Japan in the Korean EFL classroom

A very specific topic, I know, but as I was already back here when someone from KoTESOL’s The English Connection magazine asked me to write something, it was the first thing that popped into my head. Hopefully of more general interest too as an example of how to deal with potentially tricky nationalist clashes and other minefields in the classroom.

Before and just after I moved from Japan to South Korea in 2008, many teachers told me to avoid mentioning that country while I was in Korea. While this caution is understandable given their history and nationalistic stirrings on both sides, I decided that in my case it wasn’t really possible to avoid answering the questions “Where is your wife from?”, “Where did you work before Korea?”, and “What languages do you speak?” I also quickly found that in order to completely avoid the topic I’d have to stop some of my students honestly talking about the only foreign country they have visited, their favourite place in Asia, what music they like and even, in one case, their taste in men. Three of my students would even have been banned from saying what country they came from!

I could theoretically have got us all talking about “the country which must not be named” in Harry Potter style, I guess. In fact, a lesson on euphemistic phrases for Japan like “somewhere in East Asia” and “a country with a troubled relationship with Korea” might just have worked with my one super-Advanced class.

Luckily, it didn’t prove necessary. I’ll never know if my daughter being half-Japanese and every other holiday being back to Japan to see the in-laws caused some kind of negative reaction, and I only taught a small subsection of Korean society, but the things my students said and wrote about Japan were generally positive. In fact, I was often forced to speak more about Japan than I would have done by their own comments and questions. Eventually I became so comfortable with the topic that I started to bring it into class as a useful counterweight to the Anglo-centric and Eurocentric bias of the textbooks I was using, a counterweight that could prove to be very useful in a world in which my Korean students will use English much more to communicate with their fellow East Asians than they will with the French or Germans, let alone native English speakers.

Here are some uses of the topic of Japan that I found particularly useful:

– A lesson on Konglish expressions that are the same in Japanese such as “after service” and “back mirror”, to deal with the topic in a non-judgemental way and to let them feel less self-conscious about it by being able to “blame” at least some Konglish on the Japanese. This should also help Koreans communicating with Japanese in English, as well as those who are already perfectly happily using these expressions with Japanese (and long term residents of Korea) but will be in for a shock when they try to use them elsewhere.

– Using Japan in a “guess the country by its cultural norms” activity (“They often bow” etc), so that there are a good variety of similarities and differences to Korea for students to talk about afterwards and so they can use or easily adapt some of the statements to describe their own culture later.

– Talking about similarities and differences with Japan and China as a way of avoiding cultural training lessons that are just pointing out how different foreigners are (something that can make successfully mixing with foreigners seem impossible)

– Using some Japanese examples to help them explain Korean culture with sentences like “It’s like Japanese kimono/ tempura/ teppanyaki, but…”, explaining that “Unfortunately/ For now, Japanese culture is better known abroad than Korean culture is.”

– Mentioning when other nationalities I know well make the same mistakes, to avoid any idea that Koreans find English particularly difficult and to subtly introduce the complexity of the idea of accuracy in English as a Lingua Franca. This works best when people speaking completely unrelated languages make the same mistake (e.g. all nationalities having problems with English articles and prepositions), but is more common with typical Japanese errors like “It was disappeared” and “Although he liked it, but he didn’t buy it”.

Despite all I have said above, I did still find the need to be careful about some things. For example, some of my Korean students used talking about their positive experiences of visits to Tokyo as an excuse to moan about the traffic, taxi drivers, etc in Seoul. As my students will know from the look on my face when they join in my complaints about British food, though, those are not the kinds of conversations that foreigners can take part in without causing offence. As I was working on a blog post on things that are better in Seoul than Tokyo, I also had plenty of balanced things to say when asked to compare. Reducing comparison down to those two cities rather than making sweeping statements about whole countries also probably helped.

I’m cautious about drawing any wider conclusions from just two years in one school in Seoul, but this experience does reinforce my general impression that there are no topics which are truly impossible to use in the classroom, it just depends on how you approach them. Unfortunately, the same thing is true for topics that you confidently stride into class with because other teachers have told you that they can’t fail!

Original publication here, but comments only possible here:

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2 Responses to Japan in the Korean EFL classroom

  1. Andy Mallory says:

    Interesting. I agree the ‘don’t mention Japan’ mantra is unnecessarily proscriptive.

    I think it also depends on what has been happening recently between the 2 countries. Politocal of media sabre rattling or name calling can have a big impact on the views expressed.

    Given your Japanese connection your students may have been more guarded in their views than if you had a German wife for example.

    I think there is also a generational shift. The under 30s have given up the hardline attitude of the older generation and can see a lot of positives in Japan and Japanese culture. They are also likely to mix with younger Japanese who are obviously as innocent as they are ignorant of the crimes of past generations.

    I wondered how the recent tsumani was viewed in Korea. Was there any hint of ‘serves them right’?

  2. Andy Mallory says:

    I wish we could edit our spelling and typo mistakes….

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