Monday, January 31, 2011

Annoying Things About Korea #8: There Remains Doubt Whether Native English Speakers Are Better Teachers

How is this even a question?
I found this on Facebook today and candidly, it is difficult to know where to begin.  Anyways, here is the question that I found:
The Independent Registry of Schools in Korea wants to know what you think about using Native Speakers to teach English in public schools. Does it help or hurt?
For simplicity's sake, let's just break this down to reading, writing, and speaking, and see what we conclude.

Reading:  There is little doubt that native Koreans are very good at reading in English.  Very good.  Many of the subjects that Koreans study, especially at the university level, are written in English. Engineers and medical students read texts written in English.  As a result, a native English speaker may not add a huge amount of value when compared to a Korean teacher that was educated abroad.

Writing:  There are many non-Korean, native English speakers who do not have perfect English skills.  For example, it is well known that American students are poor at writing.  However, a native English speaker will have far better writing skills than a native Korean who has studied for a few years as a student (유학생).  The reason for that is that many of the most basic difficulties for a native Korean speaker will not be corrected in just a few years.   Thte Seoul Gyopo Guide has posted frequently about how native Koreans should study English.  Specifically, there are specific forms of sentences that do not exist in Korean, but they do in English.  It is doubtful that non-native speakers will have full command of these types of sentences.  Even if a foreign teacher doesn't know precisely why a sentence is correct, he/she will be able to point out that it is wrong.  A native Korean teacher?  I doubt it.  I highly doubt it. If I re-posted every example of grammatical errors on blogs posted by English "experts" in Korea, I would overload any server, anywhere.   

Speaking:  The question as stated above is, mildly speaking, absurd.  Let's put it this way:  Would I be more likely to learn proper Korean pronunciation from a native Korean or an non-Korean Australian person that studied Korean at school, listened to 소녀시대 (SNSD) on the weekends, and came to Seoul for Yonsei University's language school during the summers?  웃긴 것 치지마 십시요.   For native-English speakers, this translates roughly to "Don't be funny." which in turn, in English would be similar to "Don't make me laugh."  It isn't even close, and really doesn't deserve discussion.  Really. 

Conclusions:  If Korea is unhappy with the English proficiency of its elementary-school students, then it needs to first focus on how Korean students study the language.  The Korean custom of memorize, memorize, memorize is very good in many respects, and can be very helpful in reading.  However, in writing and speaking, a native teacher is required.
The Seoul Gyopo Guide has pointed out the inadequacies of English teachers in Korea;  it is a shame that many of them are native Koreans, that Koreans that have studied abroad have tried to portray themselves as "fluent" when they are not, and that they themselves make simple grammatical errors.  If that is the case, how are they to teach others?  Even if it is the case that foreign teachers are far from perfect when teaching grammar and writing, there is no doubt that they will almost always be superior when teaching speaking.  When these types of questions are written by coalitions of official educational institutions in Korea, it is no wonder that the pace of overall improvement in English proficiency in Korea is progressing slower than expectations.  If it is an open question regarding the usefulness of foreign teachers due to some other reason, such as teacher dissatisfaction, school system budget difficulties, etc, then those are different issues.  If anything, there needs to be greater allocation of funds to teachers of young elementary school students, and leave the middle and high school English education up to the student and hagwons. 

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