[KS] failed Koreanists littering the streets
jrpking at interchange.ubc.ca
jrpking at interchange.ubc.ca
Sat Apr 12 19:29:06 EDT 2003
Dear list members:
The latest postings about the 'difficulty' of Korean, hanja, etc., are subjects dear to my heart, and coincide with a lengthy review I am writing of the new KLEAR ('Hawaii') Korean language textbook series. Below I excerpt the bit about 'difficulty', but before doing that, I would simply add that nowadays, when students ask me 'how difficult is Korean', I reply: "The first 20 years are difficult, but after that it gets easier." Which is still a lie.
Here's that excerpt:
"The Preface to _Integrated Korean: Beginning 1_, by Ho-min Sohn, KLEAR President and Professor of Korean Language and Linguistics at the University of Hawaii, is enough to put off any prospective student of the language, and raises two thorny issues: 1) the question of how difficult the Korean language is, especially for learners whose mother tongue is English, and 2) the question of how honest Korean teachers should be in alerting or warning prospective learners as to the enormity of the task that awaits them. Thus, his first paragraph tells the reader that Korean is one of the most difficult languages for English speakers, has profoundly distinct features, entirely different sound patterns, an intricate hierarchical system of honorifics, and vast linguistic, sociolinguistic and cultural differences; it is, he concludes, a truly foreign language. All this is true, and Professor Sohn is to be commended for his honesty. But this reviewer wonders if the future investment required of neophyte learners of Korean should not be made even more explicit -- if only because so many would-be learners (as well as their parents and would-be teachers!) seem not to appreciate what is at stake, resulting in many false starts and much wasted time and effort. The bigger issue, then, and one which has yet to be faced squarely by practitioners, is How honest should we be to our first-year students about what they are in for? How many of us have seen students blithely sign up for first-year Korean, then drop out after a couple weeks, or maybe even a couple of terms, when they realize that their roommates in second-year French are reading full-length novels while they still cant enjoy a real conversation with a Korean?
Unofficial figures from the US governments Defense Language Institute (DLI) indicate that DLI students (who typically have studied at least two other foreign languages, and hold at least one Masters degree) require an average of 2200~2500 hours of classroom instruction (in classes typically a third the size of the average university course) to reach a 2+ ranking in just listening and reading (?) in Korean. Technically, then, Korean is as difficult for English adult learners as Chinese, Japanese and Arabic, the other three languages in Category III, the most difficult of the languages taught at the DLI. Level I languages like French or Spanish require an investment of just 400-600 hours for the same 2+ ranking. (A 3 ranking qualifies one to use the target language in a work environment; there are no reliable statistics on how long it takes to get from a 2+ ranking into the higher ranks, but this reviewer suspects the numbers go up exponentially for Korean).
How many novice learners of Korean at university would sign up for first-year Korean if they knew that four years of study at the undergraduate level (if, of course, their institution is one of the few such schools in North America to even offer a full 4-year curriculum) would yield, at most, 400-500 hours of classroom instruction, not even a quarter of the figure deemed necessary by an experienced US government institution that by now has graduated nearly 20,000 Korean linguists with just a 2+ proficiency ranking?
While on the face of it Korean is no more difficult than Japanese or Chinese in this sense, the enormity of the task facing the would-be learner of Korean is in fact much greater. Most reputable Japanese and Chinese-language programs offer the possibility of intensive instruction (ten hours per week) for the first two years of university instruction, a provision that simultaneously alerts the student to the sizeable commitment and investment needed to make any serious headway, and actually allows students to attain some modicum of basic proficiency by the end of two years of study. Moreover, both Japanese and Chinese are infinitely better served when it comes to a) the variety of trained and experienced instructors, b) the range of textbooks, reference materials, learner aids, and other crucial back-up materials required by committed learners and dedicated teachers alike, as well as c) the possibilities for extended study abroad in Korea and the infrastructure available in Korea for such study.
But there is another factor that complicates the picture with Korean language education, one that is not addressed at all in this Preface or the KLEAR materials -- the issue of heritage vs. non-heritage learners. Both King (1998) and Sohn Sung-ock (1994) have argued that the backgrounds and needs of these two potentially very different kinds of learner are sufficient to warrant separate tracks or streams in university programs, and such a position also implies the need for different sorts of teaching materials for these two types of student. The KLEAR materials do not make explicit anywhere who their target audience is -- heritage or non-heritage learners -- but it seems apparent that non-heritage learners were foremost in the authors minds.
This is unfortunate, because, unlike the situation with Chinese and Japanese language education at the post-secondary level, where heritage learners rarely predominate in classrooms and instruction in Japanese/Chinese as a Foreign Language can proceed with little notion of pretense, the vast majority of students enrolled in North American Korean language courses are heritage learners of Korean descent. Whoever the intrepid learners are, one must agree with the closing lines of the Introduction that . . . English-speaking students who study Korean deserve praise for undertaking such a difficult but invaluable language, which has enormous cultural, academic, economic and strategic significance.
And so on. I'm coming around to the view that we should be brutally honest (i.e., scare away as many students as possible) in the first days of "Beginning Korean" -- most students just aren't ready for the investment required, and they end up wasting everybody's time (theirs and their teachers').
I can still count on two hands the number of non-heritage learners of Korean from North America that I have personally met who command Korean at a level higher than 2+ and learned their Korean at university in North America (in other words, not counting missionaries, Peace Corps grads, and soldiers & spies). This is a serious indictment of the current state of language teaching in our field.
Associate Professor of Korean, University of British Columbia
Dean, Korean Language Village, Concordia Language Villages
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