Is Korea the worst place to teach English?

Google “don’t teach” and what comes up on auto-complete?  “Don’t teach in South Korea” meaning that it’s a pretty widely searched for statement.  Although this is not evidence of anything it’s not difficult to find horror stories on the net relating to teaching in Korea.  So is teaching in Korea really so bad?
At the start of this blog it’s probably best to say that I’ve never taught English in Koreaand to also add that I’m sure there are plenty of people teaching in Korea who are having or have had a really great time there.  However, the shocking regularity of unsavory stories about the EFL world in Koreahas always made me wonder just what the attraction of teaching there is.

The first time Korea popped onto my radar was while I was teaching in Japan and I read a US government warning to avoid teaching in Korea.  The warning has since been removed but it was up for a fairly long time ( a couple of years at least) and reads as follows:

Due to the growing number and seriousness of problems experienced by American citizens teaching English in Korea, we counsel against  taking such employment, even at reputable colleges or universities, except upon receipt of a favorable written referral from a current American citizen employee.  We receive several complaints daily  from Americans who came to Korea to teach English.

Despite contracts promising good salaries, furnished apartments and other amenities, many teachers find they actually receive  much less than they were promised; some do not even receive  benefits required by Korean law, such as health insurance and severance pay. Teachers’ complaints range from simple contract violations through non-payment of salary for months at a time, to dramatic incidents of severe sexual harassment, intimidation, threats of arrest/deportation, and physical assault.

Now this is a pretty spectacular message for anyone in the EFL world.  We all know about dodgy schools that illegally employ uncertified English teachers, and we sometimes hear stories of schools conning teachers or teachers leaving early, or behaving in an inappropriate or even illegal way.  These things do happen from time to time.  However this is something quite different.  This isn’t just a warning about some schools but the US government were pretty much saying “just say no kids!”   Not even in the hallowed halls of universities were foreign teachers safe from being ripped off. 

I started to notice a pattern when I went to daveeslcafe job hunting in 2003 and found something quite odd. Not only did Dave have a separate section for ‘Korea Jobs’ (distinct from the Asian jobs section) but there was also a separate section called something like “complaints about Korea”.  Now things have changed in the 10 years since I started teaching and there is a separate section for Chinese jobs as well now but the Korea complaints section under the guise of “Korean job discussion“.  click the link though and you’ll find several stickied threads with some very telling titles (see picture).  It is also relatively easy to find some horror stories if you scroll down a bit further, like this oneSo many complaints and enough job offers to warrant a separate section…clearly something was going wrong! 

Yet it seems like there is a almost a perfect mirror of this situation among Koreans themselves.  That is to say that while Koreans are getting a bad rap for their treatment of foreigners, the Korea press seems to take great delight in bashing foreigners.  While I suppose foreigner bashing sells papers in any country, it seems to be somewhat more pronounced in Korea

So rather than sympathy for foreign English teachers who are being exploited and abused by Koreans (to the extent that the US government tells people not to go there) many people seem to hold a massively negative view of the English teachers themselves.  The most shocking manifestation of this phenomena can be seen in this story about a Korean man who spends his free time tracking (stalking?) English teachers.  The chap in question believes he is protecting Korea from dodgy foreigners, though how he manages to spot the dodgy ones is anyone’s guess though he claims he has this ability.  Some believe that the group’s activities lead to the compulsory HIV testing of foreigners working in Korea.

I’ve always felt when reading these stories the best thing for both parties would be to just stop seeing each other.  Korea’s relationship with its English teachers seems to be like a failed marriage that continues “for the sake of the kids”.  If some Koreans abuse English teachers and believe that they are all lazy sexual predators, the best thing to do would be for teachers to stop going.  Of course, the problem is that what tends to happen is that the ‘good’ teachers will find work elsewhere in Asia and the very worst teachers who can’t manage to get work anywhere else may drift to Korea where teachers are in short supply (that’s not to say teachers in Korea are all ‘the very worst’).  These are just the kind of people that the Koreans seem to be worried about and yet they are creating the perfect conditions for them.

Luckily help seems to be at hand!  Engbots!  The article notes that “ unlike human teachers robots don’t need salaries or benefits.” which is perfect as by all accounts the some Koreans don’t like providing them. (edit: check comments -Mike tells me the Engbots thing is a bit of a myth.) 

As noted at the start I have never taught in Korea, so if you feel some of the information here is wrong or misleading please get in touch or comment and I’ll make every effort to change it.

The argument from linguistic regularity

The argument from supposed “linguistic regularity” is one of the key arguments language perscriptivists, mavens and their ilk use when trying to impress upon others the correctness of their view about language usage.  An example would be the word “innit” which comes in for much bashing and hand-wringing.  As with other terms which are derided or frowned upon, it is not surprising to find the term generally used by a groups which are also derided or frowned upon -namely young people, specifically inner-city young people.  It is important to remember that this is even true of favourable and less favourable accents in English.  Despite the language being perfectly understandable and used widely, it is considered somehow inferior, either funny or just unclear and weird. Brummies and  Scousers will understand this kind of attitude well.
So back to the example.  “innit” or so the argument goes, is not good English because it doesn’t make sense!  Innit is a tag question and as such should repeat the verb that precedes it, (or “do” in many cases):

You are, aren’t you?
he is, isn’t he
He went, didn’t he?
You haven’t been saying “innit” have you?

You like him, do you?
He went, did he?
You like him, you do!

So this regularity is presented as evidence that “innit” as an abbreviation of “isn’t it” is unacceptable. We say “you want to go, don’t you?” not “you want to go, isn’t it?” That doesn’t make any sense.  And so here we have an example of the argument from linguistic regularity.  However, as with most of these arguments, it is usually pretty easy to point out that “correct” language isn’t all that reliable or regular either.  In the case of tag questions we have this one.

I am, aren’t I?

Why not use the same form of the “be” verb here?  Why not say “I am, amn’t I”?  Obviously it sounds weird, because we don’t say it, but it much better fits the supposed “rule”.   The second problem is that we (or more precisely Americans) have no problem applying one tag to all questions.  The word “right” can be uniformly applied to every sentence, right?  It doesn’t seem odd, right?  It is something we’re used to, right?  It’s also pretty easy and not something English learners would have much trouble with.  French uses “n’est pas” in the same way and Japanese “ne” and according to the BBC these are called invariant tags.  Perhaps, therefore, if innit annoys you it is best to think of it as one word, like right, right?

The problem , I would argue, is that rules grew out of usage, not the other way round.  Like noticing people opening their umbrellas when it rains and assuming that the umbrella opening causes rain, we have perhaps got the relationship between rules and language the wrong way round.  Certainly we view written language as being more important, serious and accurate than spoken language despite the fact that written language has existed for a fraction of the time that spoken language has. 

English is not a regular language.Its plurals are odd and irregular (sheep, mice, children, wives,roofs, potatoes, cellos, babies, boxes, fungi), Pronouns are odd (I-me but you-you, I-we but you-you) spelling is weird (comb, bomb, tomb, finger singer), some verbs conjugate many times whereas others hardly change at all (eat-ate-eaten, look-looked-looked, put-put-put) some bjects look singular and yet are plural (glasses, jeans) and others look plural and yet are singular (the news, maths, physics), someone will write to you (if you’re british), but they won’t email to you.  And all of this is accepted with complete indifference. But should someone utter “innit” then call The Daily Mail because the world is possibly coming to an end.

 All living languages are like this so, why not just relax and enjoy the variety? Status Quo bias means we ignore the massive amounts of weirdness in our native language and only notice those new things we don’t like. Before you get upset about the way someone else is using language have a look at the roll call of history’ mavens and see how valid their complaints seem these days.

A Latte and a Panini, please!

Do you pronounce Latte the ‘wrong’ way?
Do you ever say you’d like a Panini?  

No doubt you are irritating a lot of people if you are.  As with my previous post, this one is going to look again at language which annoys others. 
I’ve been told a few times recently that I mustn’t say Panini because this is a plural noun and so can’t be used to talk about one of anything.  You wouldn’t say “I’d like a sandwiches” the theory goes and so don’t abuse Italian plurals. The same goes for “Latte” which people with a slightly posher pronunciation than mine tend to pronounce “lah-tte”.  The Italian experts among us know that ‘Latte’ is actually pronounced with a shorter ‘a’ and seem to take great pleasure in informing anyone who will listen that this is the case.
The problem is that these words are not being used in Italian. They have become albeit recently, English words.  Complaining about foreign “loan words” (as they are known) being misused in English and expecting to be taken seriously is asking a bit much since the logical conclusion would be the whole of the English language, which is constructed from odds and sods of other languages, unravelling. 
Even at a more basic level our Italian experts can’t have missed the other errors widely used in English.  Graffiti is a mass noun, spaghetti is never used with “are”  and zucchini is never changed to Zucchino when we only have one.  Not only this, ‘agenda’ is already plural and yet we have no problem sticking an “s” on the end.  We would never normally add an ‘s’ to media or data but both of these words have singular forms. In fact data (singular datum) is probably the only one still in contention with academics choosing to force the plural eg. “Where are the data?” whereas the singular mass noun is more comfortable for most native speakers “where is the data?”
As for the pronunciation issue, this is something that has always bothered me. People get quite upset about pronunciation and it’s linked quite strongly to people’s sense of identity.  Apparently the BBC has a pronunciation unit which strives to make sure names of people and places are said correctly.  I’m sure they would advise on “Latte” rather than “Lah-tte” but realistically how far can this be taken. There are hundreds of languages in the world and many of them have sounds which it is just not reasonable to expect a non-native speaker to produce. Like the word !Kung which most of us would fail at or pretty much any Chinese word. Yes, you might get the pronounciation of “Xiao” correct but you’ll probably not get the tone right, which means you’re prononuncing it so badly, it’s become another word altogether. Thus when a word enters a foreign language, it’s not surprising that it might change to fit the available sounds. 
I’ve also noticed that people only seem to get sniffy with European languages or languages they know. If you happen to pronounce ‘croissant’ (as my mother does) as “cross-on” then there will be a fair bit of eye-rolling. However, say “karaoke” the English way and no one will mind at all. Conversely if you do actually say it in the ‘correct’ way you’ll likely be considered a show-off or a bit of a weirdo. That’s assuming anyone understands you. No one would think of trying to correct others over this type of mistake so why is correction acceptable for some languages and for certain words?  Isn’t it rather bizarre to expect people to switch from one phonological system to another mid-sentence?  As I mentioned earlier, taken to its logical conclusion we would have to revert to saying “accident” , “various”, “cake”, “alcohol” and “shampoo” in French, Latin, Norse, Arabic and Hindi, respectively.  So why not just forgive the next person who says “lah-tte”?