Down the rabbit hole to English class
“I have three arms, and I am usually hung on the wall or on the desk,” the quizmaster says. “I don’t eat often, but I usually eat batteries. People use me to tell time. What am I?”
The quizmaster stands at the entrance to Seocho English Park, an “Alice in Wonderland” style theme park where English is the only language and surrealism is the defining motif.
Seocho English Park, also known as Alice Park, sits on 4,000 square meters (one acre) in Yangjae, southern Seoul. Besides having plenty of opportunities to converse in English, visitors can play games, perform in plays, make crafts and learn about American culture. The park employs 12 native speakers as teachers in addition to 10 bilingual assistants, who serve as guides.
The Seocho district, which includes Yangjae, wanted to create a place where visitors could practice everyday English expressions outside of a classroom. Since 2003, it had been operating a teacher exchange program, in which American English teachers were assigned to schools in the district, but it felt the program was limited and wanted to do something more. The solution was an English theme park.
The characters and buildings in the park are all modeled after “Alice in Wonderland.” Most of the buildings, which are shaped like a shoe, cat, cave, hat or giant cog, serve as classrooms. Random objects, including oversized apples, mushrooms, logs, flowers, frogs and cutout soldiers have sensors that recognize approaching visitors, cuing them to speak up.
For example, there’s a “flying log” that teaches words and phrases commonly used when traveling. The cutout soldier plays a game similar to “Simon Says,” commanding visitors to raise their hands or stand on one foot.
Real-life characters also wander around the park, dressed up as a tourist, photographer, reporter, magician, police officer and, of course, the quizmaster. The tourist asks directions, the reporter wants to interview visitors, the photographer takes pictures of visitors, the magician shows off magic tricks and the police officer hands out yellow cards to those who speak languages other than English.
The teachers say they prefer acting in a park to working in a classroom.
“I really wanted to travel, but I didn’t have money, so I decided to get a job in another country, and Korea seemed really exciting,” said Amanda from Portland, Oregon.
“Most teachers are in their early 20s and are interested in traveling in Asia,” said Kang Soo-hyun, an official at White Next, the park’s operator. “They think of it as a life-enhancing experience.”
One of the things teachers and visitors say they like about the theme park is the fact that there is no curriculum or textbook to follow and students don’t have to spend time memorizing sentences.
A Canadian teacher named Jeffrey said he used to teach English at a private institution, but decided to teach here instead because of the informal atmosphere.
“The offer was like any university or public school,” Jeffrey said. “But the main thing that I liked about this job was the setting.”
The teachers use their actions to explain words and phrases. In the Tic-Tac Clock House (so named because it has giant cogs stuck in the roof), four kids played a game with a colorful parachute. The teacher told the children to shake, lift up, go under or let go of the parachute and asked them to say the words out loud as they did so.
Parents are equally attracted to the informal style of learning.
“They’re actually doing it rather than just learning the word ‘shake.’ They’re actually shaking the object,” said Lee Ji-young, a mother of one of the children in the clock house. “The children like it more because it’s not like studying.”
by Limb Jae-un
The park is open from 9:30 a.m. through 5 p.m., except Mondays. Visitors are advised to first check www.alicepark.co.kr or call (02) 2058-0505.