English as an exercise in mechanical speak and responseA Korean businessman is run down by a car while on a trip to the United States. The paramedics arrive and ask him: “Are you O.K.?” The businessman, soaked with blood, murmurs, “I am fine, thank you. And you?”
If this tragic story made you laugh, you either learned English in Korea or taught English here long enough to appreciate the humor. I have to admit that I used to parrot that stock response when I started learning English. But you cannot blame Korean students. Their first English classes at school require them to memorize the dialogues in their textbooks. Ask a young Korean “How are you?” He will probably spout the fine-thank-you-and-you line with a visible sense of pride. And this would make my first English teacher, Ms. Kim, exceedingly happy.
Ms. Kim, also known as Kim The Goblin, believed that rote memorization was the best ― and only ― way to learn a foreign language. Respected linguists like Noam Chomsky probably would not agree with her, but she had a firm belief backed by an I-know-what-I’m-doing attitude. Because of Ms. Kim, I can still recite the first few chapters of my middle-school English texts. The books starred Tony and In-su, who started every conversation by asking, “How are you?” And then they moved on to “Fine, thank you. And you?”
Ms. Kim also believed deeply in giving her students the chance to speak English, so she started every class by calling on a student and asking, “How are you?” At first, when she called my name, I would stand and give her the answer she expected. But I happened to love learning foreign languages and after awhile I had had seen enough “Sesame Street” and “General Hospital” to be bode enough to try something new. So on one occasion I said, “Can’t complain. Thanks for asking, ma’am.” I never imagined that my answer would make Kim The Goblin act in such a devilish way. Dubbing me, then 13, an unforgivable revolutionary, she sternly reprimanded me. I shifted back into the fine-thank-you-and-you mode.
The Goblin found her composure and moved on to the day’s verb conjugation lesson, and I made up my mind to be a nice, submissive student for the rest of the day. But when she incorrectly conjugated the verb “to choose” on the blackboard and asked us to copy it 20 times as homework, I could not let her slide. I raised my hand, daring to defend what was right. Taken aback, Ms. Kim corrected neither herself nor me. Later that day, she returned to the classroom and admitted that she had made a mistake.
Do not get me wrong. I do not think Ms. Kim was a bad teacher. Everybody, even native speakers of English, makes mistakes now and then. Maybe I should call her up for old times’ sake. This time, if she asks how I am doing, I would be happy to say, “Fine, thank you. And you?”
Maturity tends to take the edge off linguistic rebellion.
by Chun Su-jin
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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