Thursday, January 13, 2011

topics that actually work in my adult ESL conversation classes

A huge part of my job here is teaching discussion classes. I now have two: one everyday at 6:30 am (ouch!!) for an hour, and one that meets T/R night for two and a half hours.

Basically I show up and hand them a short article, and then we discuss it. My goal is simply to keep them talking and try to point out the following: useful vocabulary, Konglish that sounds weird to native speakers, common mistakes, errors in syntax, and awkward phrasing. And of course it helps if the article I assign actually engages the students and is related to things they like to talk about.

At first I was really, really, really clueless about how to accomplish this feat. To an extent that I now can only look back on with embarrassment. In defense of my former self I had never actually run a classroom before, had never been to Asia before, had never hung out with Korean people, and knew nothing about the culture here.

And the culture of education in Korea is really different. Recently The Wall Street Journal published this article, entitled Why Chinese Mothers are Superior. The author is a first generation mom writing about what Chinese parents expect from kids in the way of their attitude towards stuff like school and the inevitable piano lessons. Granted Korea is not China, but both are Confucian cultures - and both are radically different from the West. Basically Amy Chua says that she expects her kids to always get straight A's, work their asses off, practice piano till they bleed, and not ever give up.

In Korean culture the responsibility of learning is on the student, not the teacher. And respecting teachers is a huge deal. Students are not supposed to question the teacher's methods - that would be disrespectful. In Confucian culture education is based on rote memorization, which Amy Chua says is undervalued in the West. So students expect to get drilled non-stop, ordered to memorize lots of stuff, and do what they're told - not to come in and have fun talking and expressing themselves.

So when I do stuff that adult students don't like they don't usually tell me. Unless they have gotten to know me and they feel really comfortable. If they are bored they don't complain, they just sit there. If they are confused they are sometimes too embarrassed to ask for clarification. If I ask them questions that they don't understand they usually just sit there silently and don't respond, cringing inwardly in horror. I now understand when adult students are bored, or confused, or otherwise not happy. But it took me a long time to learn to get the signals. Which mainly have to do with subtle facial expressions. That may be true in any culture. But Korean students are definitely more shy. And much more reserved. Which can be really tough to deal with when your job is to make them talk.

Learning seems to be very passive in Korea. Which affects me mainly in that it can be REALLY hard to get feedback from adult students. Usually they just disappear if they don't dig the class. Or if things are really bad they complain - in Korean - to my manager, who then relays the complaint to me. For a long time I wanted more feedback and suggestions, because I knew I could improve. And in the main it seems like fostering an atmosphere where students feel comfortable seems to facilitate that better than anything.

Also I feel much more confident now as a teacher. Which makes me more comfortable teaching, which makes students more comfortable in my classes. Korean culture is pretty hierarchical. People expect strong leadership from people who are running the show. I had to learn to step up and take charge, but to be sensitive to the subtle ways people showed their feelings.

And of course, humor helps. It took me forever, but I finally learned to understand Korean culture enough to learn how to make people laugh here. My usual humor revolves around sarcasm, absurdity, and wit. None of which works in a Korean ESL classroom, for a host of cultural and linguistic factors. Sarcasm can work a little bit, but it doesn't go far here. So basically now I have to make topical jokes. Like "Man, I was so upset when Kim Jong-il shelled Yeonypeong Island. I didn't wanna have to look for another job..." Koreans also like to rib each other about relationships, as in the 3rd-grade-level "Oh, is that your boyfriend?" while talking to a hot young chick and pointing to an old fat guy. Stuff like that. Its cheesy but it works here.

So in general here's some things that I've found that most adult Korean students, who come to my particular hagwon, like to talk about in ESL conversation classes:
  1. Food. Always a hit. Food is a really integral part of Korean culture, and its something we all have experienced and have opinions about.
  2. Travel. Koreans love to travel. And that's something that most English-speaking adults have some interesting stories about. If they haven't worked internationally then its likely they lived abroad to study and/or improve their English. And if they haven't done that they've probably gone on vacation in another country. Korea is, after all, pretty damn little. Middle-aged professionals have usually traveled a fair amount, although college students may not have had the chance yet.
  3. Business - if there are businesspeople in the class. Most Korean businesspeople and business students have to learn to speak English well, so there are usually at least a few around.
  4. Economics. Is interesting to the people in #3, and affects us all.
  5. Finance. Which the businesspeople got really excited about. But which I basically know nothing about, so I had to sit back a little bit and let them talk. Which wasn't a problem at all; they talked so much the hour flew by.
  6. Random Korean news - that is if you can find a decent article about it. Most English-language Korean papers are god-awful. The problems is that many of the news articles are about politics, which can lead to a minefield. Most Korean people I talk to utterly hate their current president, but its never safe to assume that everyone concurs.
  7. Booze and drunkenness. Korea has a huge drinking culture, so you can get them to talk about that - especially among men. Korean men drink a lot to combat stress, and because they are often pressured to by their co-workers at office parties. But not everyone drinks so that doesn't always work. All the men have also served in the military, but the experience sounds totally miserable to me.
  8. Kids. People with children like to talk about their family. Women find this more interesting than men, and more professionally focused guys don't really care too much or have much to say. Salarymen don't get to see their wives and kids much; they have to work 12 hours a day.
  9. Articles from The Wall Street Journal that aren't necessarily related to economics or politics. Stuff from the Life & Style section can be good. They have well-written articles about common interest topics. Like shopping for clothes, jet lag, or gourmet pizza.
  10. Stuff that is relevant to the students' careers. Find out what they do, what they studied in college, "What's your major?", and start trying to learn about that field so you can talk to them about it. Sometimes this strategy backfires with college kids because they may be so focused on being obedient that they don't really have many independent ideas about their chosen field.
I'd like to do more articles about pop-culture in Korea, which is actually a huge international export. But I can't speak Korean, I don't have cable, my tv barely works, and I have yet to see any Korean movies other than the one I watched on a bus once - which was all in hangul. I can't get the subtitles to work when I download Korean-language movies, and while I did watch a few episodes of The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince for a while, my internet connection was so slow that the streaming site kept freezing up.

I'd also like to note that there are a few topics that have come up over and over that I didn't expect. Many Korean businessmen seem to be totally infatuated with the idea of how great it would be to work for Google. MBC ran a wildly popular documentary a year or two ago called Tears of the Amazon that lots of people were really into. Koreans have a broad knowledge of America, although lots of what they know revolves around Hollywood, politics, and the like. You can talk about Japan, but many Koreans hate Japan because of the bad blood between them in history. You can talk about China, but the same sentiment applies, and Koreans tend to think of the Chinese as being dirty, weird, and backwards. Some younger people go to India on vacation since its nearby and they speak English, but some older people think India is dirty and gross. Many people have been to Australia, but most people really don't know much about it.

Topics that have failed miserably:
  1. Politics. Which many people are passionate about, but which is treacherous. Most Koreans love to tell you how much they detest President Lee and everything he does. But I once made the grave error of letting a class discussion delve into those sentiments and thus gravely offended his lone supporter in the class. She actually looked like she was about to cry.
  2. History. Bores the living shit out of most people in general I believe.
  3. Currency conflicts within international politics, which has been in the news a lot. No one understood it except one guy who was an economist. You tell me about international monetary markets. I don't know jack.
  4. Environmental news. Which is also in the news sometimes, and which I care about. But most people really don't think about it all.
  5. The Arts. Which usually interests one or two people, who are usually older than most of the class. And seems totally unfamiliar and boring to most everyone else. They look at me like little kids being forced to sit through an opera in Swedish.
  6. Philosophy. Which gets into some Confucian stuff that is more about morals than ideas.
  7. Science. Which most people don't care about unless they happen to be doctors and the article happens to be about something related to medicine.
  8. Things related to social issues that Koreans don't want to talk about. Like immigration to Korea. Which people either don't want to talk about because they are openly hostile and they don't wanna get into a debate, or because they just find it distasteful to think about. Or possibly because they are slightly embarrassed to discuss how conservative Korean society is in front of an American.
  9. American news about stuff that is unfamiliar to people living in East Asia. Like the article I tried about prison overcrowding in California. No one knew enough about it to really have a conversation. Which surprised me because Koreans love American CSI type crime dramas. They are on tv every day almost all day. Koreans hear a lot about the US, but in general only the loudest voices from American media make it over here.
  10. Most news articles from English-language Korean newspapers. Which are usually total crap picked up off some international AP wire. Or conservative political stumping thinly disguised as news, which often sounds like the 'official' news emanating from some state Politburo in a dictatorship. English-language Korean news sounds like the news people get in a country where the government pretends to be a democracy, but really isn't. Like in 1970's South America. The Koreans know it too; more than a few have mentioned that they think the government censors or manipulates the media. And more than being blatantly partisan its just really, really bad. They print crappy little articles with jacked up syntax and stories that barely cover the basics of what a news story should do: namely inform readers about current events.
I have also just recently become aware of the dynamic that exists between adult ESL students with regard to age. The younger students tend to look to their elder classmates for direction. They expect the older people to lead things a bit. They look to them for cues. When someone tells me that something I'm doing isn't working its almost always someone older than me, and older than most of the class. So getting to know the older people in the class is usually really helpful; the younger students will tend to follow their lead in discussions.

The flip side of that oh-so-Confucian dynamic is that younger students are sometimes too embarrassed and intimidated to talk - especially if their English is weaker. So sometimes I have to work really hard to get them to say anything. This is completely cultural; younger employees of Korean firms expect to have all their decisions made by their senior colleagues. Their silence represents due respect to one's elders. They will point-blank not react to a direct question if they feel too uncomfortable, or the question doesn't make sense to them. They just don't know what to do.

Students will also totally not react to questions or prompts if they just aren't into it. Once I dragged in a piece of crap little article that was some rip-off of a Dear Abby piece. Some parents wrote in because their kids were awful brats and they didn't know what to do. It was, admittedly, really horrible. I figured we could at least make fun of how bad it was, or how stupid the people in the article were. But everyone just totally did not react in any way to any of my questions. Because they weren't into it. I felt totally ignored, and slighted. But I know they were just trying to be polite and not say what they were thinking. Culture clash really can be a bitch.

These are some of the many things I've learned the hard way during my first year here in Korea.


  1. Interesting reading. I'm teaching in Russia, I find discussion is either really easy or very difficult. It depends on the students far more than the topic.

  2. Interesting reading. I'm teaching in Russia.

  3. Thanks for some insight into teaching International students. I will be teaching Korean Middle School Students for a 1 week camp. Any ideas or suggestions? I have never taught International students before. Thanks!

  4. I find Koreans (especially the men) to be very romantic. They like to talk about their first love. Also, things like "what would you take on a deserted island" are generally pretty good. Once I get to know them, I also have had them act out articles that they read. Each person is a character from the article. Then they are more able to see different points of view.

    The challenge - for me - has always been about getting beyond the facts. They know gobs of facts (rote memorization) but they can't apply them. They can answer "What are supporting details" but can't construct them.

    For the engineers, I've had them explain things like why a squared plus b squared always equals c squared for a right triangle. (Pythagorus). They really did well with that. I've also had them explain how a motor worked. It was a great way to get them to learn / use vocabulary, and I learned a lot too!

    That was a good read.
    Best wishes.

  5. I worked in Korea and found the people really interested in English prisons especially if I told them one item of interest and then they could compare it with Korean prisons. They couldn´t beleive how laid back the English prison system seems to be.

  6. I certainly agree on the failing topics list! I typically have one student per class interested in each of environment, science, politics, business, and none in philosophy! Articles don't keep them happy either, so I've had to juggle topics with a grammar focus, and audio/video snippets to keep their interest up.

    The best topics in my classes are definitely travel, books, food, local gigs and hobbies. But there are only so many times you can cover these topics with the same students (some of mine have been with me for a year or so now!)

  7. I really liked your take on conversation classes for adults. I'm teaching English in Argentina and it sounds very different to Korea! Adults are very chatty here even if their English isn't good, and they love talking about politics but it usually ends in tears! I always start off with the same topics food, travel, hobbies, music, films etc and then according to the students interests I try some more abstract things. I find using games is a good way to get the class started too, taboo is the best game I think!

  8. You're spot on with these topics for adults. I'd like to share my 22 conversation topics for Asian adult students. They're all free and please share.

  9. Hello and thanks for your great post. I have tutored English to Hispanic adults but am new to tutoring a Korean English. Does anyone have material recommendations for a Korean college student seeking 3 sessions of tutoring per week for 4 weeks while attending a golf school. I have found the SureFire download which seems great but would like some sort of structured grammar lessons to go over. Thank you!

  10. Good read, concise, observant and informative. I have been teaching in Japan for 27 years, and it sounds like Korean students are similar to Japanese in a lot of ways. If you have picked up this much in your first year, you have done extremely well. Respect!