Word for Word pt. 4

Clothes I'm Wearing... by englishbanana.com

Recently, I was teaching a lesson on clothing to beginner students.  We worked through the standard vocabulary and associated verb structures fairly quickly, so I pushed them to begin describing the clothes.  We reviewed the use of adjectives and I taught them more descriptive vocabulary words (ie.  plaid, striped, checkered); the results, in class, were quite pleasing.

For homework, then, I asked them to write a paragraph detailing their favourite item of clothing.  This they happily did, returning the next day with some rather extensive descriptions of their wardrobes.  One of my students, evidently at a loss for words at home,  had most definitely turned to her technological translator for help.  The result was a somewhat confusing paragraph,  perhaps best proved by the following abstracted sentence:

My white hoody and pink checkered skirt is each other compound is good and cute.

And while I’m on the subject of lessons on clothing, I thought I would include the following open letter to the people of Happy House Publishing:

Dear Happy House Publishing, Department of Curriculum Development

If you hope to guide students through a “delightfully imaginative learning environment,” as is your stated goal, might I suggest not including images of young girls in their undergarments?  What Is She Wearing?

It really causes unnecessary turmoil, what with nine year old boys clawing at their eyes, crawling under their desks, and screeching horrifically all the while.  The braver ones always venture to re-open their books, tentatively and by peripheral vision,  to page 54 only to slide it in front of the unsuspecting eyes of another boy, resulting in, quite obviously, a complete repetition of the aforementioned actions.

As you might intuit from the above description, the sum total of newly  acquired English verges on absolutely nil.  Granted some of the students are yelling, “ahh my gawd!” which does pass for spoken English, but I think you see my point.

Thank you for weighing my recommendations and I look forward to working with your revised editions.

Geoff Martin


White Pine Sentinel (photo by Geoff Martin)

White Pine Sentinel (photo by Geoff Martin)

Ever have those days when everyone about you screams forth your name and demands your undivided attention?  Ever have those days when you feel like no one speaks your language?  When the cacophony is so great you can’t hear yourself think?

There are a good many such days here in Korea.

Amidst all the noise (and I am, admittedly, often a contributor and/or instigator of it), there is an underlying awareness that silence will be all the sweeter when the noise has died, the children have fled, and I am alone in my classroom again.  Often, this is the only thing standing between my forced patience and my screaming “SHUT UP” in the faces of eight year olds.

To really know and value silence, to describe that splendid sense of relief when experienced, it is best to work from a negative definition.  Silence, then, is best described as not noise; it is the sheer absence of sound.  Much like John Milton’s assertion that what is Good is best defined against its opposite, Evil, so too are silence and noise co-dependents; two sides to the same coin, as the saying goes.  We depend on both to see our way and to strike a balance.  Without periods of near-deafening noise, silence would be stripped of its harbour-like quality.  In fact, silence, endured for too long, is its own kind of madness (think, Wilson, the volleyball).

A Veritable Wasteland (photo by an anonymous Haveman Brothers planter)

A Veritable Wasteland

One moment, in particular, stands out in my memory as the first time I experienced the tangible weight of silence.  To this day, four years on, that surreal moment remains my “safe place” (in psycho-speak); that place I imagine when I need to get away, to escape the chaos around me (ie. my classroom with twelve pairs of hands grasping at my shirt and an infinite number of vocal chords shouting out my name).

I spent the spring of 2005 working on a tree planting contract in Northern Ontario. We were flown into a veritable wasteland by helicopter and abandoned in an updraft of ash and dirt.  A forest fire had ravaged the landscape two years previous, churning on oxygen and engorging itself on combustible softwood and accumulated deadfall.  Our arrival, immediately following the spring thaw, meant that the natural color palate varied between off-yellow grasses and blackened soot.  It was lifeless in sight and post-apocalyptic in feel.  We pitched our tents against scattered outcroppings of Canadian Shield, beneath the wraith-like silhouettes of charred and limbless tree trunks– their exposed roots twisted about like fingers clawing from a grave.  A low, damp fog clung to the landscape, crawling up off the slender lake, cold as a corpse, and wrapping through the cleavage of two rounded hills in the distance.  The Dolly Partons, as the rock formations were affectionately called, dominated our view, poking up through the cloudy blanket, re-situating us whenever we were turned about.

This environment, dead to life below and blanketed in from above, would seem the best candidate for an uncanny, isolated silence.  And it would have been, had it not been for one small machine.

In the evenings, I was charged with maintaining the camp’s water system and electrical generator.  That generator, parked on a skid beneath a rotting, plywood A-frame, dominated camp-life.  It signaled our camp’s location while we were still two kilometers off; it pounded loud through our morning and evening meals; it threaded its way between every conversation, ceaselessly combating the rising decibels of our weary voices.  We lived under its full dominance of sound—because nothing was louder, we heard nothing else.  But as with all things constant, we grew somewhat accustomed to its grating, in that we ceased to really hear it– the irritation having shifted to our unconscious.

Andean Lamplight, Peru 2007 (photo by Geoff Martin)

Andean Lamplight, Peru 2007 (photo by Geoff Martin)

On the first night, I waited until the last voices floated through the darkness past the membrane of my tent, and then crawled out from my cocoon of fleece and goose-down.  I slipped through the door flap and stood beneath the full arch of a star-lit sky.  Casting my eyes down, I felt my way through the loose rock and dry twitch, laying out the beginnings of a worn pathway to the dining tent, the outhouse, and the still-hammering generator.

I stopped by the dining tent to see who might still be up.  A few toasted bodies were sitting in muffled silence about the woodstove, tilted bottles of Blue sticking up between their legs and resting against their gloved hands.

“I’m cutting power,” I called in to them.

They mumbled their acknowledgment through layers of wool. There was a slight shifting.  Their cigarettes flared red in the night, as they sucked in the evening’s last inhale and resigned themselves to abandoning the warmth of the fire for the cold of their tent.  The generator, ruling complete in the night against the lesser noises of a sleeping camp, now churned wildly, echoing loud off the rock face across the lake and resounding throughout the naked, treeless valley.

With the cold night air biting at my exposed hand, I hurried in a bundle to the A-frame and promptly flipped the switch, not wanting to delay my return to the pile of blankets within my tent.  The motor idled down, muttering as though beaten unfairly and too easily, before gasping out its last exhaustive breath and clanking, matter-of-factly, to its death.

In the sudden vacuum of noise, a deeper silence than any I had ever felt, washed in around me; thick, like corn syrup.  It caught me off guard.  I could hear nothing, as if my ears were stuffed tight with cotton balls; the usual noises of the night were ten kilometers off, at least. In the chambers of my ears there still echoed the pounding intensity of the generator’s whirling groan.  The sheer noise of it all, I began to worry, had permanently affected my ability to hear.

Though minutes seemed to have passed, sound finally began to creep forward with the slow lethargy of a sloth.  I heard the world infinitesimally; each strand of sound identifiable and unique: the sound of a single cricket beyond the A-frame; the scuff of my boot against cold dirt, as I stood back to look about; the crinkle of my jacket shell.

And gradually, each strand was overlaid by another equally unique sound.  Overlaid and cross-stitched, as if the world, though sundered, was now, piece by piece, being sutured back together: my sense of the aural universe expanding exponentially; concentric circles of noise and life pulsating out from the A-frame. The point of origin. The Absolute.  Like a rock tossed into a placid lake, the ripples of sound fanned out across the barren landscape, spilling forward through the undulations of terrain.  The single cricket’s call was now returned by a colossal wave of chirps.  Twitters of life, where none seemed to exist before, twisted out anew from the brittle charcoal and ash-strewn earth.  All appearances to the contrary, this place was very much alive– its root system stretching out, like the awakening of youth; its animal life microscopic but multiplying; its collective noise much louder than any mechanical roar.

Spruced Up (photo by Geoff Martin)

Spruced Up (photo by Geoff Martin)

I imagined myself the progenitor of it all; at the flip of the switch I could roll out sound like Aslan’s roar.  This pleasure in sound greatly outweighed the inconvenience of my nightly task.  In fact, I very quickly came to relish the act.  Each evening thereafter, I would rest my finger on the switch and then stop for a moment, filling the chamber of my head with the generator’s blaring rage, numbing myself so that the supreme absence of sound, and nature’s virtuoso chorus that followed after, might be all the greater, all the more incredible.  Although alone and without an audience, I would drop my finger with the showmanship and confidence of a magician with his wand.   Just as the generator sputtered through its final breath, I would suck in the cold air through my teeth, filling my lungs to capacity so that not even my breathing could disturb that saturated, soundless peace.  Silence, at last, would permeate the night.  Then, with my ears quickened to the pleasure of sound, I would stand straight and hear the wind off the lake, the sputtering hiss of gasoline in the funnel, the infinite chorus of insects.  I would drink in the palpable sound of a world created new.

The Creeping Advance of Green (photo by Geoff Martin)

Creeping Advance of Green (photo by Geoff Martin)

Word for Word pt. 3

While the following does not quite fit the criteria for my “word-for-word” (mis)translations, I thought it such vividly morbid stream-of-consciousness that I dug it up from the archives.

On the eve of Halloween, I asked my writing class to frighten me with a descriptive paragraph about a haunted house.  After reading out the submissions by flashlight in a darkened classroom, I couldn’t help but copy a portion of one of them.  To create the desired effect of spoken-word poetry, please read aloud, in rhythm, and in one long breath (maybe turn the lights out too):

The haunted house is empty and scary on top of the hill broken windows and screams and evil laughter and ghost and skeleton is die people.

(The lack of punctuation should not reflect negatively on my ability, or lack thereof, to instill basic grammatical rules in my students.)

An abandoned house in the foothills of Volcan Barva, Boquete, Panama

An abandoned house in the foothills of Volcán Barú, Boquete, Panama

- photo by Geoff Martin

Word for Word pt.2

According to Aesop, there was once a The Goose with the Golden Egg
goose that laid golden eggs.  Of course, the farmer, who quite happily collected the droplets of pure gold, became rapidly rich and even more rapidly greedy.  Not content to wait through the gestation of gold, he decided to kill the goose in order to harvest, in full, its precious source.

After reading the above story in class one day, I asked my students to summarize it in their own words.  Their tendency, when “summarizing” is to either copy the entire story verbatim or to pick and choose random sentences to form a scattered, incomprehensible account.  Neither is preferable.

Fortunately, one of my students attempted to actually summarize the story.  Unfortunately, she relied on her techno-translator to supply the new vocabulary required.  As such, the final sentence of her summary ended up like this:

Then the farmer killed the goose and opened up the goose’s intention.

English HagwonThat my English Hagwon (academy) caters to the incessant demands of our students’ mothers has always been a no-brainer observation.  Within my first month, my weekly lesson plans, which are distributed to each student, were suddenly rejected for not containing “enough detail.”  The lesson plans themselves were not inadequate.  I simply needed to expand on the information contained therein, giving the illusion, since most of the mothers can’t read English, that I was teaching far more than simply “Unit 4” of the textbook.

In a similar vein, I could not write the word “review” into a lesson plan, as such a word suggests the abhorrent concepts of repetition and practice– things these nine year old students, strapped as they are to the Korean bullet train of education, simply don’t have time for.  “Onward to successful high school and college entrance exams!” The Mothers collectively cry out into the night (and yes, in Korea,  a child’s education falls squarely within the mother’s sphere of duty).

Of course, this tireless cycle of pacifying The Mothers results in an equally tiresome game of constant illusion and even outright deceit.  Along the way, any semblance of sound pedagogy or commitment to academic standards is flushed down a Korean squatter toilet.  Nothing speaks to this deception more than our method of grading students.

During my first round of midterm exams, a co-teacher of mine nervously told me I needed to fudge the marks a little bit.  I was not, as might be assumed by educators the world over, supposed to give a mark per question.  Instead, I was to add up the number of errors on the twenty five question test and then subtract that from an exam grade of…um…how about seventy five?  Consequently, “Philip”, who properly deserves 18/25 (72%), in fact scores a spectacular 68/75 (90%).  Hurray! Such intelligence!

Of course, there is a business plan behind this charade and it is very simply the plan to keep students at our school.  Were “Philip” to actually be rewarded with his duly-received 72% on his English reading midterm, he would be promptly yanked from our school, relocated to the next academy down the street, and given a private tutor, so great would be the fallout.

Given the nature of the business, I don’t mind tending to my students’ education while my employers seek new and innovative ways to convince The Mothers to entrust their children to our system.  But what I saw last week makes all of the above seem like slightly bitter coffee, not ideal but drinkable nonetheless.  The following, however, is like twelve-year-old, ground Russian coffee, dripped through with cat piss, and served chilled:

I was stuffing report cards into my students’ envelopes, when it occurred to me that I should be aware of what, exactly, my students were receiving.  I glanced at the report of a particularly difficult student who, despite my mathematical machinations, had still not fared well on his final tests.  To my surprise, there were four columns detailing the foreign teacher’s comments.  I, being the foreign teacher, had never been asked to write any comments for this report card, so I was, naturally, quite curious to read what “I” was saying:

HOMEWORK: The student completes all assignments with great accuracy and effort every day….
EFFORT: This student has consistently worked hard during the term….

I flipped over the next report, one of a deserving student with excellent grades, to see what “my” comments were this time:

HOMEWORK: The student completes all assignments with great accuracy and effort every day….
EFFORT: This student has consistently worked hard during the term….

The same.  I looked through the rest of the reports.   All the comments were the same; even the Korean Teacher’s comments were identical script!  My eyes, rife with a mocking skepticism of the document in-hand, turned to the fancy-schmancy bar graph at the bottom.  The y-axis detailed the student’s possible percentage grade, while the x-axis listed their four subjects (reading, writing, listening, and speaking).  I expected each bar graph to be as equal in content as the generic comments were, but in this I was bemusedly surprised.  The bar graph actually corresponded to their final grades listed in the report!  Fortunately (unfortunately?), it didn’t take long to spot the deceit.  Running alongside each bar was another off-colour bar of slightly lesser value.  Could it be that the lesser bar represents an imaginary class average?  A quick inquiry proved my hunch correct.  No matter the student’s (already fudged) grade, whether high or “low,” the class average is a consistent four to six percentage points less!

Surely this is a crime somewhere else in the world.  The benefit, I suppose, is counter-cultural, in that I am no longer a grade-focused, test-dependent teacher.  The system is as it is, and the children are merely victims to its lies, as are The Mothers, who are victims of this culture of education even as they help perpetuate it.  I can only laugh at the waste of paper and return to maximizing every forty minutes I spend with my students.

Word for Word pt. 1

When learning a foreign language, the real challenge is to begin thinking within the language itself. Prior to anything approximating fluency, the tendency is always to translate word for word from your native language. I remember well my French teachers in grade school bemoaning the inherent English-ness of my written passages.

In Korea, the challenge is exacerbated by a heavy reliance on technologicalElectronic Dictionary translation tools, be they cell phones (han-de pones, as they are charmingly called here), pocket translators, or software programs. The result is a consistent barrage of semi-comprehensible sentences handed into me from my students as homework.

Since frustration will not cure this pervasive ailment, I thought I would celebrate it instead, showcasing a few select sentences in this section of my blog. And so, without further ado, the inaugural, word for word sentence:

After a lesson concerning the greatest inventions in history, I asked students to tell me, for homework, what they think will be invented in the future. One student responded with this somewhat intelligible sentence:

“I think will be invented work automatically act of robot self.”


After having inhabited the Land of Narnia for about two years of my childhood, it seems I cannot pass a lamp post by without framing it in my camera lens.  Street lights are one thing, ever-present in their monotony, like gray-clad sentinels positioned by regimen at precise intervals.  There is an aesthetic in that, to be sure.  But lamp posts are something else altogether.

Appearing as they do in park spaces and along forested trails, lamp posts are suggestive of human presence, as if the world of men and women lies just beyond the next evergreen.  They exude a warmth not found in all the white haze of light pollution.  The lamp post is an antique, a relic of the past, a bearer of contemplative nostalgia.  Unlike street lights, you can’t be lost beside them.  Regardless of your direction, the lamp post signals home.  It is an electrified equivalent of the candle-in-the-window.

In the wilderness, where electrical lines have not yet run, there is abandonment.  In the city, where orange, conical light illuminates the limitless stretch of asphalt and concrete, there is alienation.  In the park, where the wilderness meets the city, there is tranquility.  And where there is tranquility, there is usually a lamp post close by to safeguard such peace of mind.

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