A Day in the Life of a Language Mercenary


Before I say anything else, I want to clarify that I feel really lucky that English is the current lingua franca. It has opened a lot of doors for me and having been born as an English speaker puts me in a lucky position, however unfair that is.

The thing is, I kind of hate English. (Not an abhorrent, white-hot hate reserved for mass murderers, oil companies, and Jar-Jar Binks; it’s more the hate of your drunk friend who keeps embarrassing you in the bar.)

English is an awkward language to teach. It’s certainly not the most difficult language to learn, but it is one of the least consistent. I have to explain to students on a regular basis why the rule I’ve been drilling in is not relevant for this one example.

It’s so rarely phonetic and the spelling looks like it was devised by a drunk chimpanzee. That doesn’t even get into grammar, which looks like you’d expect a language that combines bits and pieces of dozens of others. If I’m ever president of the world, I’m going to reform lots and lots about the language.

With this in mind, I never try to be an apologist for English. Like every good mercenary, I don’t question my orders and think too hard about what they pay me to do.

But, completely aside from the inherent flaws in English, there
are curriculum problems. Books are made with politics in mind–case in point, South Korea is removing all references to evolution in their textbooks, as the Christian lobby is too politically powerful to resist.

Sometimes it’s just kind of silly, such as this exchange in a unit on the hospital.

Boy: What’s the matter?
Girl: I have a cold.
Boy: What? I can’t hear you. You have a stomachace?
Girl: No, I don’t have a stomachache. I have a cold.
Boy: That’s too bad.

It can dip into the banal, such as this chapter on taking self-portraits.

Bright lights tend to make your face look delicate and small… An uneasy posture can ruin photos, so get used to striking a natural prose. Also, be sure to tell yourself you’re the most beautiful person in the world.

It can veer into the bizarre, such as in this unit on how your personality is shaped by what bread you like to eat. (Though probably only as weird as horoscopes and astrological signs.) As interesting as the text are the three choices of “bread” available.

Pastry and Pie: You’ve often been told you’re sweet and charming. You’re happy when you learn something new.

Baguette: You tend to prefer a Western style and can’t stand a boring life.

Cake with Fresh Cream: You’re a romantic. For this reason, you’re sometimes too emotional. You think computer games are boring.

But the worst are the bits that I just disagree with entirely. This chapter, for instance, encourages weight-loss and calorie counting. (Keep in mind that the kids these books are aimed at are 9-12).

When you are on a diet, all foods look delicious, but once you eat the food your diet is ruined. here are some smart tips for dieters on choosing what foods to eat.

Sushi or California rolls are not likely to affect your weight, but remember that sushi is made of rice and before you know it, you have already eaten a full bowl of rice. [followed by caloric information]

Doughnuts – You should keep in mind that doughnuts have a lot of fat. If you must eat a doughnut, eat one after dinner for dessert. [again followed by caloric information]

Not okay. But this is a country where vanity is considered a positive attribute.

In other parts of the book we teach vocabulary words like “franchising” “franchisee” “Black Widow” “rivalry” “coal stove” and “roundworm” and “golden plover.” I, for one, had not ever heard of a golden plover before , and I sometimes feel the other words have been chosen quite randomly (again, especially for kids who are young and need to develop a more basic vocabulary first.)

Still, I try not to get too involved in the lessons. Even for the diet section, I might mention there are other approaches, but I don’t contradict the lesson. It’s not really my place. And it’s kind of a fool’s mission–I can’t install critical thinking in 50 minute increments twice a week.

What’s more, even if I could magically convert them to more western ideals, I wouldn’t. South Korea, for better or worse, is founded on the idea of having one right way, and I’m not sure it’s the role of foreigners who will only be here for a year or three to try to change that.

That said, if I ever have to teach a chapter on the dangers of fan death, I just might have to change my mercenary attitude.

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