Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Challenges of Foreign Language English Departments

Working in an English Department where English is a foreign language pose serious challenges. You cannot assume that your students can even write a simple grammatically correct sentence. Hence, part of our curriculum includes a module on sentence writing. In a regular English Department one takes for granted that students know how to at least formulate a sentence. This is not the case when you work with students whose mother tongue is so wholly different from English. Not only are the syntax completely different, but even some of the most common punctuation marks are different. Korean, for instance, does not have capital letters and Koreans tend not to realize that capitalization has a communicative function and that the indiscriminate inclusion or, as is usually the case, exclusion of capital letters at the beginning of sentences, for proper nouns and so on is wrong and can cause confusion.

This semester I'm teaching a freshmen class: Basic Sentence Writing. I haven't taught freshmen in a couple of years so I've forgotten what their level tend to be like. For instance, in our first class this morning I asked them to write me a few sentences to tell me about themselves. The sole purpose for this simple exercise was to get an idea of their level. Below is what was handed in by one of the students. It is a random sample--merely the first one in the pile.

Hello! My name is 'shim so yeon'.
Nice to meet our classmate and professor.
I am 20 years old. Very young age. LoL~
My hometown is 'seoul', but now live in 'Gyung Gi Do'.
When I was 5 years old, my family house-moving in Gyung Gi Do.
My family is Daddy, Mommy, younger brother and my self.
I like eating. In the world, many delicious food existence. So I love it. Also, I like to shopping.
I wish familiar our class.
Thank you.
Having taught Koreans for many years now I recognize many of her mistakes as typical errors caused in part by first language transference. For example, her sentence "In the world, many delicious food existence" is a near verbatim grammar transference from Korean where one would first provide the context (In the world), then supply the object (food) and finally the verb (exists).

The big challenge is that we need to get our students from this (or sometimes worse levels of English) to a level at which they can write proper essays by the middle of their third year, because at the latter part of the third year and for their senior year they are expected to write academic style papers. This is by no means an easy task. I wish I can say that we are always successful in getting our students at the desired level within the time frame given. Unfortunately, it is often not the case. Only the most diligent students achieve the level of proficiency we aim for. Students that do not exert themselves just do not get there. Sometimes I see senior students who still make common mistakes. I have sympathy, of course, seeing as I've been in Korea for years and am still at only a higher beginner or lower intermediate level. But then again, I've never been a full time student of Korean.

Our goal with writing is of course inline with the other language skills (reading, listening, and speaking) as well. We expect our students to be good listeners and speakers of English who, with a little self-study, can engage comfortably in the jargon and register of the trade they hope to find careers in. And we expect them to read with comprehension, and while they may not know the meaning of all the vocabulary in a given text, they can at least infer possible meanings from the context. Again, only the most diligent students achieve this level of competence.

The problem is mostly time and immersion. As an English Department there are quite a number of other important subjects that students should be exposed to, such as History of the English Language, Literary Theory, different literary genres (poetry, essays, short fiction, novels, plays) and so on. Time, therefore, is rather limited. A student studying for four years at a dedicated language learning institute will acquire a much better fluency and accuracy in the target language. However, a language department teaching the language as a second or foreign department has to divide its time for much more than simply language acquisition.

Since I've been at my current job I've helped to streamline the department's curriculum, but I fear there is still room for improvement. For instance, as a foreign language department we spent classes on cultural exposure, such as modules on American and English Culture. As important as these may seem, I think Korea is exposed enough to these bastions of the English language through the media, so that we can instead use these modules to teach and practice language skills.

So what will I have my freshmen students do when I see them again? O yes . . . capitalization exercises!

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