Thoughts of the Times; Cultural Imperialism and the English Language Teacher

Korea Times (Seoul, Korea), February 24, 2000 | Go to article overview

Thoughts of the Times; Cultural Imperialism and the English Language Teacher


I was standing at a fried food bar when a co-teacher came up to me and said: ``I've always wanted to do that, but I've never been able to.'' ''It's really quite easy,'' I said, and was just about to stick a big piece of fried squid in her mouth when she put up her hand and stopped me. ``No. I mean I don't know how much anything costs.'' Well, I thought to myself, you could start by learning the language. You could even learn, more specifically, the Korean equivalent of how much is it?

Another teacher no longer rides in taxis because they ``always take (her) to the wrong place.'' Then there's the guy who walks everywhere because he doesn't know what to say once he gets in the taxi. The thought of learning enough basic Korean to avoid these embarrassing and ridiculous situations has never occurred to these people. Or perhaps it has, but only for a fleeting second.

There are English teachers who have been here years and still don't know the Korean script, Hangul. They call their students Michael and Tony and Debby. Imagine Americans, Brits or Kiwis learning the Korean language, with appellations such as Eun-kyeong Haksaeng or Nam-hee Haksaeng, because the names David and Susan were too much for the teacher to deal with.

Maybe some Korean students don't mind taking on an entirely new, in this case Western, persona. There are even some who enjoy (``I'm crazy about English,'' says one petite student) having English names. But the majority of Koreans are very proud people, they love their culture as well as their language, and it must truly be painful always having to lose their identity in the face of globalization. It is for them, as well as for myself, that I learn Korean.

I think it is because of this cultural imperialism that Koreans do a lot of things au contraire, from a Western perspective. Kind of an ``in your face'' attitude, if you will. Take for instance, the following. When you want to call an ambulance or fire truck in South Korea, you dial 119. We all know it's the exact opposite in America. And if you need a phone number, it's 114 for directory assistance here in Korea. In the United States, up until ten years ago, it was 411.

The irony of the TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) world -- if I may borrow an acronym without incurring the wrath of the copyright attorneys -- is that it is one of the few professions in which the teachers haven't learned themselves what it is they are teaching. A carpenter who teaches others how to build houses has himself probably built countless numbers of houses, and the thoracic surgeon who teaches medical students how to rip open a sternum has himself performed dozens of open heart operations. …

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