Matt Smith

Phrasebook learning

Is phrasebook learning letting Korean students down?

The interesting thing I discovered with the Koreans just recently is this. I have my students (who are high school students) making instructional videos at the moment that teach the sorts of ways they greet each other when they see each other during the day (they don’t have to be strictly different forms of hello, some of them are questions like the Thais ask one another such as ‘Where are you going?’ or ‘Have you eaten yet?’) – to help them write scripts for their videos, I asked them to fill out a translation worksheet where in one column they should write the words from their greeting one by one in their base Korean form, and where in the other column they should translate them into English. The idea is, they will then be able to say in their video that ‘this means this, that means that, and so altogether the words in the greeting you just heard us say add up to mean blah, blah blah’.

The interesting thing being that it was very difficult to get them to do this – even after all the explanation in the world of the script and of the aims of the worksheet, and of how the latter helped in producing the former, they outright refused to write the Korean words one by one in the appropriate column, and translate them one by one into English. Yes, outright refused – what they did instead was write the phrases from their Korean greeting in the left hand column, and translate them as English phrases in the right hand column. Even the teachers were extremely reluctant to follow the instructions; they wholeheartedly endorsed the students’ view that the best way to fill in the worksheet was the way in which they were doing it.

Which I thought posed an interesting dilemma – why couldn’t they see that in the videos, which were aimed at instructing their pen-pals at the school with which we engage in cultural exchange back in Australia, and who learn Korean at their school, a few of the authentic ways of singing out to one another that young people use in Korea…why couldn’t they see that it would be helpful in their videos if they indicated to the Australians what the individual words in the phrases were, and what their general meanings were, and then explained how we say it in English when they all come together? After all, one of the true beauties of learning another language is the curiosity value of seeing how other peoples string together the concepts the words of their language embody to give meaning to the world in ways we never thought of.

Now I haven’t by any means figured this out altogether. But, this is what I’m thinking. Firstly, it is quite possible that the Koreans were so adamant to translate whole phrases on their worksheets because, when you translate the words of which their greetings are composed individually, through simple addition you don’t come up with the best English translation of what they really mean in combination. Usually, anyway, that much is pretty simple. But, if this was why they were sticking to their guns, there’s still a problem, isn’t there? They don’t realise that if you hear a phrase in a foreign language and its interpretation, you cannot distinguish which particular words in the interpretation mean which particular words in the original phrase - thus, it’s not a very good way of making an instructional video. They’re missing the point too that it’s very interesting, and greatly contributes to our understanding of the semantic breadth of a word, to figure out how its general meaning relates to its meaning in context. Or, how the particular combinations of things that words connote by themselves can come together in wondrous combinations, quite abstract from what the literal meanings would suggest, to represent ideas, and how a knowledge of this relationship fleshes out what we construe words to mean. Which has to be true – they have to be missing these things, I mean; otherwise they would understand the significance of the worksheet, or why it was asking them to do the activity it did. In other words, that the obvious way to teach a phrase to someone is to teach them the individual words of which it is constituted, what they mean in general, and what they mean when they come together in a specific instance.

Unless, of course, the Koreans knew what some particular phrases meant in English because they had studied these, but were unsure about what the individual words in them meant because they hadn’t (hadn’t ever looked at them beyond their inclusion in these phrases, I mean, and hence could translate the phrase but not the individual words, through pure unfamiliarity with them); on the students’ behalf, I could believe this to be the case, but no, it doesn’t explain the attitude of the teachers, who for sure knew not just the meaning of the phrases but also the meaning of the individual words (under pressure they demonstrated this fact). Or unless they didn’t understand exactly what it was that they were doing in its entire context, or why I was asking them to fill out a translation sheet – there’s some evidence that this could be the case, because despite that we’ve been making these videos for six consecutive lessons there are still some students who couldn’t tell you what they’re doing (and I belabour the point every class, I guarantee, its not through lack of organising them). However, again this doesn’t explain the attitude of the teachers, who most certainly are in tune with the nature of the project. No, I believe there’s something else afoot here – this is what I reckon.

Traditionally - and with the exception of the inclusion of foreign teachers like myself as a sort of token addition to their curriculum this has no less abated in the present - Koreans have studied English via the grammar translation method; what it means in this case, and I have observed them doing this day in day out, is that they memorise what endless phrases mean translated into their own language. So, their understanding of the English language, really, as opposed to being an understanding where they recognise words that have a semantic breadth that they understand that they, by searching from context for the appropriate aspect of this semantic breadth, slot together to produce meaning, is instead as a kind of pastiche of phrases. When reading a text, for example, I surmise they search for phrases that bear sufficient resemblance to phrases they have memorised, or the meaning of which they have memorised, and by adding these together – despite that there are inevitably gaps and incongruities they have to gloss over - come up with an idea of what the text is overall saying. Which, if you’ve memorised sufficient phrases, as my students’ test results indicate seems to, with familiar types of written material, work just fine; they have no problem generally in rendering the material in their tests, the questions they are asked about that material, and the multiple choice responses to those questions into something they can understand well enough to pass their exams, in many cases with a surprising level of accuracy.

Which would explain, of course, their refusal to do my translation worksheet in the way that I had hoped; number one, given the vast amount of rote learning required to acquire their test passing abilities, it would be an automatic mental process to translate phrase for phrase. Number two, given the very secular monocultural, monolingual environment Korea is, they would never have thought of a second language outside of the ‘learn by phrase’ paradigm. My students would never have had, I mean to say in the latter case, reason to intuit for themselves the practical reasons why it is either helpful or interesting to have an intimate understanding of the building blocks of phrases, or to view phrases in this fashion.

It would also explain too, of course, why my students can pass such complex tests, and yet can understand nary a word of spoken English (or at least why they are so easily thrown off the track). The amount of phrases one would have to memorise to employ the pastiche approach to comprehension when faced with the endless permutations of words that occur outside the rather narrow confines of their test material, or, if one was to say it isn’t perhaps that narrow and they’ve already consumed the necessary amount, the amount of time it would take the brain to process spoken language in the pastiche fashion and to compute a response, in both cases far exceeds the limits in which viable spoken communication is likely to occur.

Which leads one, inevitably, to the question of why do they learn like this? Let’s say, for example, I turfed one of my students out of an airplane door in the backwoods of New Guinea (with a parachute, of course, otherwise the consequence would be too predictable for this story to continue). For them to learn to communicate, there’d have to be a lot of repetition of pointing at things and saying the prerequisite word, or a lot of actions or situations accompanied by the saying of the prerequisite word, for them to start building a vocabulary; as time went on they’d, through exposure to the full range of contexts in which a particular word applied, as well as experimenting with how it went together with other words, build a sense of the full semantic breadth/conventions of use of the utterances they were learning, and the ability to wield them in complex speech. In other words, with no interpreter present, the process would mimic the first language acquisition process; the only difference would be that they would have more advanced cognitive mechanisms than a child to put to work in figuring out the code. This, I would argue, seems like the natural way, and the most effective way, to learn a language; when we add an interpreter my opinion doesn’t change, provided we recognise that the value of that interpreter is that they can provide all the shortcuts to figuring out semantic breadth and conventions of usage without having to waste as much time on experimentation.

But the learning by phrase routine isn’t doing this, is it? To give credit to the grammar translation method, technically speaking it’s aimed at providing the necessary shortcuts. In other words, by learning vocabulary and the rules of grammar, or the logic of the way words fit together that is generated by their meaning, as well as the conventions that govern their use, and furthermore by learning all of this in the context of examples, if we discount the role that interest value plays in such an approach (and the Koreans can obviously get over this), we should be learning English like champions. So wherein is the problem? Well, the problem obviously is, of course, that in practice there’s a divergence between the stipulations of the grammar translation method and the learning that is actually occurring. Or, a difference in the ideal form of grammar translation and the learning by phrase that is practiced in Korea, and that we’ve been discussing. To my way of thinking, the problem is too much, all at once, and not enough learning by doing; it takes time and a major effort at production, even with an interpreter to give you the shortcuts, to get a second language together, and the Koreans aren’t giving it enough of either.

I wouldn’t go so far, though, as to blame either their notorious impatience, or any laziness on their behalf, for this particular state of affairs, although indubitably I’ve seen some cases where these things played a role; predominantly, it would seem that there are other factors at play. Mainly, they don’t get much of a chance to use English – when you add up all the time they spend in the classroom, which is the only place a lot of them get to communicate in English, you’re still well short of the many years it takes to develop fluency in a second language. In addition, they are short of second language experiences, as I mentioned earlier, to cultivate in them, and the way in which the grammar translation method has been implemented in Korea certainly hasn’t provided, a great deal – anything, in fact – in the way of meta-cognitive awareness of what the method sets forth to achieve. I reckon they simply haven’t thought about things, in other words, the way I introduced them here with the ‘chucking a Korean into New Guinea’ analogy, or don’t realise that interpretation and grammar rules are shortcut complements to the development of a holistic understanding of words and the way they operate in other languages, as opposed to the be-alls and end-alls of the learning process. Again, it is tempting to say that they don’t want to put in the effort to juggle words, according to the things they’ve learnt about them and the contexts in which they’ve seen them, in ways that will make them a genuine part of their repertoire (and you’ll excuse me seeming jaundiced in this respect, but you want to see the way my students, in the face of my best efforts to interest them, just zone out in the class); however, when you think about the exorbitant effort that most of them put into the extra difficult process of memorising enough phrases to use the pastiche method to pass their tests, such an argument doesn’t really cut much grass.

Now the solution seems obvious, doesn’t it? You want to say, well, let’s use the English teaching methods that succeeded the grammar translation method, or that circumvented its shortcomings by encouraging the provision of actual opportunities to experiment with words according to the rules one’s learnt about them in meaningful contexts (rather than in purely inane drills or workbook exercises – they have their place, but there’s no information gap or spontaneous human interaction), and that thus provided considerably more interest value to keep students focused; let’s, in view of the time and effort required to learn a language properly, have more realistic goals for students, and more appropriate methods of evaluation. But therein lies the dilemma, doesn’t it (and for those of you who constantly criticise the Korean testing system, it’s not like they haven’t thought these things through carefully); you have to have a multiple choice questionnaire, because in a society that is as culturally prone to corruption as the one America shaped out of the Korean feudal system (come on, we all know that the fight for ‘democracy’ throughout the world has, on all the West’s behalf, all too often been a fight to prop up tottering imperialist systems as resource teats on which the West can easily suckle), as soon as you have any more qualitative testing system such as speaking or writing tests, justice goes out the window. And if you made the test easy enough that a proper method of learning a language would be able to produce students who could pass it, the unfortunate thing is that there is this learn by phrase approach that happens to ace such tests without necessarily producing students who are competent in the language, and that the test wouldn’t be testing anything because students would via this approach simply ‘cheat’ the system. I mean, in other words, that the quest for social justice, arguably the most important thing to take into consideration here, shapes the nature of the evaluation system, and that this in turn predicates the learning methodology.

So like I say, it’s a dilemma I’m unable to figure my way around – what are you going to do, lead a revolution and right the global conditions in which corruption reigns supreme? It would be nice, but a bit beyond a humble teacher’s means. All I can think to offer is an emphasis on cultivating metacognitive awareness of what language is and how you learn it in English courses in Korea; it would still be more practical for students to use learning methods that maximise their test scores, but perhaps at least then they wouldn’t outright refuse to do exercises that are in keeping with the genuine learning of a language if now and again they did crop up, or perhaps the use of such exercises wouldn’t remain beyond their attention.

In closing I should add here too that the audiolingual method must also be responsible for the learning by phrase mentality; I’ve been thinking about that along the way as a kind of subset of the grammar translation method, or as one of its direct offspring.


No comments yet

Post your comment

Comments are moderated and will not appear instantly.

Featured Jobs

Business and Creative Writers / Editors

฿55,000+ / month


Christian Thai Teacher for International School

฿18,000+ / month

Chiang Rai

Elementary Teacher at WASC Accredited International School

฿90,000+ / month


English Conversation Teachers for October

฿35,000+ / month


NES English Teachers

฿50,000+ / month


NES English Teacher

฿60,000+ / month

Pathum Thani

Featured Teachers

  • Babatunde

    Nigerian, 34 years old. Currently living in Thailand

  • Gavin

    British, 36 years old. Currently living in Thailand

  • Stanislav

    Russian, 30 years old. Currently living in Thailand

  • Sutina

    British, 28 years old. Currently living in Thailand

  • Mary

    Filipino, 24 years old. Currently living in Philippines

  • Carla

    Filipino, 34 years old. Currently living in Philippines

The Hot Spot

Will I find work in Thailand?

Will I find work in Thailand?

It's one of the most common questions we get e-mailed to us. So find out exactly where you stand.

The dreaded demo

The dreaded demo

Many schools ask for demo lessons before they hire. What should you the teacher be aware of?

Contributions welcome

Contributions welcome

If you like visiting and reading the content, why not get involved yourself and keep us up to date?

Need Thailand insurance?

Need Thailand insurance?

Have a question about health or travel insurance in Thailand? Ricky Batten from Pacific Prime is Ajarn's resident expert.

Renting an apartment?

Renting an apartment?

Before you go pounding the streets, check out our guide and know what to look out for.

Teacher mistakes

Teacher mistakes

What are the most common mistakes that teachers make when they are about to embark on a teaching career in Thailand? We've got them all covered.

Can you hear me OK?

Can you hear me OK?

In today's modern world, the on-line interview is becoming more and more popular. How do you prepare for it?