In Korea, a considerable amount of time and money is spent teaching students English. Relatedly, Soongsil University dedicates significant resources to recruit foreign professors to provide instruction in English across multiple disciplines such as design, physics, computer programming, and law. The university’s curriculum that engages English speaking professors has a
twofold purpose. On one hand it is meant to provide students with the opportunity to improve their English conversational skills,making them attractive to foreign companies employing local workers. On the other hand it is an opportunity for the students to expand the way that they learn through interactive activities. Professors are educators and as a group we seek to utilize innovative and creative means to stimulate thinking. Speaking solely for myself, the courses that I teach are designed to actively engage the students by requiring the students to submit papers as well as make oral presentations in English. The horror!
As a foreign professor, when I arrived I expected the students in my classes to actively contribute and engage in classroom discussions. To my surprise, when I asked students questions, I routinely heard, “I can’t speak English well.” This statement was always accompanied by a firm shaking of the head and a raised palm to emphasize the student’s inability to converse in
English. After spending nearly two years here in Seoul observing the culture, I learned what the student really meant—they were afraid to speak to me in English. The fear manifested itself for two reasons. First, the student did not want to embarrass other students by demonstrating either an ability or inability to converse in English. Second, the student was deathly afraid
of making a statement that was not perfect. Both of these fears are deeply entrenched in Korean culture and it is time to eradicate them once and for all.
Addressing the fear aspect, native English speakers do not expect Korean students to speak English flawlessly. The world is not going to end if you make a mistake in English. For example, I asked one of my Korean friends about the type of meat that a local restaurant served. The response I got was that the restaurant served, “meat cow”. My friend was trying to convey the message that
the restaurant served beef. I quickly surmised what she meant and now her incorrect use of the phrase is a source of friendly banter. In addition to being entertaining, the situation is instructive because it shows that in verbal communication one doesn’t have to be perfect with word choice, being close is good enough. At the end of the day, if speakers understand each other, then perfection is not necessary.
I was saddened to learn that there are a number of students who avoid taking my classes because they feel that their English is not good enough. That is an unfortunate situation because those students are not capitalizing on the university’s investment in their future. I can say without hesitation that the students who seize the opportunities to practice their English have seen their
performance level and comfort with English improve. Relatedly, it is the students who have capitalized on these opportunities that spent the shortest amount of time finding a job after graduation. The correlation is no accident. As my time here draws to a close, I challenge each and every Korean student at Soongsil to sign up for a foreign professor who teaches a course in English. Apply your outstanding work ethic to improving your conversational English. You’ll enjoy the rewards from the effort for a lifetime.