I’m a native English speaker, yet my English speaking ability is getting worse. Why? Because I teach English to people in Korea.
The notion seems odd, doesn’t it? How can teaching ESL make you worse at speaking your own language? Strange as it may be, I’m sure of it. Let’s start at the beginning…
The old adage, ‘Those who can’t do, teach’ is not one I advocate or believe in.
That phrase makes teaching sound like something anybody could do, which simply isn’t true. At the drop of a hat, I could easily name ten people who would probably quit, get sacked or be convicted for child murder before the end of their first semester. (This may also be a sack-able offence in itself)
It’s not that I know a lot of child murderers, it’s just that teaching is not a walk in the park. It’s stressful, it’s frustrating and it’s challenging in ways that can even throw the best teachers off their game.
That’s if you’re teaching in your own country to students who speak the same language as you.
So imagine doing it all in a different language. It’s alien.
So what was I doing going off to Korea with zero teaching experience and zero ability in speaking Korean? What’s more is that I had begun to question my knowledge of English. Grammar wasn’t something I could teach, I just had it drilled into me when I was school. It was hard-wired now. I knew how it functioned but please don’t ask me to explain how or why. I couldn’t tell a pronoun from a proton. A verb? Is that something to do with a bass amp?
Of greater worry, I had become acutely aware of my own accent. Once you move away from home, this will happen and it dawns on you that you speak very differently to everyone else.
I learnt that my accent was not easily decipherable by everyone from elsewhere. Although my years in England had opened my mind to this reality, the confusion and bewilderment I caused in Australia was on a different level.
“Speak English maaaate!” they would plead.
I refrained from pointing out the irony when this old-timer went on to tell me about ‘taking the whipper-snipper round the servo after smoko’
As time went on, I grew frustrated with repeating myself and started to slow my speech down, out of necessity. If I met someone who wasn’t Irish, I would speak slower to avoid the dumbfounded face and inevitable “Say whaaat?” that would surely follow.
I often had to slow my speech to a very mechanical robotic delivery to be understood by some folk.
You do this enough and it becomes automatic. Worse, almost semi-natural. When I realized that fellow Irish people struggled with my accent, I really started to question things!
Ireland may be a small island, but there is a vast array of dialects and accents as you move through the country. Simply moving ten minutes to the next town can be mind-boggling to a visitor when they hear a different accent than before.
People would pose the question, if my fellow countrymen can’t understand me, what chance do little Korean kids have?
I would reply, “Obviously, they won’t understand anything because they don’t know English, hence why I’m going to teach them!”
The business of teaching English in foreign countries has attracted swarms of native-speakers from the USA, Canada and the UK for decades. While many prospective employers are in the market for a north American or British accent, the ESL industry is also abundant with Australians, Kiwis and South Africans in particular, exposing students to a diverse range of accents.
Admittedly, my own country isn’t well-represented here in Korea. We Irish are in short stock in ‘The Land of the Morning Calm’. As if being one of the few foreigners in a rural Korean town didn’t make me stick out enough, I have an accent that the rest of the English-speaking world is somewhat amused by.
For many other ESL teachers from the US, South Africa or New Zealand, Irish accents are a novelty and not something they have had great exposure to in all the lesser-known varieties and dialects.
Through film and television, the most recognized international accents are the harsh Northern twang akin to James Nesbitt, or the softer Americanized version of Liam Neeson. Then there’s the easy Dublin brogue of Colin Farrell.
In recent years, the less-refined, roguish north Dublin accent has entered the mainstream consciousness thanks to the loquacious UFC superstar Conor McGregor.
Of course the stereotypical leprechaun accent crops up in movies now and then. This is almost always performed by an non-Irish actor who doesn’t realize that nobody in Ireland speaks like that. Well, except for old men in the rural West perhaps.
In Hollywood, many Irish characters are played by American actors who clearly did little research on their accent. Almost all of them fall down the same trap. They draw on their knowledge of known Irish accents and then they attempt to do all of them. At once. Together.
No self-respecting actor would attempt a New York accent and a Texan accent at the same time, yet when it comes to an Irish accent, it seems to be the done thing to have a crack at the whole smorgasbord together.
Rather than sounding Irish, they end up sounding like somebody who has suffered a serious head injury.
My accent was going to be something of a thing, inside the classroom and out. For better or worse. South Africans, Australians and New Zealanders may all encounter frustrations with their accents while living and teaching English abroad. While North Americans are less likely to have such regular issues, they are most certainly not exempt.
I arrived in Korea in August 2015 with all this in my mind. I knew I would obviously have to slow down and give the listeners a chance to first process my words, then to translate them. When I arrived in Bonghwa, a small town in the rural Gyeongsangbuk-do province, the scale of the challenge truly unfolded before me. I was expecting the language barrier to cause a gap in communication. Not a gulf.
Many of my students didn’t know the alphabet, let alone phonics. Conversation? Ha, dream on!
Even to this day, simple questions like ‘how are you?’ will fly over the head of some students. These are farmer’s children. Their 40 minutes a week with me is all the English exposure they get. If they don’t listen or remember, then it’s in one ear and out the other. And they’re kids, they don’t listen to their own teachers, let alone the foreigner!
So, in a effort to make the lessons as productive as possible, I’ve had to meet them half-way. I’ve learnt Korean for the classroom, I’ve developed extensive Power Point presentations with translations and I’ve honed my skills in charades and mime.
The crux of this is that I’ve reduced my own English speaking to the bare necessity. If it isn’t a word or phrase they need to know, or something they need if they are to understand an activity or command, then it’s useless. It serves only to confuse.
My lesson delivery is now a blend of broken Korean, charades and purely target language English all wrapped in a big box of hope; a fading hope that they understand. If not, I call upon my co-teacher. Haha, just joking, I don’t have a co-teacher. Enter Google Translate.
Furthermore, anytime I do speak English, I speak so very slow and enunciate each and every syllable, loud and clear. I try to inject enthusiasm and joy in words and phrases, in the hope that melodic speech patterns will stick in their little minds. Sometimes I repeat myself, often doubling back half-way through a sentence in order to stress the key words again. I use an inordinate amount of body language and hand gestures to illustrate and direct the flow of conversation. Sometimes if I’m on a roll, I’ll throw in random body language where it’s not even needed.
One other thing I’ve come to do (this is the key thing) is the editing of my own natural speech.
The accent that confused half of England and Australia would bewilder Koreans. It would render them all mute and fearful of trying at all for they will never be able to communicate with the Irishman. Teachers and students, adults and children alike. All of Korea would run and hide when they spotted me coming in case they got stuck in conversation with the ‘Man with the Cheetah’s Tongue’.
Therefore, the speed is lower than half. I’m barely in first gear.
The slang? All but gone. If they struggle with ‘I’m very tired, how are you?’ then there’s little point in saying “Jaysus bai, I’m knackered, what’s the craic with yourself?”
Living rural, there is many weeks when I will go from one weekend to the next with little interaction with fellow foreigners. There is a dearth of free-flowing natural conversation in my first language. When I converse with Korean teachers, the carefully-considered delivery of my speech continues.
The result is that I grow accustomed to this very deliberate, processed and tailored speech, forever adjusting speed, pronunciation and even use of certain words. I swap out words that I know Koreans won’t understand and I’ll adapt how I pronounce other words to save myself from the dreaded ‘Say whaaat?’ face.
It’s unnatural. It’s mechanical and lacks flow. I’m too concerned with being understood that animation, humor and intonation go out the window.
What’s worse is that when I’m out with fellow English speakers, this mindset continues. I’m becoming hard-wired to think and speak in this manner. When I try to change it up a gear, it leads to tongue-twisting slip-ups. My articulation suffers as I stumble around for vocabulary, often uttering broken sentences and half-sense contributions to conversation.
A boxer will train to throw a perfectly-executed punch at every training. Week after week, month after month until they no longer have to think about the mechanics. There is no effort, no thought. It’s natural. It’s instinct. They no longer have to try to throw a great punch. They just do it.
When somebody learns how to drive, those first few lessons are often an uncoordinated mess of nerves and mistakes. Given time, everything falls into place. With enough miles under their belt, anybody can drive and as they gain experience, they no longer think about driving. They don’t walk their mind through the steps of finding biting point, changing gears and making their checks. It is no longer necessary to try. They just do it.
After two years of living in Korea, teaching English and speaking predominantly with people whose mother tongue is not English, my mind and my speech has been retrained. I no longer think of speaking in this way especially for people to understand. I just do it.
I’m becoming worse at English. I’m degrading at the very skill I’m being paid to teach.
Sometimes now I’m the one who sounds like I’ve had a serious head injury.
Last August, I met up with my family in Italy and within minutes my brother picked up on my revised, Americanized pronunciation of the number ‘eight’. The natural speak of my kin would say ‘ee-it’. I recall the day in class when 20 little Korean kids repeated it back to me. It sounded comical and unusual. I later learnt that it was another one of those words that lead to the “what?” face.
For a while, I adopted a pronunciation somewhere between American and English, ‘ayte’. However, it sounds strange. It’s alien and unnatural, it’s not Irish. It’s not mine.
As time rolled on, I cringed more on hearing myself say words in this new fashion, cringing even more at the knowledge that it was becoming natural.
When I was younger and saw people return to my hometown with new accents, I wondered how that had happened. Many people thought they were faking the accent deliberately. I understand now how it happened and that their efforts to adapt to their new surroundings resulted in their accent changing beyond their control.
So, here I am at the end. After two years here. I accepted that as the kids struggle to understand me anyway, it’s pointless altering my speech for them. I have tried. Now in my final week, they’ll learn entirely in my accent. If they don’t understand the gobble-de-gook, I won’t be frustrated. I can just call them a wee gobshite and they won’t know any better.
This weekend, I shall return to the Emerald Isle and be surrounded by my countrymen. I will be able to speak free and fast, with more slang than you could shake a stick at. With a bit of luck, the Irish accent will rub off on me again and once more the rest of the world won’t be able to understand a word I say!