Wednesday, January 19, 2011

English Lessons in Korean Culture

Most Korean teens have no idea what it's like to have an after-school job, or to wear a halloween costume or go to the prom. But they spend countless hours in the classroom talking about these and  other detailed aspects of American life, not to mention American history and politics.

"So many Koreans learn how to describe the U.S. flag with its 13 stripes and 50 stars. They know what each part stands for. But they don't know how to talk about their own flag," said Lee Hyun Suk, an English teacher who broadcasts lessons on government-funded tv and radio stations. "Knowing about other cultures is good, but we need to share information about our own. That's how we connect," he said.

Lee co-hosts a radio show that gives Koreans some English vocabulary to help them talk about their daily lives. So rather than discussing the latest episode of Friends or the growth of the Tea Party Movement, they can talk about the latest episode of Secret Garden, a Korean drama, or the latest controversy surrounding President Lee Myung Bak. It's a more engaging way to learn another language and it builds more confidence, Lee said.

As English becomes an increasingly global language, more English-as-a-foreign-language teachers are finding it helpful to separate the language from western culture. Cyrus Rolbin, a lecturer at Boston University and a former English teacher in Japan, saw that his students there were more motivated when they used the language to talk about themselves.

He encouraged them to "think locally and act globally" by creating videos or web sites in English about their communities and Japanese culture that they could share with the world on-line. One group of his English students created a new method of teaching the Japanese alphabet that also shares parts of Japanese culture.

Recently in Seoul, I attended one of Lee's free, in-person classes for listeners of the show. His lesson provided English words for a wide range of topics in Korean history and culture.  He talked about Korean weddings, funerals, card games, and drinking etiquette.  He discussed Korea's pro-democracy movement in the 1980's, and hemorrhoids, a leading cause of hospitalization in Korea.

My favorite topic was a description of "lifties," the small wedge heels that many Korean men insert into their shoes to make them appear taller.

Here's a video of Lee Hyun Suk describing the concept of his class, as well as the concept of "lifties."


video

Cho Hye-Yeon, a mother from Seoul who was in the audience, said she wakes her son up early each morning so he can listen to the radio show while having breakfast.
She recalls that when she lived in London and Frankfurt, she had a hard time answering friends' questions about her home country.  And she thinks a more Korea-centric approach to learning English will appeal to her son. "I want my son to keep enjoying English," she said.

Another audience member, Kim Hayong, who works at a biofuels company, said day-to-day vocabulary is a huge help. She often entertains foreign visitors at her office, and while she knows how to talk about bio energy, she gets stuck when they begin asking more personal questions about Korea, she said.

Before the end of the lesson, Lee had covered Korean snack foods, the national anthem, and, of course,  the Korean flag.  If you didn't know, the flag has a red-and-blue yin-yang circle in the middle that's surrounded by four black trigrams made up of bars and dashes. The circle represents the source of all that exists in the universe. And the trigrams represent the sky, the earth, the moon, and the sun, as well as justice, abundance, life and wisdom.

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