English as a Second Language

By Mong, Derek | Michigan Quarterly Review, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

English as a Second Language


Mong, Derek, Michigan Quarterly Review


Na Yeon prefers Nadia and Sang Heon goes by John.

As I did with my older students, I promise to memorize their Korean names, taking time at the end of class to repeat each syllable back to them, accenting as appropriate, enunciating slowly. Their sound is lithe, elision-quick and hard to capture. If for just a second I stop listening to myself, it evaporates. Nan Yeeh-on. I can tell that this is wrong - my tongue feels weighted. I try watching hers. Nah Yee-ong. She shakes her head. Nah Yee-un. Half a smile. Na Yee-un - just how she says it. The name takes me three tries, one more than my last visit, but I am not worried. This is the one moment where I'm expected to exchange my voice for theirs.

1. TOEFL Topic No. 023: In some countries, teenagers have jobs while they are still students. Do you think this is a good idea? Support your opinion by using specific reasons and details.

In the beginning I tutored for the money, a motivation the advertisement seemed to take for granted: "English tutor needed ($20 an hour!) for South Korean students of varying age and ability. Meetings twice a week in Canton: 15 mins. from Ann Arbor. Contact Susie Kim." I had never worked for twenty dollars an hour and the prospect was enticing. I'd also never tested the friction point between languages, a space my friends all knew from traveling abroad. And then there was my name: Derek Mong. For years I'd been confused for AsianAmerican, the natural blend of a biracial marriage: Derek to please a young, American mother, Mong to preserve the heritage his father thought rich and identifying. But my dad descended from French Huguenots, and ones unscrupulous enough to let Monge slide to Mong in less than a hundred years. A relative once told me they thought it sounded more English. But there is a Rue de le Monge and Monge Patisserie in Paris. There was a Mong in martial arts, now retired. Occasionally I'd wonder what that other Derek Mong was doing, the young man who only lived between the time someone read my name and caught sight of my white face. Did people assume he spoke two languages, obeyed his parents, did well in math? Did these assumptions evaporate when I arrived? Leaving Ann Arbor that night, I felt him waiting for me, somewhere in the town ahead, or maybe sleeping in my back seat.

By the time I reached Canton, the sky was prematurely dark, spilling like tar across the treetops. Even the streetlights grew infrequent. I found myself squinting to read the road signs and questioning my pedagogical approach: how slowly would I need to speak for my students to understand me? Would they come with assignments? I thought of the Japanese exchange student my family had when I was young, how she refused, when sick, to go to the hospital, and how my father tried to ask her about her classes. I turned on the radio and listened to a newscaster sign off from NPR: "This is LackShmee Sang of PRI, Public Radio International." I said the name to myself, too slow to be intelligible, then tried to imagine how it might be spelled.

2. The word wheel: Said

Among the many challenges English presents (idiosyncratic spellings, grammar, punctuation) there are initial, more general hurdles brought on by speech in a foreign tongue.

Problem One: it's easier to reuse a well-known word than learn its synonyms.

Na Yeon, Sang Heon, and I are seated at a card table examining their workbook's latest exercise: there's an empty pie chart split in eighths and a box of lines for writing. I read the instructions out loud: "In the center of the wheel is the word said. Fill in the spaces around the wheel with different ways of saying said (mumbled, whispered, etc.)." There's a brief pause. Na Yeon giggles quietly. Sang Heon traces the spirals on his pencil box. Eventually Na Yeon asks why? and in words I'm never convinced they fully understand, I explain that in knowing more words we have more options - I run my finger in a circle on the card table, touching our three notebooks - to express what we're feeling. …

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