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East Meets West: In the Classroom

  Shortly after arriving in Korea and starting work as an English Instructor, one of the very first differences I noticed was the difference in Classroom culture.  I remember being rather taken aback by the behaviour of some students.  Now, obviously, I understand all these differences and accept them as difference in culture - a culture, which, of course, is evidently very different to the culture I have been used to.
  From a very young age I was encouraged to ask questions.  As far as I can remember, even in primary school and then all the way through to university, I clearly remember always being encouraged to ask questions in class.  And directly to the teacher.  Asking questions in class often prompted an interesting (and sometimes even heated ) discussion between myself, other students and the teacher.  Looking back now on the numerous seminar sessions I had as a university and graduate school student, I feel that these discussions were a great chance for myself and others to share our opinions and offer each other different perspectives and the ability to perceive each point from a different angle.  Therefore, it can be said that participation is a key element to a students' studies and in some cases students are rewarded with grades based on their participation. 

  This is, of course, quite different from the classroom culture in Korea.  One striking point I notice in Korean classrooms is the timidity of the students.  They are in comparison a lot more passive, and it seems that they are accustomed to listening and taking notes quietly rather than speaking out and presenting any questions.  Even today, I sometimes have students who would rather whisper any queries or concerns to their fellow student seated next to them rather that come out and ask me the question directly.
  Whereas in British classrooms students are treated as equals on the class, Korea's culture of respecting elders affects students' behaviour in the classroom directly.  Students are taught from an early age to respect the teacher and respect the difference in role (Teacher-Student) and also the difference in age (Older person-Younger person).
  In the West, however, students look teachers in the eye when they talk to them and it is not unusual to call teachers by their first names.  I remember I started calling teachers by their first names in college (not as in university college, but as in the tertiary college usually attended by students from the ages of 16-18, the British equivalent of high school).  Having spent my school years up until that point calling teachers Mr. So and so or Miss/Mrs. So and so, it was strange for me at first to call my college teachers by their first names.  It took some time to get used to but as time went by I found it a lot more comfortable, and the teachers also seemed to prefer it.
  This, naturally, could seem a little odd in Korea.  Korean culture is one that is unique and special.  Due to long-stemmed Confucian beliefs, Koreans are taught to respect those older than themselves.  A lot of this can be seen simply in the usage of the language.  There are different forms of the language, which express the speaker's identity and role or even 'level'.  When speaking to elders, it is important to use the honorific form.  In fact, in the early stages of my Korean language learning, differentiating the different forms of the language was one of the trickiest parts.  Exactly when and where to use the honorific form, or when to present oneself in the humble form, when to change to the informal form used between friends and people on closer terms  all this took some time to get used to.
  I believe the language also helps to maintain a distance between younger and older people, and also between student and teacher.  Although there are formal and informal forms of the English language, it is no way as prominent as the Korean language and therefore not only in the classroom but also in the work environment is it usual to speak to people senior to oneself in a friendly and less formal manner.
  Being aware of this big difference in culture, I try to show my students the classroom culture from where I come from.  I always check if students have any questions.  I try to always listen to what they have to say.  I make an effort to create a warm, inviting environment for them to learn in.  I try to smile a lot and make them feel comfortable about asking questions and talking. 
  Another thing I remember is that when I first came to Korea I was a little confused by the fact that students seemed embarrassed when I looked them in the eye while talking, or when I flashed them a smile if eye contact was made.  As time went by, I learned that looking older people in the eye is considered impolite in Korea.  I've been told that when Koreans talk to each other, they usually focus on the nose, mouth or lower areas of the facial region.  Or sometimes they give a quick glance at the eyes and then look to the side.  Although this is changing a lot in recent times, I still get students who look down at their books while I talk to them.
  In the West, it's important to make eye contact with the person you are talking to.  Not doing so may give the impression of being shifty, suspicious or guilty.  I often tell my students this and they try to make an effort to look me in the eye while talking after they hear this.
  I think that ones' character changes when speaking in a different language.  I think that students should use the vast differences in the culture to their advantage.  They can forget about the difference in age or sex of the people they are talking to.  When students speak English they can come out of their shells and be more outgoing than they usually would be.  Not only will they be able to make the most of their English class in terms of language acquisition, but also they will be able to taste the culture of the language they are learning.

Vivian Chung  ryeong@dongguk.edu

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