Monday, September 10, 2007

Should Americans accommodate people who don't speak English?


1. US speech communities.

- 82% English native language

- 176 indigenous languages (Navajo, Samoan, Eskimo)

- total 337 languages (ex. 1 million Tagalog speakers)

2. Spanish

- 18 million native speakers in US

- ½ of these can't speak English well

- some native to Puerto Rico, New Mexico, etc

- most immigrants (legal & illegal)

3. English re. other languages

- most indigenous languages have official status somewhere (Navajo)

- historic communities (Pennsylvania Dutch, Cajuns, Puerto Rico)

- otherwise, controversial

- Should English be the official national language?

- Should gov't accommodate citizens who don't speak English?

- residents/ visitors?

- what accommodation is acceptable, what's unreasonable?

Discussion questions:

1. Do you have spouses, children or relatives living with you who don't speak English? What's their experience here like?

2. Should the US government provide free ESL classes?

3. Should public schools offer bilingual education? (bilingual education—children learn school subjects in their native language while also learning English)

4. Should legal immigrants have more language accommodation than illegal immigrants?

5. Should parents have the right to an interpreter when they meet with their children's teachers?

6. Should US citizens who don't speak English be able to vote in their native language?

7. Should every non-English language be treated equally? Do some deserve special status?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Teaching Grammar

This semester I'm teaching grammar over in the English Language Institute. It's causing me to reassess my methodology and understanding of teaching ESL.

There's a great danger of having a cavalier attitude towards one's work. "I know how to do this" is a foolish and dangerous attitude. I need to keep coming back to, "How should I try this? What resources should I investigate? How do I discover the results of this method? How do I discover what the students need?"

With grammar especially there's a wide gap between what a person knows, passively, about the language, and how a person uses the language. I've been teaching over in Academic Spoken English for so long that I regard English grammar as something superfluous-- "ah, it's what they teach you over in ESL courses, it's not my business here." But now I am "over in ESL courses," and it is my business.

I'm not yet accustomed to thinking of English grammar as a program. The particulars of the grammar-- and where and how they differ from the grammars of my students' languages-- feel like a jumble of miscellania. Thankfully, I don't have to design a curriculum from scratch. But it's feeling as though I do.

If I can get a global picture of the English grammar as an ESL student experiences it, perhaps I'll have a better understanding of where in that picture my students are. And I'll be better able to guide them, step by step, towards where they should be next.

This is also my first time teaching a class that has grades; where each student's progress needs to be consistently enumerated. Not easy stuff, compared to the pass/ fail paradigm I'm accustomed to. At any point in the semester, it's my responsibility to have a clear idea of how well a student can handle this or that grammatical form. I've never been trained in assessment nor do I have experience in assessment. This is a challenge and I'm not sure how to face it.

Right now, I feel like I'm groping along blindly. The students tell me the course is too "easy." They want a tougher textbook. In their spontaneous speech I'm not hearing the grammatical forms that they say are "easy." But, understanding of rules is not the same as acquisition. One of my students suggested (not in these words) that my goal is not their acquisition of forms-- that's the Speaking & Listening teacher's responsibility. My goal, he argued, is for them to have a passive understanding of the forms. And these forms they already understand.

In addition to-- and prior to-- writing up lesson plans, I need to reflect on where my students are, where I want them, and how to guide them to that place. Daily lesson plans should be a minor part of my global understanding of the course.

But right now, just getting the plans done on time-- I feel like I'm gasping for air just to keep on top of that.

Friday, April 27, 2007


Languages handle quoted speech in different ways.

Spoken English quotes indirectly:
(1) Alice said that she was sleepy.
(2) Alice said she was sleepy.

It's understood here that what Alice actually said was, "I'm sleepy." But in Standard Spoken English, we use the indirect quotative almost exclusively.

Standard Written English indicates direct quotation not through grammar but through punctuation:
(3) Alice said, "I'm sleepy."
(4) "I'm sleepy," said Alice.

Notice that if (3) were spoken, it would be indistinguishable from

(5) Alice said I'm sleepy.

which means that the speaker, not Alice, is sleepy. And (4) is not found in natural spoken English-- when spoken, it's usually in a formal situation such as reading or reciting written text aloud.

In spoken English we can also indicate quotation through body language; notably the use of "air quotes"

(6) Alice said [air quotes] I'm sleepy.

This sentence means that Alice is sleepy.

Other languages use direct quotation in spoken language quite easily. Notably in Aymara the direct quotative is obligatory and indirect quotation entirely absent:

(7) Iki.w purit siwa.
sleep.personal knowledge arrived she said.
' "I'm sleepy," she said.'

siwa (from the verb sana 'to say') is obligatory in any context where you're discussing what somebody else has said. In fact, in Aymara you wouldn't even say "she has a headache" but rather, "I have a headache, she said." This sounds odd and forced in English but in Aymara it is quite standard.

Standard Spoken English lacks a direct quotative. But many nonstandard forms of spoken English have at least two quotative verbs:

to be like
to go

(8) Alice was like, I'm sleepy.
(9) Alice is like, I'm sleepy.
(10) Alice goes, I'm sleepy.

In all three of these sentences, it is Alice not the speaker who is sleepy. Oddly, while to be like can be conjugated past or present (but retains a past meaning either way), to go can normally be conjugated only in the present.

(11) *Alice went, I'm sleepy.

doesn't sound right to most native speakers. However, many native speakers do accept a past conjugation if the quoted response is one of surprise or disbelief:

(12) Alice was like, I'm sleepy. And Mary went, no way.

There's a third English direct quotative accepted by some native speakers:

to be all

(13) Alice was all, I'm sleepy.

Native speakers generally agree that to be all indicates doubt or suspicion on the part of the speaker. In sentence 13, the speaker probably thinks that Alice is pretending to be sleepy in order to get out of responsibility:

(14) So it's Alice's turn to help out, but she's all, I'm sleepy.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Ethiopian Idol as an acquisition aid

Being a language student has helped me tremendously as I reflect on what I'm learning about language instruction.

Today in Amharic class we spent two hours watching Ethiopian Idol. It's pretty easy to recognize when an instructor is too busy to devote much time to a real lesson plan-- nevertheless, the exercise was quite helpful. A show like Ethiopian Idol, as opposed to say an interview or news broadcast, has value because most interactions are brief and are highly contextualized. The frequent closeups of singers' faces also aid students in observing how the mouth forms Amharic sounds.

I understood less than ten percent of the content of the language that we watched. Nevertheless the amount of meaningful input was high-- recognizing grammar (conjugations, etc) as it naturally occurs, and observing the use of discourse markers. More experience with the language in a naturalistic context will help me when I'm trying to produce Amharic-- I have a better sense of pragmatic norms and discourse norms, and a bit more of a grammatical instinct. It's hard to remember to produce grammar that doesn't have a strong influence on one's native language. Watching Ethiopian Idol makes the task easier.

I think it's an awful TV show, though.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Getting a job in Korea

I've had several folks ask me about my time in Korea as they're considering a job. Each time, I spend a good long time writing an essay about the ins & outs of getting a good Korea-teaching job. Figure I might as well turn that into a formal essay and stick in up on the web. This essay will have three parts: Teaching in Korea, My Time in Korea, and Looking for a Job.

Teaching in Korea

Koreans want their children to learn English. More specifically, they want their children to earn high scores on English proficiency tests. Most specifically, they want their children to be in a class taught by a white person.

Yes, white. I'll talk more about racism later.

Korea is chock-full of hagwons-- private, individually-run "academies" where parents send their children to after-school classes. There are hagwons for every subject imaginable: taekwondo, piano, computers, math, Chinese orthography and-- of course-- English. Some hagwons focus specifically on English; others (as mine did) offer classes in a range of subjects including English. There are hagwons targeted specifically for adults, for high-school or middle-schoolers and, most popularly, for elementary age children.

If you get a job teaching English in Korea, unless you have some kind of TEFL certification, I can pretty much guarantee it'll be at a hagwon. When Koreans speaking English use the word "academy," incidentally, they mean hagwon.

Some hagwons are great, others are shady. There's very little government regulation, so you're on your own in making sure you get a job at a reputable place. There are ways to do this, as I'll discuss later.

My Time in Korea

I enjoyed my time in Korea quite a bit and would definitely recommend it. I paid off more than $5,000 in student loans and put a few thousand dollars aside in savings-- and this without even being conscientious about saving money. My salary for the year was roughly $18,000 (two million won) but that's with free housing and meals provided at work. I could easily have saved a lot more if I'd been frugal.

It was not a very difficult or challenging job-- very little time outside class was devoted to planning lessons, so I had quite a bit of free time to explore the country and enjoy myself. They don't expect you to know much about teaching, they just expect you to know English.

I was several months out of college; had been hoping for a job in Japan and nothing was coming through (mostly because I didn't know what avenues to take). In July, a friend suggested that I extend my job search to Korea. I figured, hey why not, checked out the postings on Dave's ESL Cafe and sent my resume to a handful of recruiters.

Within 24 hours a recruiter called and offered me a job. I was thrilled, signed the contract and faxed it, and was in Korea within a week.

In retrospect, I should have been a lot more cautious, but I got lucky and landed a job that I enjoyed immensely. I was in Suwon, just south of Seoul, and my apartment was quite literally across the street from a big old mountain perfect for hiking. Also short bus distance from a 19th century walled city that is simply spectacular. It took about half an hour to get to Seoul on the express bus, and so I would go up there on weekends to hang out. I loved living close to but not in Seoul.

I taught at a small, brand-new hagwon for elementary school students. The boss spoke no English, but the manager's English was quite good. They had never worked with an American before and were generally as clueless about me as I was about them, but they were very conscientious & caring and things worked out pretty well.

However, the contract wasn't followed to the letter. For one, it specified that I'd have my own one-bedroom apartment. Instead, I had a room in a two-bedroom apartment which I shared with my manager. His family lived in another city so he'd go see them on the weekends, and he was such a workaholic that I actually didn't see him all that often. The situation worked out pretty well, and I can't say I'm unhappy that I didn't get my own 1BR, but still-- it wasn't according to the contract.

Also, the contract promised health insurance. Every time I asked my boss about it (via the manager), my manager said that the boss was working on it. It eventually became apparent that they never intended to insure me; didn't understand why it was important. In retrospect, this is unacceptable and I should have kept demanding. However, whenever I was ill they took me to the doctor, paid for my appointments and for my medicines, and took good care of me. I'm confident that they would have taken responsibility for whatever health problems I did have... nevertheless, the contract stipulated that I would be insured and I wasn't actually insured. I wouldn't do this again.

The job was quite easy-- disappointingly easy, to be honest. It became quickly apparent that my main purpose was to attract students by attracting their parents. Knowing that their kids would be taught, in part, by an American made the parents more ready to send their kids to our school. I was given no training, very little structure, and basically a free hand to do whatever on earth I wanted to during classes. This was frustrating but also fun-- I got to develop my own curriculum and experiment however I saw fit. Some of my friends taught in much more structured programs where they had an exact curriculum to stick to; others had a similar lack of structure.

Interested as I am in second language acquisition I would have liked to have been in a program that was more structured and expected more of me. But I really can't complain about the job-- the kids were so so so so so much FUN!-- and the work was easy.

I'll say again, the kids were GREAT. I love working with elementary-age children, and it was such a blast to interact with them and such a thrill when I observed them making connections, figuring out how to use English in innovative ways, and generally have fun communicating in English. That alone made it worthwhile. Korean schoolchildren are notoriously overworked-- school all day and then after-school classes until the evening; THEN they've got homework both for school and for after-school classes-- so I tried to make classtime a chance for them to relax a little bit... but relax in English.

The contract offered me 10 days' vacation to be taken at my leisure; it turned out that there was no back-up for what to do with my classes while I was on vacation... the boss tried to make me take my vacation all in a chunk at the very end of my job-- in other words, just finish my job two weeks early. But I DID fight with that one, and ended up taking the vacation in little chunks-- basically take off a Monday to turn a weekend into a long weekend so that I could travel; that sort of thing. That gave me the chance to explore Korea quite a bit... a beautiful country, as I'm sure you recall.

Finding a Job

I'll tell you a bit about how to go about finding a job, but first there are a few caveats.

First, as I've mentioned, is racism. A lot of Koreans assume that all "real" Americans are white, and it'll be harder for non-white American to find a job than it was for me to do so. Of course the more reputable schools are aware that skin color has nothing to do with language ability, so your race will mostly eliminate jobs that would've been sketchy anyhow. It will also make your life in Korea a *little* more difficult than mine was-- there's a lot of migrant labor from India and Bangladesh and they sometimes get treated badly. If you can keep a thick skin I don't think the racism you encounter will make your life unpleasant-- and it'll do a lot of Koreans good to have that direct realization that a person can be American without being white. But be aware.

Second, the hagwon (private English-language school) business in Korea is almost totally unregulated. There are great jobs out there and there are sketchy jobs out there. There are ways, though, to ensure that you're being hired by an honest employer.

First, there's a lot of demand for English teachers. You can afford to be picky, and you can afford to turn down half-a-dozen offers before accepting the one that feels right.

Second, a lot of applications will ask for a photograph. This is fairly standard and shouldn't surprise you. If a hagwon doesn't ask for a photograph, you can be pretty certain it's on the up&up and that it's hiring on the basis of competence rather than appearance. But if they do ask for a photograph, don't be surprised, and don't assume that it's automatically a shady job.

Third, see the contract before making a commitment. Read the contract carefully, and make notes. Look specifically at
- kind of housing provided
- work week
- salary, or paid by the hour?
- overtime compensation
- required overtime?
- what are the hours? how far in advance will you be notified of scheduling? (usually, hagwons operate on a monthly basis and the schedule changes somewhat each month)
- how is the health insurance set up?
- vacation? Is it set or flexible?

Fourth, talk to another employee on the telephone before making a commitment. I took a risk and took a job at a hagwon that had never hired a foreigner before-- I was lucky, it was a great job. But in retrospect I would never again take a job without talking to another foreign employee there first.

Questions you want to ask:
1) Are you calling from work? Is anybody else listening to this conversation?
Believe it or not, a lot of employers will monitor an employee's conversation with an applicant. From an American perspective Koreans seem just generally nosy, so this doesn't automatically mean that the boss is being sketchy. It simply might never have occurred to him that you'd want to speak about the job in private. If the employee tells you that the conversation is being monitored, then take their phone number and ask when would be a good time to call them at home. You'll have to spend a few dollars on the phone card, but it's worth it.

2) How closely does your employer stick to the contract?
Contracts are still a new idea in Korean culture. They draw up contracts when hiring foreigners because they know we won't take a job without a contract. But many employers don't understand the contract as anything very important, and instead operate on a more traditional Korean patronage system-- the boss tells you what to do, you do what the boss says, and in turn the boss takes very good care of you. This isn't actually all that bad when you have a considerate boss. But it's very different from what we expect and frankly any company hiring Americans needs to stick exactly to the contract and needs to understand that this is the way you have to deal with Americans.

3) Go through the points of the contract and ask specifically-- "Did your contract say you'd be provided with a one-bedroom apartment?" "Were you provided with a one-bedroom apartment?" "Describe the apartment." "Is your vacation flexible as it says in the contract, or were you told when you could & couldn't take your vacation?" "Do you actually have health insurance?" and so on and so forth.

4) And finally, of course, ask if they like the job.

I hope this doesn't sound too paranoid-- as I've said, I had a wonderful time and most of my friends in Korea did as well. There are lots of great jobs out there, but I've heard a few horror stories as well. These are things you can do to ensure that you'll get one of the many good jobs.

I found my job through Dave's ESL Cafe <>, specifically the postings on the Korean Job Board <>. This is the most widely-used Korean job posting that I know of. If you use it-- and it's as good a place to start as any-- just browse through the job ads that have been put up in the past several weeks and email your resume/ application to any that look like they might be interesting. Then when you start hearing back from them (and you WILL!) you can start discerning which sound the most promising.

I can pretty much guarantee that you'll be hired by a professional recruiter. Most hagwons in Korea are operated independently and the owner won't necessarily know any English-- he's just the guy who started up the company and hired the teachers. So the owners go through recruiting companies that do all the legwork of recruiting Americans to teach. Most of those job postings you see at Dave's ESL Cafe are posted by recruiters on behalf of individual hagwons.

So, if you want, you can go directly to the recruiter! I'd start with <>. I don't have any personal experience with them, but am very very impressed by the mission statement and overall outlook-- they're staffed by folks who used to be ESL teachers in Korea and they do a LOT of work to make sure that they're only representing reputable employers. Regardless, you should take a look at their FAQ section-- they'll give a lot of details on what life as an ESL teacher in Korea is actually like.

As you apply you'll have to discern 1) whether you'd rather be in Seoul or not in Seoul; and 2) if not in Seoul, whether you'd rather be urban or rural. You'll find that work in Seoul is higher-paying but that life is more expensive (even with free lodging). Seoul (and big cities like Busan) has a lot of Western amenities-- the fast food, the shopping malls, and so on. In rural areas you'll be paid less but the cost of living, eating, going out & so on will be much lower. You'll also have to find Korean ways to entertain yourself, as the Western amenities will be more sparse.

Seoul has a number of megachurches that offer English-language services and even small groups. Busan probably has a few, too. I have one friend who lived several hours out of Seoul but took the bus in every single weekend just to go to church. Korea is absolutely jampacked with churches and if you're willing to join a local Korean-language church (which I did and HIGHLY recommend) you'll have tons and tons and tons to choose from, and there's no better way to learn a language than to *worship* in that language. I was a member of St. Paul's Orthodox Church in Incheon, and it was the one place where I could be the only white person and not feel like an outsider.

You'll find it challenging to learn Korean, though-- Koreans generally don't expect foreigners to study their language, and any attempt on your part will be met either by bafflement ("why did you say 'hello' in Korean?") or by over-the-top affirmation ("you said 'hello' in Korean! you're amazing! you can speak the language like a native! good job! hurrah!"). If you're in a big city and willing to spend the time and the money there are a few Korean-language courses you might enroll in. But if you're conscientious about it (and it helps to find another English-speaking friend who also wants to learn), there are plenty of opportunities to study & practice the language; you'll find it incredibly rewarding.

I hope you can gather that I loved working in Korea and really want others to have the same fantastic experience. Do be careful as you discern but don't be daunted. It's a great gig.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

learner feedback

Among other things this semester I'm studying second language acquisition, and I'm attempting to acquire a second language-- Amharic.

It's fascinating to look at my own acquisition of Amharic in light of the theory we've been reading. In particular I'm taken by the interactionist approach.

Basically, the interactionist hypothesis states that interaction promotes language acquisition (duh!) for two reasons:

1) it increases opportunities for learners to receive comprehensible input. If you say something incomprehensible, I'll ask you to clarify and eventually you'll say something I can comprehend, thus facilitating my language acquisition.

2) it increases opportunities for learners to produce modified output. If I say something, and you don't understand it, I'll try again until I say something that makes sense. Then, as you correct my grammar, I'll keep revising my utterances. What's actually happening is that I'm forming hypotheses about how to produce language and then testing my hypotheses on you. Your reaction helps me to reject my false hypotheses and revise them-- eventually (hopefully) I'll hit on a hypothesis that produces grammatical language, and your reaction will confirm my hypothesis.

Of course, interaction isn't the only way learners acquire language, but it's among the most effective. It's one thing to memorize vocabulary and paradigms and quite another to practice using them in communicative language.

The thing with interaction is that you can't do it alone. And it takes a lot of scaffolding. For example, if the teacher asks you a question, you pay attention to every word he says, because you can manipulate those words in your response.

But what's happening, is the instructor's giving a lot of the instruction in English. So I'm not repeatedly exposed to the Amharic forms that I'm then expected to manipulate. It's as simple as this-- if he says, in Amharic, "tell me about your day," then I've got the Amharic word for "day" fresh in my mind and can start talking. But if he says it in English, then I've got to rack my brain "bother, what's the word for 'day' again?"

Yes, I should know the word for "day" by now (it's qen), but it's one thing to have a passive understanding of language and quite another thing to be able to spontaneously produce language. Spontaneous production is an end goal, but a pretty long-term goal-- think of how much easier it is to have a conversation in your native language than to give a speech in your native language. It's just naturally hard for us to produce language outside of an interactive setting. Because language was made for interaction.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007


This semester I'm working with, among others, a Chinese graduate student J who's teaching first-year French.

I was dubious when I heard about it... a Chinese girl teaching French? Are the students going to take her seriously?

Yesterday I did my first classroom observation and was blown away. J's command of French is spectacular, and she has her students drooling at her feet. It helps that she's a pretty Asian woman-- that's got ninety percent of the men eating out of her hand right there, but she's also just a really good teacher. The lecture was highly interactive, and when students didn't know the material she guided them towards figuring it out; and would reward them with an absolutely heart-melting smile.

The class was also very well-organized. She used PowerPoint and promised to make the lecture notes available online-- always a way to score big points with students. More importantly, she made good and efficient use of the slides. They weren't just there for show; they really did operate as the blackboard might operate in my classroom.

Another impressive thing J did was to acknowledge her limitations in English. For example, "How would you say sociable in English? 'Sociable,' or 'outgoing'?" and the students eagerly gave her feedback. It was a smart move for her to concede her students' expertise in the English language, while reinforcing her own proficiency in French. They trust J's French absolutely, as do I. I'm heavily biased against the language, but J speaks it with such authentic authority that from her it sounds almost lovely.