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Lying to your students for fun and (educational) profit

Evil Christian Santa at the Jeonju Lantern FestivalEvil Christian Santa at the Jeonju Lantern Festival
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Aug 07 2012

Robin Hanson relates this story of a favorite professor who challenged his students to find a single lie he included in every lecture. It’s a great technique for getting students to engage with your content, and I can’t wait to try it next semester.

A problem with English education in Korea is that it produces students with a great deal of book knowledge who are nonetheless incapable of communicating in English. This problem begins in elementary school and can continue through to adult life. There is one teacher at my school who is currently doing his PhD and reads academic articles in English, but cannot or will not speak English at all. This lack of communicative ability is not true of all students, but particularly for reticent and bookish students, it can be a big problem – the system’s focus on tests that don’t include a speaking component allows students to “study English” without ever really having to produce it.

One of my favorite techniques for overcoming this is to say things which are outrageous or provocative enough that students will activate their English just to disagree with me. It’s a technique that requires a light touch – it always has to be in fun, or you risk alienating your students. But done well it can be very successful. Here are three examples.

Korea “loses” a big match in the World Cup

In their opening match of the 2010 World Cup, Korea defeated Greece. The entire country watched the match, and none more avidly than my sixth grade boys.

The next day in class, I opened by asking them if they had seen the match. They had.

“It was very exciting!” I said. They agreed that it was.

“Park Ji Sung is very good at soccer,” I said. They agreed he was.

“And…” – and here I paused – “Greece won!”

Suddenly, every boy in the class could speak English…

I am friends with Santa

In December, there was a Christmas-themed lesson in the sixth grade textbook. Lamely, the characters in the textbook seemed to believe in the existence of Santa. I knew that my students would crap on this, so I decided to have some fun.

After we watched the video, I asked my students if they believed in Santa. Of course they didn’t.

“Santa is real,” I said.

“No,” they said.

“Santa is my friend. I met him at a party in Australia.” They laughed, but were having none of it.

“We talk on the phone all the time,” I said.

“Give me your phone!” they demanded.

What they didn’t realize is that I had anticipated this before class, and had programmed my phone with Santa’s number. They screamed when they saw it and spent five minutes telling me what a liar I was. In English. My favorite was one of my more advanced students, who came up to my after class and said, “Teacher, I think you are very bored. That is why you lie and say Santa is your friend.”

The phone number was my own, by the way – when they tried to call it they got only an engaged signal. I told them that Santa was very busy at that time of year.

I don’t speak Korean

This is my favorite – I managed to get three months of arguments in English out of my students with this one. It is also my answer to the question, “Should I speak Korean to my students?”

For most new teachers coming to Korea this isn’t a problem. But when I was with the TaLK program, there were a lot of teachers with Korean ancestry, many of whom spoke fluent Korean, and the question came up. Their problem was that if they spoke in Korean, the elementary students would simply think they were Korean, and never speak to them in English again.

If you do speak Korean when you first start teaching, my advice would be to say that you don’t, at least for the first few months. On your first or second day it will seem to you impossible that you can communicate without it, and you will be tempted to bring your Korean out. But it is possible – and if you say you can’t speak Korean, you can always change your mind later. But you can’t put it back in the box – once you’ve outed yourself, you’re a Korean-speaker forever.

I know a couple of such teachers who went an entire year without speaking Korean – then, at the end, spoke to their kids in fluent Korean, to delighted/horrified reactions. I know of another teacher who went three months without speaking Korean, until a student insulted him – then he turned around and snapped in Korean, “You better apologize right now.” Of course, he got a very fast and humble apology.

In my case, when I first came to Korea, it wasn’t a problem. I had no Korean, and so as I learned it, I was happy to try it out on my kids. I think it’s helpful for them to see that their teacher, too, finds learning languages difficult.

When I started my second year and changed schools, though, I had a problem. My Korean had advanced to the point where I could get across my meaning and hold very simple conversations, but I certainly couldn’t keep up in Korean for more than a few sentences. I also wanted to keep the kids off-guard, so they wouldn’t make rude comments in Korean when I was trying to teach them. So I hit upon my solution, which provided endless amusement for me, and was very effective in provoking my students into using their English.

I told them, loudly and frequently, that I didn’t speak Korean. When they tried to get me to say “Anyeong haseyo,” I would repeat it back to them, mangling it horribly.

Except – once in a while – I would make a “mistake”, and use a word or two of Korean.

My students would then seize on this and scream, “Teacher! You speak Korean very well.” I would then make up absurd explanations as to how they had misheard me, and what I had really said were English words that sounded similar to Korean ones. This both gave them handy mnemonics for English words, and provoked them into using all the English they could to point out how completely stupid my explanations were.

Eventually, my co-teacher went on maternity leave, and I outed myself as somebody who could speak (very limited) Korean. I find knowing some Korean useful for teaching low-level students. For higher level students, it’s not a problem – they will always try to speak English to the teacher with the white face. These days I often have conversations with some of my favorite students in which I speak about eighty percent of the time in Korean, and they speak an equal amount in English. I’m not certain that evolving a pidgin language together is a useful learning technique – there’s a lot of code-switching sentences like “아이고, I’m very very 심심해.” But it makes communication easier, and is a natural result of interaction between two incompletely bilingual people.

Waegukin wrote these 1202 words on August 7th, 2012 | Posted in Teaching |


2 comments on “Lying to your students for fun and (educational) profit”

  1. Aragond says:

    Your teasing your students in these ways is a brilliant and very amusing teaching technique and I commend your ingenuity. And I just LOVE that you know/knew Santa in Australia. Brilliance!

    If you don’t mind me asking, and perhaps you have addressed this in a post already (feel free to just point me), how did you get on with an Australian accent (I am making an assumption here, of course) in Korea, a land – as I understand it – where the only REAL English accent is a Californian one? I hear some Hagwon won’t employ Aussies or Kiwis or EVEN Brits *because* their accent “isn’t the correct one”. Experiences?

    Great and very amusing blog. Thank you and keep it going.

  2. The Waegukin says:

    It’s never been too much of a problem. Some people did have trouble understanding me when I first started. You quickly learn to hit your final “r” sounds hard in words like “teacher”. The other sound that causes problems is /æ/ vs /ɑ:/ in words like “bath”.

    I found my accent changed as much subconsciously as consciously, just from positive and negative feedback from my students. Any gathering of Aussies will usually feature some mutual teasing about American notes creeping into accents.

    These days my accent is super-neutral; nobody can tell where I’m from, including other Australians. I kind of like it that way. That doesn’t happen for everyone, and I suspect is partially to do with how big a part your nationality and accent play in your self-identity. I liked the idea of an unplaceable accent, and so didn’t fight it.

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