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


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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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