Sunday, April 22, 2007

Memo to English Teachers: English-Only Lessons are a BAD IDEA

Or, Why My Korean Should Be Better.*

That's right, this "Native Speaker" thinks that all English, all the time is a BAD IDEA. Allow me to offer a brief summary of all the things that Korean provides language learners and teachers in any given English lesson, in any given school in Korea.

At the Micro Level

Classroom Management
Teachers use Korean for dramatic or rhetorical effect. When it's used, students can't pretend that they don't understand a directive: Korean means that the teacher "means it." Korean is also used to show solidarity with students. It encourages students: it warms, it mitigates, it reduces inhibitions. Korean is used to discuss community happenings: teacher asides, gossip, references to current events, all are done in Korean, as its more "personal," with the sense that teacher and students are members of a community, and not only an institution.

Lesson Content
Where students and teachers possess competence in both languages, both should be used, as this facilitates learning. Switches to Korean are often unconscious, but have valuable pedagogical results. Korean is used to explain language points, and to provide repetitions, definitions, reformulations, clarifications, qualifications, and exemplifications. Korean provides the "crucial bits." Code-switching allows Korean and English to complement each other. Korean can be used to provide examples, anecdotes, and illustrations, so that teachers can delve into local knowledge to clarify lesson content, and fill the gaps between the classroom and the world outside it. The use of Korean allows greater detail, depth, and complexity, which is what any lesson is supposed to provide. The use of Korean taps forms of knowledge that students already possess.

Underlife Language
Korean is used in students' private exchanges, in order to explore lesson content in greater depth. Students use Korean to prompt correct answers, translate phrases and sentences, repeat the teacher's questions and directives, and clarify content. These uses have obvious pedagogical consequences. Should students really be punished for using Korean in these ways?? If, as I believe, students learn more (and more efficiently) from their peers than they can from their teachers, depriving them of the use of Korean will only inhibit learning.

Language socialization
Code-switching, either inter- or extra-sentential, develops students' competence in either language, and develops meta-linguistic and meta-cognitive competence. I'll try to provide examples from a classroom shortly. Further, the Ministry's proposal encourages the mislabeling of content or conceptual problems as language competency problems, and so leads to teachers' linguistic insecurity. Which, I imagine, pleases the Ministry.

At the Macro Level

The Monolingual Fallacy
The English-Only proposal supports the erroneous assumption that a learner's first language "interferes" with second language acquisition. This is known as the "monolingual fallacy." And while it was originally propagated by linguists who had little understanding of the bilingual experience, it is now, ironically, largely maintained by bilingual teachers, who really should acknowledge that a learner's first language assists language learning, in that it provides strategies that can facilitate communication, in situations where communication would otherwise be difficult or even impossible.

The Native Speaker Fallacy
The proposal also supports the "native speaker fallacy," where "Native Speakers" are seen automatically as the best teachers of English. This fallacy is clearly at work in Korea, as evidenced by the Ministry's determination to provide a "Native Speaker" in every middle school in the country.

US English, Please?
An English-only policy strengthens the dominance of "standard" dialects of English, and puts into question the validity of newer Englishes - tantamount, according to one author, to "linguistic genocide." Korean students are not attempting to mimic centre-based English speakers. Were a Korean to use an idiomatic expression like "out of left field" during a conversation with someone from New Delhi or Johannesburg, she would likely receive a look of confusion or pity from her interlocutor. After all, Korean students want to be functional in the communicative norms and purposes of English, but English as an "International Language" or as a "Lingua Franca," and NOT the English that is spoken among cottagers in Connecticut. I hope.

The policy will very likely lead to a greater reliance on materials developed in the centre, and thus inhibit the development of an endonormative Korean English, which is still in its infancy. The policy also serves to strengthen the dominance of centre professional circles of ELT.

Lessening Shock and Awe
The use of Korean reduces the degree of language stress and culture shock experienced by students, and therefore increases students' openness to learning English.

In short, a shared L1 is an invaluable resource for language teachers, and denying access to this resource will have serious pedagogical and political consequences. The government's plan, as with any plan that denies resources to teachers, must be resisted.

*Thank you, Suresh Canagarajah!