Yearning and learning: Adventures in English compositionI recently assigned my first-grade class an essay on why they like spring. Most of the responses I got were fairly standard ― the usual drivel about bees and flowers. One student, however, provided a more creative exegesis. He wrote, “I yearn for the warm weather of spring.”
I, too, yearned for the warm weather of spring, and I’m glad it’s here. But I was surprised to see the word “yearn” in my student’s paper. I couldn’t recall ever teaching the word “yearn,” to anyone ― and certainly not a class of 7-year-old Koreans. I also felt confident that “yearn,” which, according to Webster’s, means “to long persistently, wistfully, or sadly,” had not appeared in any of the story books this student had read. In fact, Western society doesn’t teach kids about emotions like yearning until they are older. Most 7-year-olds don’t yearn for much, and if they do they probably don’t know that what they feel is yearning. It’s almost an unwritten rule that you need to be at least in high school before you start to yearn.
So all this begs the question, where did my student come across such an esoteric word? The answer is simple: his Korean-English dictionary, where students turn when they can’t think of the right English word to describe their ideas. The results of these dictionary searches are often interesting.
I’ll give you two other examples. A 6-year-old girl in one of my classes wrote that when it rained on her school field trip, the class felt much “discontent,” which Webster’s defines as “a sense of grievance” or “restless aspiration for improvement.” By this account I feared that the teacher might soon have to put down a rebellion.
Sometimes I’m frustrated that my students don’t express themselves using the English words I’ve taught them in class. But then I remind myself that it’s hard to learn a foreign language. I’m happy that they’re making an effort to express themselves. It’s my job as a teacher to teach them how to do it more effectively. For if they continue to rely too much on their Korean-English dictionaries, the consequences, as one of my 5-year-olds might proffer, could be lugubrious.
The writer, an American, teaches at a private institute in Seongnam, Gyeonggi province.
by Justin Short