New Tricks for an Old Dog

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As most of us know, our capacity for learning new languages is greatest when we are children. Studies have shown that even after three years, a certain door closes for pure language acquisition. What I know is that during my first year here in Korea I taught a daily kindergarten class, and they were little English sponges, soaking up the new words and phrases in between bouts of drawing princesses, pretending to be Spiderman, and peeing their pants.

I now teach at a two year college, where my students are mixed bag of kids who, for whatever reason, don’t currently find themselves in a “real” university. Some are hopeless boneheads (like teaching driftwood), while a few others are quite bright, who are either on alternative education plans, or just happen to be poor.

As most of us know, our capacity for learning new languages is greatest when we are children. Studies have shown that even after three years, a certain door closes for pure language acquisition. What I know is that during my first year here in Korea I taught a daily kindergarten class, and they were little English sponges, soaking up the new words and phrases in between bouts of drawing princesses, pretending to be Spiderman, and peeing their pants.

I now teach at a two year college, where my students are mixed bag of kids who, for whatever reason, don’t currently find themselves in a “real” university. Some are hopeless boneheads (like teaching driftwood), while a few others are quite bright, who are either on alternative education plans, or just happen to be poor.

All of these students are in their early to mid twenties, with the exception of the odd middle-aged one. Every year I get a crop of about thirty new students (I teach in the Hotel and Tourism English Department), and there is always one woman in her fifties (what Koreans call an “ajumma”). I’ve had three in three years, and none of them could speak a stitch of English.

There is one ajumma in particular who just amazes me with her utter lack of ability to pick up even a whiff of English. She’s probably in her mid-50’s and it must be said that she’s a real sweetheart. She’s super-nice. I really like her, personally. She’s come to every class for over a year now. She’s never been late. She sits there with her book open and tries to write down everything I say.

But… she can’t say anything. I mean NOTHING. To this day, when I ask her, “Hello, how are you?” she’s totally unable to reply with the requisite “I’m fine thank you.” She gets a look of horror in her eyes and starts babbling and stammering in an unintelligible melange of Korean and English, just trying to repeat the question so as to understand what it is I asked her in the first place.

One full year and then some of five-days-a-week English study, and STILL no “I’m fine thank you.” Kindergartners learn this in FIVE MINUTES. It’s just astounding.

Why does she keep coming to school when clearly she’s not improving at all? Should I sit down with her and gently tell her that it’s hopeless, that she should give up, that she’s clearly past the learning-a-new-language pull date and should rather spend her time gardening or learning pottery?

It is frustrating because she does bog down the class. Once it comes around to her, the gears grind to an agonizing stop. I often just skip her, but she is a tuition-paying student and deserves at least an inkling of effort on my behalf. I do try – I do – but it’s really like trying to get a jello mold to speak.

To put this into perspective, for two years I taught a retarded guy who could barely communicate in KOREAN, let alone English, and HE still managed to pick up ten times more than her.

That’s right. He was RETARDED.

Is it just an age thing? Do we reach a point where our brain just says “NO NEW LANGUAGE?” I’m pushing 40 and still studying Korean, and while at times I wish for my more open teenage brain that picked up Spanish so quickly, I’m still doing all right. I can sit down and talk to Korean people and generally carry on a conversation.

Yeah, we know that some people are better at learning languages than others. Like anything else, it’s a knack that some folks possess to a greater degree. But is it possible to have a total language block, where no matter how much you study, you can never perform even the most basic task? I think maybe yes. I’ve seen it a handful of times with my students, as well with some foreigners here trying to get a handle on even the most elementary Korean. I think that sometimes the brain just refuses to go along…

Or maybe I’m just a really really shitty teacher.



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