my school in very small groups twice a week for about eight or nine months, and had a reasonable grasp of tense and aspect (we focused A LOT on verbs) but not much vocabulary and fairly little fluency due to limited chances to use it in real communicative situations. This bothers me as an English L1 speaker living abroad; you often find yourself working and living in English speaking environments, and inhabitants of your domiciled country tend to initiate conversations in English owing to their own desire to learn. In short, as an English teacher, you often have to swim down a long way to get truly immersed in the language, if you ever do.

While it could hardly be called immersion, life in Korea has afforded me some opportunities to use the language to do some things and be someone. After six months of not getting much past the language of restaurants and taxis, I joined the football club in my tiny mountain town. Suddenly, I had friends – albeit ones that I had very little shared language with. This provided the drive to put some time into self-studying Korean through the excellent and ever cheery Talk To Me in Korean, with weekly fried chicken and beer sessions in which my newly learned language could be experimented with. These were a lot of fun. The self-study, as I recall, was not. I tried to put whichever grammar point I’d learned into sentences that I could imagine saying, and did a lot of mechanical drilling using Anki, but it felt like a hard slog and the only way I could force myself to do it was to set myself a timer and sit studying for an hour, giving up as soon as the beeps sounded. Nevertheless, it gave me enough of a basis to start having real conversations with my football team-mates.

Now, on a hard-hitting language blog like this one there’s little room for mushiness or romanticism, but the second big influence on my Korean has been my girlfriend. We first met as a language exchange, which I think was influential in building a relationship in both languages. Since we became a couple about 30 months ago, I have done almost no formal study of Korean but again I’ve had the chance to practice conversation in a comfortable setting for at least 30 minutes each day. The result is that in general I am deemed to speak Korean reasonably well by people around me – both Korean and non-Korean. I would put this down to the fact that I have a good grasp of word class, basic syntax and grammar and can mark tense/aspect in a few different ways and can handle the basics of conditionals, embedded clauses and complex sentences. Additionally, I’d put my vocabulary somewhere just above the 3,000 or so word families suggested for everyday conversation* (Adolphs and Schmitt 2003), but the amount of practice I’ve had has given me a decent amount of (what I just read on Scott’s blog) is called “semiotic agility” by Thorne (2013). However, this agility seemingly is not effortless – as the owner of a guesthouse remarked recently: “you look so much more relaxed when you’re speaking English.” This is one problem that I have – things become cognitively tough when conversations begin to push the edges of my comfort zone.

So what do I want out of this course in language learning terms? I feel like the problems described above probably spring from a lack of vocabulary and lexical phrases that allow to succinctly express deeper concepts – I am some way below the 5-,000 word families required for 95% coverage of a reading texts* (Na and Nation 1985) and would like to work towards that. This brings me to the second problem: I generally don’t read anything longer than a text message and if I try, I get bored and often give up. Just being able to read some texts that are (hopefully) graded would be great in terms of giving me a boost in confidence and getting used to reading in Korean. The bulk of my audial input also comes from girlfriend-ese, which has adapted over the course of our relationship into a language that is 98% understandable to me, but when other people speak understanding becomes much harder. A greater exposure to other idiolects and accents would be very helpful. Finally, there are some grammatical things that I would like the chance to sit down and get a handle on. Things like the subtle difference between topic and subject markers, especially over stretches of discourse, and sentence endings (for example -거든) that I’m aware of in input, feel like I could use from time to time, but don’t really have the confidence that I’m really making meaning with them. One problem with learning almost entirely through speaking and listening is that the language just won’t stay still for long enough to really grab hold of the meaning. I’m looking forward to the chance to spend a bit more time with the workings of Korean, I hope with the result that mine also becomes a little more complex and subtle. If I can do these four things, I’ll be pretty happy.

* Note that both of these figures are for English – I have no idea if they apply to Korean.

What I hope to get out of this as a teacher

It strikes me that with my Korean learning, I’ve got a fairly long way without having to attend a class, and that most of the goals I just listed could be achieved at considerably less expense by buying a textbook (and probably a bleeping timer) and sitting down and studying. It also strikes me that in my adult language learning career, I have spent relatively little time in formal language classrooms, and none in situations like the one I teach in, where I meet up to 20 students three times a week for 100 minutes. Therefore the larger part of my decision to take the Korean course was teacher development.

The students that I get have studied English for about ten years before they get to be, often in and out of school, and so I get very few true beginners to work with. Mostly I’m dealing with lower intermediate or false beginners, and this is not a level at which much of my formal study took place, so looking at it from a students point of view should be illuminating, especially as while I tend to see big gains in fluency in my classes, I feel like I see much less uptake of discrete items that I teach (in terms of verb forms, lexical chunks or error corrections). This for me is one of the big reasons to take the course – to examine if this kind of learning is even helpful, and if so how I can help students to do it better. There is also, of course, a kind of general voyeuristic desire to get a look inside another teacher’s classroom, but specifically some things I will try to think about are:

  • How do materials help or hinder my learning? How does the teacher make best use of them? How do I try to use them as a learner?
  • What kind of practice opportunities are given in class? What kind of practice can I do out of class to help learning?
  • How is language presented by the teacher? Is this helpful?
  • If I prove to be a successful learner, what kind of habits, beliefs and attitudes do I take into class that help me to be successful? How can I encourage students to develop similar ones? Do the teachers try to get me to develop any meta-strategies?
  • How do I feel as a student? What kind of activities make me feel comfortable or uncomfortable? What kind of relationship does this have to my perception of their value for learning?
  • What features of language taught appear in my Korean? Do they stay there? Why?
  • How do the teacher and learner tackle pronunciation?

I hope to be able to report back on some or all of these over the course of the, err, course. If you’re interested in how all of this pans out, there’ll be a subscribe button around somewhere.

Cheers,

Alex

References

Adolphs, S. and Schmitt, N. 2003. Lexical coverage of spoken discourse.
Applied Linguistics 24: 425–38.

Na, L. and Nation, I.S.P. 1985. Factors affecting guessing vocabulary in context. RELC Journal 16, 1: 33-42.

Thorne, S.L. 2013. Plenary: Awareness, appropriacy and living language use in T. Pattison (ed.) IATEFL 2012: Glasgow Conference Selections, Canterbury: IATEFL.

 

Korean Class

Hyeon Bin (현빈) – That Guy (그남자) from the Secret Garden OST

Since starting my MA, my Korean studies have been a little neglected. Where I used to put in a good 6 hours of study a week, plus a lot of conversation. It’s now down to checking through my vocabulary flashcards on Anki each morning, and occasionally listening to a lesson at Talk to me in Korean or writing my journal on lang-8. Things are definitely not what they were though, and my level seems to be plateauing a bit. It’s frustrating, but understandable. I really don’t have much more time to allocate to anything.

Anyway, last semester a collective groan was uttered among the teachers in my county when it was announced that we were to receive Korean classes. We’ve had them before and they’re usually teacher centred, lacking structure and not suitable for people’s levels. They also cut into essential lesson planning time, which never goes down too well. Therefore it’s somewhat of a surprise that this semester’s class is both very enjoyable and really useful.

SCENE: Interior. Seven people sit around a table with drinks and snacks that they have bought. One holds a small whiteboard and pen, another is typing on a laptop computer. Two more are poring over a textbook. A conversation is taking place in English and Korean, with people dipping in and out as they are inclined. Sometimes Korean vocabulary or phrases are written on the board. Some people write them down, others don’t. Other times people are engaged in their own conversations, or writing notes for each other. At times the person with the whiteboard is unoccupied, as the rest are occupied on their own tasks.  At these times she takes a snack and waits for questions.

OK, so forgive the frustrated screenwriterish description, but that genuinely is how our class goes. There are seven of us present, and our levels range from not being able to speak, read or write anything (well, almost anything now) through low-beginner, low-elementary and low-intermediate. There’s also our teacher, who while a native speaker, doesn’t have much Korean teaching experience. All this meant that at the beginning of the first class, we sat down and worked out how we could make the best use of our time (these classes are mandatory). Once we’d put down the education office’s suggestion that we could learn Korean songs to perform, we decided to dispense with the notion of a traditional class entirely, and simply dedicate the hour and a half to working on our own Korean goals.

In general the class works pretty well. We always start with a quick discussion of what we did over the weekend, and take some vocabulary and phrases from that. Then people drift into their own projects, in my case translating the song at the head of this post into English, for other students learning the alphabet (surprisingly easy in Korean) or reading simple words, or asking questions which occurred over the week to the teacher. We also have some little routines to help each other out. For example, I often put other people’s questions to the teacher in Korean for speaking practice, or students helping out with English explanations if the teacher is struggling. The overriding theme of the class is a group of individuals working as a community, and helping each other to meet disparate goals. Just the opportunity to focus on Korean that is relevant to each person for 90 minutes a week is really helpful.

The effect of the class has been noticeable. One student has taught himself to read over a couple of weeks, and everyone’s speaking and level of expression is increasing bit by bit. What is really noticeable though, is how keen people are in class, and how much more people are putting in outside class now. It just goes to show that autonomy in the classroom leads to autonomy outside it (in this case at least). Really, this class is out of the ELT textbook, devolved, autonomous and learner-centred. Just my luck that it’s one in which I’m a student, and not one of my taught classes. Hmph.

Thoughts?

Alex