Ken May

The madness to the methods

The often crazy world of teaching in Korea

…And so, for the past decade, Korean hagwons continued to multiply. Corporate cells split into new franchises, and family schools spontaneously generated from the fertile remains of rice paddies. In just seven weeks, since my return to Korea, I have witnessed the construction of three new schools in my area, one of them is boldly located directly next door from my own hagwon. On a single five minute walk around my private school I counted 15 educational institutes. This detail should be surprising when you realize the remote location where I live. Despite being sequestered on the furthest border of the Kumi frontier, nearly fifteen miles away from the closest foreign teacher, I am still surrounded by hagwon mania. These private schools are everywhere. Due to all this severe competition, schools habitually search for new angles to draw in students. At times the teaching methods advocated are only passing fads and cheap gimmicks. However, these miracle methodologies are important components of Korea’s ESL industry. Everybody wants a painless short cut to learning English. The Holy Grail of the ESL industry is finding that easy methodology.

Many English teachers experiment with a variety of methods to see whatever works. They scatter magical beans into a classroom hoping to sprout that beanstalk towards fluent English. Students sign up for courses that promise a miracle methodology that builds perfect English in only four weeks. Late night television advertisements beckon audiences with vows to install impeccable RP English dialects with a series of cassette tapes – just play them while you sleep and let subconscious learning powers kick in. The problem is that language takes a lot of time and energy to learn. There isn’t an instant formula which you can just add water and consume when necessary. It is easy to get discouraged when English fluency doesn’t automatically pour in after forking over tuition money. The learning process can be long and expensive.

There is the English language full of grammar and rules; there is also the language underneath the syntax being taught. Teachers, directors, students, and parents want to quantify and measure immediate results, but language can be an abstract communicative tool – full of cultural subtleties, double entendres, insider jargon, absurd idioms, and tonal subtext. How do we, then, know that our pedagogic techniques are having impact? Since language development can be ambiguous, and testing procedures equally problematic, many miracle methods have been advanced as alternative solutions. After all, why not save money by going for the quick fix? Just buy this product and allow English to sprout to life as easily as a Sea Monkey® or Ghia Pet®.

Some methods promoted recently in Korea are wild and unusual. Others seem to be based on more sound reasoning. Some are slightly outdated methodologies that have been around for decades. Many classrooms toss them all together in one big academic blender. Sip from this volatile cocktail and gain linguistic enlightenment, or just end up broke with your head spinning from the elixir once again. I make no claims or promises about the reliability of each methodology. I only want to document some of the pedagogic patterns and classroom experiments happening in Korea. Are these methods effective? I’ll let the readers decide for themselves. However, it would be wise to explore the trends happening in Korea’s ESL industry. Many of the methods used in Korea today will be adopted by other Asian countries tomorrow. Perhaps it is time to put these Korean methodologies under the microscope:

Grammar Translation – This is perhaps one of the world’s oldest methodologies. Students memorize grammar rules, verb structures, and vocabulary words. They laboriously translate words, phrases, and literary text from one language into another. Grammar translation was most useful while Korea was still in its Hermit Kingdom stage, having minimal interaction with outsiders. English was used almost exclusively in the form of writing and reading. Speaking English was a rare opportunity. This method tended to be highly structured around the teacher. In the old days, Korean Yangban scholars emphasized grammar translations while whacking novices with sticks for making mistakes. The bruised and humbled students seldom asked questions in class or debated personal theories about language acquisition.

The problem is that this method is still most widely used in modern times. The strict discipline and funny yangban hats have gone wayside, but Korean teachers still employ grammar translations without fail. Korean teachers often lack proper speaking and writing skills, so they turn to former methods that they can understand. They resort to the grammar translation methods because that was the technique used on them as students. Translations can be easily graded since the predicted response is either right of wrong. The Korean education system is very test focused. Progress is measured by filling in bubbles on an multiple choice exam. A high school student’s future is determined by whatever score is coughed out of the machine. A factory worker’s chance of promotion can be measured by the mathematical outcome of a TOEIC exam. Therefore, language development emphasizes a quantitative number rather than the actual capacity to speak English.

I have witnessed first hand the limits of grammar translation methodology. Many of the highest ranking high school students, crumble in shyness when asked the simplest questions. They have a large dormant vocabulary that they can seldom trigger quick enough to form a conversational sentence. Moreover, creative thought and persuasive essay writing are seldom encouraged. Opinions and philosophies are too subjective. They don’t fit into a simple grading process. I have had adult students beg me to tell them the correct answer for an opinion paper, so that they would know how to write the essay. As Korea adapts to the global community, it has become evident that English needs to be used to have any real purpose. What good is all this language practice if it can’t be applied to daily life? By the time students hit university level they begin to desperately search for new means of practicing English. For many the next step is the audio-linguistic method.

Audio-Linguistic Method – This method’s roots are in the behavioral psychologists movement of the 1940s. The student repeats phrases and sounds until they have been memorized, and the learner acquires the ability to reproduce them instinctively. In other words, they tediously repeat language patterns until they become an ingrained habit. Context and writing are downplayed to emphasize rote verbal drilling. One of the most popular behavioral psychologists, B.F. Skinner, used a combination of electroshock and positive reinforcements to induce mice to scamper through a maze. I am not sure if any English learners have been strapped up to a car battery, and electrocuted for improper use of third person singular, but we live in a sick world so it might have been possible. It should probably not shock anyone (no pun intended, well actually a little) that the United States proudly stood behind this approach to language acquisition. In the height of World War II and the following Cold War soldiers needed to be trained pronto in speech mimicry. The army promoted ceaseless drilling, memorization of dialogues, and formulaic pronunciation. It was natural that these methods were also incorporated by post-war Korea.

Fast forward to the early 1990s. The private language schools, known as hagwons, had just been legalized once again after being banned from 1981 to 1989 by military dictator Chun Doo-hwan. Korea was still rapidly industrializing, while competing with its ancient nemesis, Japan, and English started becoming a highly marketable job skill. The Korean government had even made English a requirement at elementary school level. The rigid teacher-centered classroom persisted, but rather than straight up translation students now worked on listening and pronunciation skills. Since there was a serious lack of “foreign” English speakers, Korean teachers substituted cassette tapes or attempted to produced “foreign” phonics in class by themselves. The audio-linguistic approach was a popular method at this time, but the lack of western English teachers was having its toll. Tapes machines are easier to procure then low paid foreign teachers. Therefore, students continued listening to English recorded on cassette tapes and mimicked phrases verbally. In the meantime, the government and recruiting agencies struggled to bring in foreign teachers. A plethora of new English teachers would soon arrive from the west.

A large and significant number of adult students still prefer the audiolingual method today. They listen to English cassettes on their way to work. They religiously view popular television programs on which English is produced, chanting out loud to whatever phrase is being broadcast. Many adult students print out list of phrases found online, which they wish to replicate in the classroom. They insist on reading them to me out loud to see if I can understand, or have me enunciate these phrases so they can repeat them afterward. This has some effect on learning, but these adult students seldom grasp the context behind these phrases. The don’t understand the appropriate timing to use them, nor can they comprehend the meaning if one word in a memorized dialogue has been substituted. If they studied “How are you doing?” that week, then they might get lost later with the alternative phrase, “How are you feeling”. The meaning is no longer understood outside of the memorized verbatim. Audio-linguistic remains a common strategy towards English dialogue. However, there is a ghost inherited in this machine.
From the beginning, Korean teachers were the ones in charge of flipping cassette players on and off. They drilled students endlessly from books and forced them to memorize entire sentences. The problem was that few of these Korean teachers could pronounce English correctly themselves. Students mimicked the very mistakes in verb tenses, pronouns, article, and countable nouns that the teachers made. Korean learners of English simply replicated the linguistic quirks of their Korean teachers. This hybrid of flawed English evolved over time into what is known as “Konglish”. Many Koreans now commonly embrace “Konglish” as a source of national pride. It is considered cool or cute to use this inaccurate “homegrown” English, despite the fact that native speakers are oblivious to what is being said. “Konglish” has become so commonplace that even foreign English teachers catch themselves using it by mistake in the classroom.

There is an enormous catalogue or “English” words or styles of pronunciation only spoken by Koreans. Western visitors will be surprised to hear that a gas station is called an “oil bank”, a rear end is called a “hip”, and a mobile phone is called a “hand phone”. Pizza is pronounced as “Pi-ja”, change is called “chanj-ee”, and apartment is articulated as “apat-eu” (epenthesis included). Air conditioners and remote controls have been dubbed “air con” and “remote con”. If you split a dinner tab with Korean friends it is called “Dutch pay”. If this isn’t confusing enough, a menu will offer tasty mistranslated entrees such as “chicken stuffed with spinach and crap [sic]” or “grope fish with paper sase [sic]”. “Konglish” and bad translation combine to form the most atrocious English. Advertisements often promote meaningless English slogans. School supply companies use awkward English to encourage product sales. Children’s pencil cases, notebooks, and T-shirts are notoriously decorated with flowery speeches in mutated English. Today, I gathered the following examples in just a few minutes of a single class:

“Please say ‘love’ to me instead of ‘happy’. I am happy to be with you”.
“Deep ocean mind. Always reserved seat. Only to one constant concerns.”
“Take it & ... smile dreaming in your mind. Sweet happy sensual jeans.”
“Anytime. Anywhere. Don’t forget a feeling the you wanna be ate.”
“Fresh fruits just dream that is in my heart.”
“International Basic R. Juciey World.”
“About me break your heart.”

This Frank-n-English can’t be blamed by the audio-linguistic approach alone. It has evolved from randomly splicing together disembodied limbs of syntax. It has mutated after filtering dusty cassette tapes through rattling speakers. It has grown from 2-3 generations of Korean teachers who were trying to comprehend English themselves, even while they were teaching it. English runs amok and mistakes are duplicated when Korean teachers are exclusively in charge of the drills and pronunciation exercises. Drills can’t work if students are unable to make lexical substitutes, dialogue memorization has little impact if the necessary communication is in written form, and pronunciation corrections in “Konglish” will not improve matters much either. This methodology is weakened by a foreign English speaker’s absence. The native speakers offers the context behind speech. On the other hand, how effective is it, really, when that same native English speaker also narrows activity down to repetitious drills, memorization exercises, and formulaic speech dialogues? The audio-linguistic approach has its limits. It was for this reason that Korean Congress changed its education policies in the mid-1990s to allow additional hiring of foreign teachers. As a new wave of native speakers saturated Korea’s ESL industry, they brought new methodologies with them. The biggest trend in the west an this time was Community Language Teaching.

Community Language Teaching – CLT methodology has its roots in the liberal 1970s. There was a paradigm shift in education to allow student-centered learning. Efforts were made to help students overcome their fears in the classroom, and to make their learning environment more comfortable. Students had a larger role in determining topics, they were given greater participation opportunities, and strict discipline was frowned upon. English teachers experimented with new classroom activities: warmers, coolers, games, role plays, drama, physical activity, free-talking, pair work, and one-on-one dialogue. Even the shape of the classroom and its seating arrangements shifted around. Teachers sometimes sat at eye level with students or placed tables in a circle. The teacher often took on the role of a facilitator, who got the ball rolling and let the students carry the bulk of classroom time. The teacher guided students and pointed them in the right direction, but it was from the position of support rather than authority.
By the late 1990s Korea had already filled with a large number of native English speakers. As they flowed into Korea they brought the influential methods practiced in the west. These English teachers were often educated in the Community Language learning environment as youths. It was natural for these recent college graduates to apply the same techniques abroad. It must have seemed very strange for Koreans to watch foreigners rearrange chairs, encourage students to move around physically, and to ask questions about personal affairs. From what I have seen many Korean teachers are reluctant to diverge from traditional methodology. They still like to stand in front of the class lecturing all day in the local tongue. I have witnessed an astonishing number of English classes, taught by Koreans, in which not a single English word was spoken. The classroom style still tends to be hierarchically rigid and highly structured around teachers needs. Locals might attempt mixing in some CLT activities; but tedious translations, monotonous audio tapes, and routine memorization are still the norm. Korean teaching methods are slowly changing, but not necessarily in the direction of western styles. There has always been a level of distrust about foreign methodologies, and doubt persists about how well they can be applied within Asian cultures.

The goal is for learners to acquire English as quickly as possible, and the presence of native speakers hasn’t proved a fast enough remedy. The novelty of foreign teachers has worn off, and competition is so tight that Korean hagwons need something more than a native speakers to allure new students into enrolling. After nearly one decade of watching foreign English teachers – many with no experience or teaching certificates – there seems to be some rebellion against western ways. Koreans are not convinced that methods such as CLT work with their own citizens. They have amused themselves watching westerners stumble around the classroom trying to make students practice English. They have seen young and inexperienced teachers fall apart in frustration, and their methods crumble to dust under the weight of energetic 12-year-olds. Koreans have also grown apprehensive about Community Language Teaching. In response, they are trying to invent there own “homegrown” methodologies. Each hagwon seems to advertise some new fad or gimmick. Since Korea’s economy is founded on industrialization, it isn’t surprising that many private schools favor the use of technology in the classroom.

Technological Approach I (Screen English) – This technological approach goes back at least to the 1920s, when radio and film were brought into classrooms as learning tools. Even the use of cassette tapes and overhead projectors (mentioned above) can be summed up as technological methodology. It makes sense. Whenever a new communicative tool is developed, like a computer or a television, some innovative teacher will find a creative ways to put it to use. If students are already fascinated by that technology then they will be more likely to pay attention to the English activity involving it. Korea is a major developer of electronic goods. They produce CD players, LCD monitors, video machines, computer microchips, and other electronic goods. Naturally, all these resources could be brought together in the educational environment. The hottest trend catching on at this moment is “Screen English”.
Screen English involves a combination of movies and books. Children are provided comic book versions of popular stories: Three Little Pigs, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin’s Magic Lamp, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty. Half of the book contains words scripted in English, the second half has the same pictures but with empty bubbles. The students fill in the captions in both their native tongue and the target language. Basically, this technique is a combination of translation, memorization, and practice writing. However, it has a twist. Students are invited to view a movie of that selected book 1-2 times per week. The movie comes in the VCD/DVD medium, so teachers can pause the movie to repeat specific sequences. They can also highlight text with a computer mouse and click on links to hear official pronunciation. My hagwon also requires students to memorize this dialogue, so that they can act it out later in a classroom performance. Screen English approaches learning with a four pronged attack: speaking, listening, reading, and writing.

The students love Screen English. It is like watching a Saturday morning cartoon, but they can get away with it because it is educational. Sometimes they load up on snacks and soft drinks as if it was a celebration. Children fight for the best seats closest to the screen. It is a special event that few of them miss. They wouldn’t hesitate to view these films in marathon sessions because it reminds them of television, but instead of commercial breaks they are diverted by a lecturing teacher. Screen English recognizes that children’s attention spans have been dwarfed by massive viewing of television and computer games. It attempts to present education in a more entertaining way – as some people cynically refer to as “edutainment”.

I am not allowed to conduct Screen English in my classrooms. This methodology is reserved exclusively for Korean teachers. It is considered wasteful to squander native English speaker’s time on recorded video techniques. We have been hired to produce proper speaking skills in a live environment. Therefore, Screen English is the methodological baby of Korean teachers alone. My role in Screen English is as the final audience, who ultimately grades children’s performances. The grand finale of Screen English is when they perform the material with a public presentation. The have done this as sing-a-longs, skits, and staged productions. I watch them playfully act out their parts or read from scripts. Basically, I clap and give them encouragement.

I must admit Screen English has my curiosity. The children learn by having fun, but I am still somewhat skeptical. In many ways this technique is a lot like the audio-linguistic method on steroids. It still involves the same drilling and memorization, but with remote controlled video mixed in. I wasn’t thrilled to see Screen English’s advertising campaign, which uses the faulty slogan, “Enjoy sea of English Curriculum Natural method [sic]”. What exactly is the ECN method? The book’s are attributed to the Seattle based English Research Institute, but neither my friends or I have heard of them despite Seattle being our mutual hometown. Their claim is that they teach by sound recognition rather than alphabetic memorization. They also promise the bonus that this method prepares students for future TOEIC, TOEFL, and PELT exams. Korean parents must love the idea that Screen English will help improve exam scores – which seems like the ultimate goal of Korean education. However, as an English teacher I wonder if English Curriculum Natural method is not just another gimmick. At times it appears like old methods repackaged with new technology. Still, there is no denying that children love Screen English. Maybe the fact that they are entertained will make them open their minds to advanced learning.

It is hard for me to know how effective Screen English is, because I am not allowed to experiment with it at my hagwon. Many hagwons heavily promote Screen English as a recruitment tool, but I don’t know a single native speaker who has done it first hand. It is always the Korean teacher who holds that remote control. They are the ones who conduct these classes and manage the methodology. For native English speakers, an entirely different technology is reserved for us: the telephone.

Technological Approach II (Telephone Teaching) – Every week thousands of native English teachers across Korea sit down in front of telephones dialing from lists of numbers. No, this action is not telemarketing or boiler room side projects. Telephone teaching is basically English practice via telephone. This technological method has really taken off in Korea, and it is now standard practice at most hagwons. Telephone teaching is a non-official requirement. It is not listed in contacts, nor is it considered actual classroom work. Teachers don’t usually get paid to do it. This extracurricular work is usually considered a freebie (in true hagwon tradition). Parents pay a specified amount of tuition for a number of classes, and as a special reward native English teachers will call students at home 1-2 times per week. It has been compared to the special prize in a McDonald’s happy meal box – something added to the educational package non-gratis. However, parents have come to expect it and demand telephone practice sessions every week.

The way it works is that teachers call students at home for conversation, hopefully within ear shot of their eavesdropping parents. The teacher spends the next 3-5 minutes with the student, either having conversation or going over homework together. Telephone Teaching borders on a publicity campaign. When parents hear that their child is actually speaking English to a westerner they are more likely to keep that student enrolled. It is live evidence that there money is being put to good use. Unfortunately, most native English teachers hate telephone teaching. They begrudgingly plug through the sessions because they are forced to. The fact that it is usually non-paid labor is not forgotten by foreigners, who resent extras that are not numerated in advance in the work contract. Many English teachers feel foolish talking with parents who are unable to comprehend their requests to speak with students. However, an overall complaint is poor scheduling. Teachers have to fit phone calls in between classes rather than prepare material for the following lesson. Students are often absent or playing outside, so teachers must call multiple times trying to track them down. By the time, all the students have been called the non-gratis work has really added up in hours. Teachers put in as many as ten extra hours every month.

Contrary to popular opinion, I advocate phone teaching. I have had a lot of success with it. It is my one chance to really connect with students one-on-one. In the classroom students can be very wild and disinterested in English. However, place them on a telephone in front of their parents and it is amazing how well they behave. It is almost schizophrenic how polite and sweet they are in this context. I can take advantage of this mood to really get them to practice English with me. I grade their phone teaching sessions and put their results in a data base. I can actually track how they develop over time. My positive bias towards phone teaching has much to do with the fact that I get paid to do it most of the time. The hours can add up, however, so that I sometimes do freebies, too. Every week I spend 2-3 hours on the telephone with students. I usually have them practice that week’s material or read from the Let’s Go series. Some hagwons split the task up among teachers or rotate shifts, but I am the only native speaker at my school. Phone teaching is all my responsibility. Luckily, I have been able design the schedule myself to make it worthwhile, but sometimes I am still expected to call a stray student as late as 9:00 PM. I can be frustrating to have to postpone a night out just to dial up a student who missed the schedule appointment. Now, I have a three call limit. If the student misses the phone teaching session after three tries than it is their loss. They will have to wait until the next week for a new round of phone teaching.

There is a lot of potential for the use of technology in the classroom. There could be a lot more experimentation with film, phones, and the Internet. Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) seems to be a hot catch phrase these days in terms of methodology. I have experimented with this medium by creating teacher/student specific e-mail accounts and setting up on-line bulletin boards for informal discussion. It can be more time consuming than anyone imagines, especially when students start taking advantage of the new resource with multiple posts. On-line activity takes a great deal of maintenance and Koreans school owners are not willing to invest in it. Few hagwons even offer computers at school, so teachers would have to pay out of their own pocket for time at an Internet café. The general attitude at Korean private language schools is that this is all freebie labor. They want you to do it without pay. Work only counts in the currency of classroom hours. Therefore, most teacher wouldn’t bother with it.

The technological approach could be successful in Korea, but only if owners are willing to pay for it and share resources with western teachers. Teachers can’t be expected to call students from their living room or e-mail pupils from their personal computers. Korean owners have to invest in infrastructure such as computer labs or at least compensate teachers for their time. Likewise, technological methods such Screen English should not be segregated. There still tends to be an us/them mentality in terms of technology: film and tapes are only for us, but we will give them telephones. Native English speakers are needed to convey context and proper pronunciation. This was the problem with audio-linguistic method in the first place. However, when it comes to technological methodology Koreans still want to exclusively possess the remote control (or, should I say remote con). Underneath it all is the desire to create a methodology by Koreans for Koreans – something tailor made to fit their own cultural style. They want to control the learning process. In the last few years this goal has taken more extreme forms. The hottest “homegrown” methodology in Korea these days involves the creation of entire English cities – albeit one genetically modified inside a Korean science lab.

Natural Approach (English Village) – The Natural Approach was introduced by Gottleib Henese and Dr. L. Sauveur around 1866. The general premise is that meaning (of words and phrases) can be created by associating them with objects and actions. Students can learn the target language by the use of props, pantomime, and paraphrase. Teaching is done by active demonstrations, which includes the use of realia (real objects) that students can recognize and identify with. The emphasis is placed on learning the purpose of a word/phrase before articulating the sounds needed to communicate it. Error correction tends to be indirect because learners are expected to understand the importance of meaning. They have to know how a word or phrase can be applied first. In true Korean fashion, this method has been taken to its maximum limit with the creation of English villages. They have become the magical Disneyland in the world of English.

English Villages are artificial environments that simulate a typical western city. There are reproductions of banks, post offices, restaurants, hotel reception desks, travel agencies, and airport customs counters. Children are submerged in this environment – for up to several weeks at a time – to understand the purpose behind the English language. They can practice English or learn how certain phrases can be applied to real life situations. Children are issued a “passport” to this global village, then they go through the process of immigration. Once inside they can tour artificial banks and visit quasi-post offices. They can practice mailing letters, withdrawing money, making hotel reservations, or ordering food in English. Native English speakers do not work in classrooms or deliver lectures. Teachers are instead hired as actors who portray the roles as bankers, police officers, and immigration officials. English Village cuts much deeply than an English camp, it is full immersion into a synthetic city in which real life situation are role played and English is spoken.

There is more than one English Villages in Korea. The first was developed in 2004 on Daebu Island, near the Incheon Airport. It was established by the local governor, and is overseen by the English Cultural Foundation. The Korean government observed that a substantial amount of money was leaving the country for study abroad, so they sought ways to retain that money at home. A few enterprising government officials also predicted tourism potential in an English Village (and tour groups are actually arriving on package deals from Japan, Taiwan, and China). Korean hagwons are big business, so government officials and wealthy entrepreneurs wanted to tap into the market of education. They were willing to invest millions of tax dollars in the creation of these educational Disneylands. Before long, other English Villages began to sprout up near Seoul. In October, 2005, the Herald Media Corporation and the Seoul Metropolitan Government opened a new English Village after investing millions of dollars. They elected a mayor for this synthetic city, Mary Louise Heseltine, who happened to be the wife of the Australian ambassador. They expressed the goal of creating a center for community learning that focused on foreign cultures. There are two more English Villages under construction. One is slated for Paju in 2006 and next for Yangpyeong in 2008. There might also be a few English Villages already in operation that I haven’t even heard about.

It will be interesting to see the directions that these English Village take. How extreme will the take role playing? Will the actors/teachers role play raving drunks on park benches, bribe seeking police officers, or disgruntled postal workers? Will the artificial custom officials conduct full body cavity searches or hotel receptionists lose your luggage? Will realia include broken glass, vile graffiti, and red light districts? Why not install hidden actors that rove around picking pockets and raising havoc? If they want to replicate real life situations, then they ought to really have fun with it. Of course, English Village will always be sanitized and user friendly. It will promote the most positive image possible, the version that people wish to be real. Fair enough, but how well does English Village’s methods actually work?

The English teacher – or, rather, actors – that I have spoke with all hate this performance work. Work schedules can be chaotic and administrative control over employees very restrictive. There seems to be a high turnover rate due to low morale. One employee complained on-line that he was less of a teacher than he was a trained monkey in a fancy uniform. Others have described the job as strolling around, greeting children, while dressed up in a smelly Mickey Mouse or Goofy style costume? The general consensus is that this activity isn’t really teaching. However, for the children themselves, is this a productive methodology? It probably does build confidence. It most likely helps students to feel more comfortable speaking to foreigners. It is certainly a fun environment for children to playfully engage in English practice. True to the Natural Approach philosophy, children are learning applied English and the context behind language use. They acquire the actual meaning of words, rather than just simply memorizing empty phrases out of a book. It is live dialogue in a safe environment. Students are learning with actual props. They are pantomiming with role plays. Surreal as it might be, English Village does have very positive aspects to it.
Cynics dismiss English Villages as a means for government officials to cash in on English mania. They note how profits are being made from start up funds that included tax dollars. Some critiques also point to budget short falls at public schools, to suggest that the government should be spending this money instead on buying better books and improving the teacher/student ratio. Others see it as a means for the government to latch onto the remote control, to push buttons on a hagwon situation that has gotten out of hand. English Village is a controlled environment that can be staged however someone sees fit, and in this case the “homegrown” technique is one designed by Koreans themselves. How this evolves over time has yet to be seen. But, I fully support any noble attempt to try something different in the ESL world.

Lexical Approach (Crazy English) – One day, while exploring an adult language school in Busan, I was surprised to witness highly odd student behavior. A group of about eleven fully grown men were frantically waving their hands in the air while shouting English loudly in unison. They ran around in circles making wild physical motions. Sometimes they would sprint up and down the hallway yelling displaced phrases. The Korean teacher was joining in the unusual festivities at the same time. He stood on top of a chair like his students did while shouting out a series of English words at the top of his lungs. For a lack of a better explanation, I dismissed this class room as being full of stark raving crazies, and as it turned out I was right. I had stumbled onto the wild world known as “Crazy English”.

Crazy English originated from a Chinese man known as Li Yang. As legend has it, Li Yang was studying for an important English test when, out of sheer frustration, he climbed to the top of a building and started shouting. He later discovered that this helped him to memorize English words. Eventually, this methodology would evolve into a minor empire, complete with late night television ads. The general idea is that Asian English learners are too self-conscious to speak in groups. They are afraid of making a mistake in public that will cause them to lose face. There are also inherited social dynamics that demand an unspoken hierarchy. Younger students might be too humble to outshine their older peers, women may fear doing better than their male counterparts, and the most fluent students could be too bashful to stand out. However, the nature of private language schools is that many students can be thrown together regardless of English level. An advanced university graduate student can share a classroom with an elementary level factory worker or a moderate level housewife. In this environment many social constraints will hinder active dialogue. Nobody wants to feel foolish in front of other students or to appear like they are showing off. Crazy English helps adults overcome shyness and social pressure. Everybody is behaving like lunatics together in unison, so there is no stigma attached. The gateway is then open to practice English without restraint.

It is difficult to put a label on this methodology, but I imagine it approximates a Lexical Approach derivative. This methodology assumes that language acquisition derives from lexical sets of words or phrases, rather than mastery over grammar. Students learn to produce vocabulary and unanalyzed word combinations, that will eventually help with a particular situation. These chunks of words are the raw data to be used for communication. English grammar is secondary, since students will be able to comprehend systematic rules better after lexical development has been accomplished. From what I’ve seen of Crazy English there are few classroom explanations related to grammar. Error corrections are delicate and subtle. The idea is to get student speaking, to help them overcome inhibitions so that they start producing sounds. The repetition of these words and phrases will eventually cause them to be absorbed, and after that bitter pill has been swallowed they will be able to remember them in the proper context. Crazy English seems to be custom made for Northeast Asian English learners. In fact, it has spread like brush fire in China, Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.

It was worth trying. Last month I introduced Crazy English techniques into my hagwon. I started with a classroom full of ten-year-old girls. These students had little inhibitions about speaking English in the first place, and I doubt that grammar was ever much of a concern for them. What they enjoyed was the opportunity to make noise and to behave mischievously. I had them recite passages from their Let’s Go textbook while hopping around the room like tiny frogs. I encouraged them to spin rapidly in circles shouting in present continuous tense. I insisted that they leap from chair to chair while balancing countable nouns in plural form. I didn’t explain a single thing about grammar. I just encouraged them to be playful and have fun. To this day I have never heard so much laughter come out of my classroom. These girls now request Crazy English activities from me all the time. Was it education or edutainment? I decided I needed to test this material once again.

The next day I introduced Crazy English to a class full of 13-year-old boys. This is the class in which Satan, himself, enrolled his demonic spawn. They usually preoccupied themselves by vandalizing furniture, writing on walls, spitting out chewing gum, and fighting among themselves. I figured that since these students were crazy anyway this might be the methodology for them. In minutes I had them wiggling on the ground like epileptics while spouting out modal verbs. I instructed them to slide under the table while calling out superlative forms. I provoked them into standing on their hands while practicing verbal inflections. They loved it. They demanded encores. They ate Crazy English up alive. They invented their own versions of sadistic and unusual techniques to practice English with. I allowed them full permission to behave like total idiots. We held shouting contests. They were blowing out lexical chucks like fraternity brother on a Friday night. However, I realized the Crazy English was destined for a short life span. Before long Korean teachers complained that too much noise was coming out of my classroom. The school owner wondered what all the ruckus was about. I tried to explain that I was only taking the lexical approach, but my pleas for continuance were all dismissed. Crazy English was banned in less than one week.

… and the eternal question is does all this methodology work? The eternal answer is I don’t know. Who really know why some information remains in a student’s mind or understands how data is forgotten? Was it Crazy English or Community Language Teaching that made that phrase stick? Did my phone teaching cause that word to solidify or did they absorb it earlier from Screen English? The brain is a mysterious tool. It has the power to overwhelm and confuse the very people who own it. Koreans schools play with various methodologies trying to find the magic key. Students risk dollars on miracle fads and gimmicks. Teachers revise techniques and invent new activities every day. We are all looking for the miracle of fluency. The problem is the English progress can never really be measured or attributed to a single methodology. Tests can be given and scores calculated appropriately. However, the outcome is only a number on a printout sheet. It has little to do with real life communication. Language takes years to build up. It takes an amazing amount of time and energy. In the end all these methodologies melt together like a plastic soldier stuck to a light bulb. It all remolds together in a shape that is unique for each student. If English could be embodied into a single entity with an easily recognizable shape, then it would most certainly be in a form wearing a straight jacket. For a lack of better words, I officially name this discombobulated, constantly shape-shifting mass – well, let’s just call it the Madness of English. If you ever stumble across it … run while you still can!


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