Monday, June 30, 2014

Good Words

My taekgyeon master is already a very hardworking man, but lately his schedule has veered toward slightly insane territory. Since he began working toward his doctorate in sports psychology, he's had to drive to Daegu, one and a half hours away, each week to attend classes. But now he has to complete the English language requirement, which has taken the form of a three-week long intensive English course that meets Monday through Friday. So now, every morning, he drives to Daegu, listens to a lecture he barely understands and takes notes in a language he barely knows how to write, and then returns to Changwon for the start of afternoon taekgyeon classes that run until 11pm. It's an insane schedule, and after just one week, I can already see how fatigue is taking its toll.

At 11pm each night, after my taekgyeon class, I tutor him for an hour on whatever the day's lecture covered. And I'm almost appalled by the difficulty of the content of this English class. It's a crash course on formal grammar that covers things like SVO word order, past perfect versus past participle, and the different varieties of subject complements. Today, I had to explain the six forms of the English subjunctive to him... in Korean.

I'm not surprised so many people have an aversion to English. If this is the way it's taught, if this is the English that aspiring academics are required to master before even knowing how to ask for the time, then how can we honestly expect anyone to enjoy learning a second language?

What's worse than the fact that my taekgyeon master is being forced to sit through this no-holds-barred, all-or-nothing course for three weeks is that his English level is very low to begin with. Imagine that you have a basic grasp of the American Sign Language alphabet and knew a few popular stock phrases, like "I love you" or "Thank you." Now learn the structure of ASL in three weeks in a class conducted only in ASL. There are two exams. If you don't pass them, you fail the course and can't get your doctoral degree. Capiche?

My taekgyeon master is visibly stressed and probably feels a little bit hopeless. I've realized over the past week that not only is he a complete novice at English grammar, he doesn't have a firm grasp on Korean grammar, either. I find myself explaining why a word can be both a noun and also a subject at the same time -- or at least, trying to explain in my very limited Korean. It's a struggle for both of us.

On the bright side, he's making measurable improvements. Sometimes he comes across something that he knows he's studied before, and it clicks perfectly. Also, his reading fluency is progressing nicely. It's sheer desperation that's doing it, I think.

And as for me, well, my Korean is getting lots of practice, and I'm learning useful terms for grammatical concepts, like verb infinitive (원형) or prepositional idiomatic expressions (전치사 숙어). Of course I'm glad to be helping my taekgyeon master, but it's nice for me to learn from this, as well.

At the end of our tutoring session tonight, as the clock struck midnight, my taekgyeon master sighed and expressed his concern about his first exam on Wednesday. "힘들어요," he said. "It's hard."

"Right," I replied. I then paused as I searched for the right grammatical form to use, one I'd just picked up fifteen minutes prior as we reviewed the subjunctive. "하지만, 쉽더라면 할 가치 없을텐데요?" I said. "But if it were easy, it wouldn't be worth doing, would it?"

I probably made some errors in that statement. (Correct me if that's the case.) But my taekgyeon master nodded his head thoughtfully. "고마워요. 좋은 말이예요," he said. "Thanks. Those are good words."

제 생각에는, 사람이 예전에 할 가능 없다고 믿었는 것에서 성공하면 가장 좋은 성취감을 들 수가 있습니다. I think our greatest sense of achievement as human beings comes when we accomplish that which we were once certain we could not do.

Now if only all my English lessons could double as character-building lessons...


  1. The six forms of the English subjunctive? I don't know what those are. I don't think I ever had any formal instruction in the English subjunctive, actually. I basically understand the subjunctive from my knowledge of French.

    1. They're related to tense: present, conditional, past, future, and mixed (counterfactual conditional)? Something like that. Actually, there were only five different types of those, and six different types of auxiliary verbs that I had to explain. (I remembered incorrectly.)

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