Thor's Korea Diary

Thou Shalt Not Smile For The Photographer

@28 November 2001

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His was a grave face. He wore a charcoal business suit. His manner was quiet but relentless. Recklessly I tried to smile. Once more he stepped back from the large format Mamiya camera and looked at me with dark, sorrowful eyes. Then again he put his fingers to the corners of his heavy jowls and pulled them down. Thou shalt not smile for the photographer. Lesson one for an aspiring academic in Korea. We might not have shared a language, I may have been an exotic import to glamorize the sale of English-mal with my foreign ways, but when it came to the rogue’s gallery for a glossy graduation handbook, there was only one acceptable face for the kyosu-nim to wear. Long live Confucius. I reflected merrily on the proud graduates who would presently line up in dark suits, hired mortar boards and bat wings (for THE PHOTO), sit through that dreariest of human rituals, the graduation ceremony, then march off to get jobs as hotel doormen or office girls.

On the public record, the institution where I am employed trains young Koreans for work in a brave new world. I doubt that it does anything of the kind for large numbers of them. Our clients, mostly unsuccessful refugees from the exam hell of university entrance, have come to the last hiding place of scholarly pretension, where form matters far more than substance. Short of committing some outrage, the students will all “pass” and duly graduate. The college is, in a way, an easy target for sly put-downs. Yet I reflect that these young folk, after this two year break, will probably spend a lifetime working long hours in dull jobs. Here is a pleasant way-station in their lives, where they can get done all of the other important things which the lucky gifted pack into university life before their brilliant careers. As certified tertiary students they have permission for a while to pose for fashion, make friends, play mating games, listen to music, and finally be passed on into outer darkness with that graduation photo in a gold frame on memory’s wall. Perhaps too, this is a variation on a very old game. The elaborate ritual beliefs and ceremonies of many traditional communities did much to enliven the simple business of scratching dirt with a hoe or chasing goats. Customary behaviour is the raw material of romance, conflict, stories and anticipation. As with the forms and rituals of my college, the ancient ceremonies of life transitions also framed ordinary lives with a rose coloured tint.

For a year I struggled to get the measure of these students. It wasn’t as if I were new to East Asian students. The Masters and PhD students I had taught in central China could be exasperating sometimes, but their brains were superb machines. Here in Korea, nothing seemed to work pedagogically. They were polite, they bowed and bought me vending machine drinks in the break, but actually learning lesson material wasn’t on the agenda. Half would turn up without a pen or paper (but never without a mobile phone), and coming on time was an optional extra. The girls would take out powder compacts to check their heavy makeup, My words floated somewhere in the air over their heads. Many seemed obsessively fascinated with pushing luminescent buttons on their mobile phones (though they knew it was forbidden to make actual calls). Their worst nightmare was to be trapped into asking or answering an English language question. This would lead to hurried Korean conversations with students on either side, a desperate hope that some neighbour would yield up an English phrase to repeat, so that the moment of crisis might pass.

The breakthrough came almost accidentally. It has been quite a few years since psychologists first noticed that different folk learn differently with their various senses. The mechanics I taught a few years ago in Melbourne hated abstract language, but most would learn in a flash if you put a spanner in their hands. One of my managers in the same place, a woman in her fifties, was reduced to tears and fury by my attempts to show her how to use a computer mouse. The same woman would play intricate language games to manipulate her staff. All kinds of people need to learn foreign languages - mechanics, musicians, clerks and politicians - so it is pretty naive to expect them all to succeed by marching down the same yellow brick road. This is where mass education systems run into a wall.

James Asher’s “Total Physical Response” tool is one attempt to be all things to all students in the face of this conundrum. The idea is to employ as many sensory modes as possible in the language learning task; (he expresses it in terms of using the “right brain” and the “left brain”). So, casting round for solutions, I tried an elementary form of TPR with the Korean students. Firstly, this meant responding to simple physical commands : “stand up!, stand to attention ! wave! scratch your left ear!” .... etc. They were bemused, but the mobile phones got put away. Then I moved onto a children’s story I had composed for some teacher trainee students in China, “Mr Dog Looks for Breakfast”. Mr Dog wakes up one spring morning, stretches, yawns, wrinkles his nose ... I coaxed the Koreans to imitate my ham acting as I told, then made them repeat the story. They looked at me mutely. The Chinese had loved it. Bloody hell. “Alright,” I said at last, exasperated, “everyone stand up! Come out here on the floor with me! Now all together, FOLLOW ME”. Gradually, with giggles, they began to follow.

Somehow getting people out of their seats and onto the floor had released a mental block which stood between them and learning. It may have been related to Asher’s idea that making people move physically helps them to shift mental processing to the right side of the brain. My own guess was that fifteen or more years of sitting passively behind a school desk had conditioned these young people to feel that this was a posture for failure, for switching off. Anyway, it seemed unbalanced that I, the teacher, might spend up to six hours a day standing in classrooms while the students slouched at their desks. Whatever the reason, the standing and walking trick worked. Their focus increased remarkably.

The next step was to make good use of my students’ new-found concentration. I needed something fast. The amplified action sequences and droll humour of Mr Dog were a bit hard to duplicate in another story instantly. However, I grabbed a page of straight dialogue that I’d scribbled out the night before. It was called “Looking for Carrefour” -- a longish enquiry and directions sequence. It did have the advantage of engaging students in pairs, so I ran off multiple copies, handed them out, and stood back to see what would happen. I was amazed. Understand that personally, Thor is a rote learning imbecile. I can happily tell a story from events that happened thirty years ago, I can analyze complex arguments and spit out the pieces, but ask me to memorize a sentence and I am reduced to the world’s dumbest student. It was therefore against every fibre in my body to expect anything useful out of a rote learning exercise.

Well, these college students are my polar opposite. The slightest demand for initiative or invention leaves them petrified. Given an A4 sheet of dialogue to memorize and reproduce though, they were rapt. They stood around the edge of the room, some in pairs, some alone pressing their foreheads feverishly against the cement. Suddenly I was alone, no longer expected to “teach”. All the action was between the students and their task. Truly, this was something special. I made my way around the room, offering gently to test each bit of learning. For the first few minutes they shyly waved me off, then one by one they thrust the script into my hand and performed while I listened intently. An A4 page was usually memorized in three chunks. The congratulation, the smile, the tap on the shoulder for each student as he or she succeeded was electric for them. There are a few people in the group of course who, like me, find memorization a trial. For them I demonstrate one of my own survival techniques: f-t-i-d-o-o-m-o-s-t , which is to say, jotting down the first letter of each word. Several times through on this crutch and you can usually throw it away.

Nowadays we have become almost blase, the students and I, about that moment when I say, “OK, everybody up!” I’ve become used to seeing sometimes six students from a class of twenty ignore the coffee break, obsessed with memorizing that next bit of dialogue. I’m no longer astonished when the most unlikely students succeed. It was all summed up by one hitherto truculent muscleman, whose pride had been never to utter a word in English. Challenged by the now studious majority, he grabbed the script in one paw and went away to a corner. Some time later I bumped up against him and quietly took away the paper. “OK, go!” , I said. He clenched his teeth, blinked, and chomped his way through the dialogue without looking once. I clapped him on the shoulder and he beamed. “Mission accomplished!” he rasped. Action films teach some useful dialogue after all.

So what is going on here? As with most thing in the human psyche, lot’s of things are probably going on. Successful teaching has always been more art than science. The inner processes of the student mind are too complex for it to be anything else. Every experienced teacher knows that his best laid plans can come unstuck for invisible reasons, while other lessons which ought to fail take wing. There are some things though which we know have failed consistently. One failure has been overall school language teaching for most students in a large number of countries, including Korea, and my own, Australia. In spite of huge investments of time and money, only a tiny percentage of people in most countries acquire real competence in a second language through formal schooling. Frankly, it’s no fun being part of a failed profession, which by any objective measure, language teachers are. Yet the desperation of the customers keeps us employed, and our desperate need for self-respect keeps us from admitting the awful truth. The most tantalizing thing of all though is that we know that some people can and do learn a second language, often in spite of every handicap, including bad teaching and limited “academic” intelligence.

Back with my hapless college students, with their unbroken history of school failure, what can a teacher aim for? They are living evidence that six to eight years of English instruction, basically grammar-translation work by native Korean teachers, and now the haphazard addition of some itinerant English speakers posing as “professors”, has yielded almost no active mastery of the language. Is memorizing a handful of dialogues any advance on this confusion? Well, by itself and short term, probably not. A Korean professor sadly pointed out to me that they also memorize the “grammar rules”, but never use them.

The difference between the grammar rules and my dialogues, I think, is that the former are intrinsically meaningless (therefore unusable) to the clients, whereas I take care that the dialogues have direct relevance and significance in their lives. Every child, every human, is wonderfully equipped to compute their own grammar rules subconsciously, given messages to which real world meanings can be attached. As teachers we are mostly wasting our time trying to express and impart those rules as credible short cuts to language learning. (In fact, the best cogitations of a small army of linguists has yet to produce a grammar capable of properly generating any human language. I spent fifteen years and walked out of two PhDs chasing that will-o-the-wisp).

My hope for the memorization of meaningful dialogues and stories is that a) tangible success in the task is hugely empowering for these students; b) once usable stuff is in their minds for any length of time, they can use chunks of it formulaically to achieve real world language tasks (we know that young children do this); and c) as the formulas prove to be good tools and are reinforced by use, the subconscious mind will eventually get to work on its pattern-finding mission and figure out more flexible grammar rules. After all, this is what everybody does in the first five years of their lives.

There is also an important difference, I think, between trying to memorize the unrelated, isolated sentence examples which clutter so many language learning text books, and memorizing longer, more coherent dialogues and stories. These longer texts create an “event context”, a piece of experience, which can be remembered and talked about independently, while the isolated sentences are too many, too emotionally colourless, and too irrelevant to retain. We have to offer a good story to the cinema of our dreams. James Asher mentions a Korean professor he met who had almost perfect English diction. His hobby and his secret weapon, the professor revealed, was to see English movies about fifty times, until he could automatically speak the actors’ parts as he watched. Maybe we need “repetition video clubs” in our schools.

That photographer with his mournful face is haunting me. What does he want to say? You are a kyosu. Thou shalt not smile in photographs. You can’t beat the system, so join it. That’s it. My silly discovery that these Korean students are good at memorization is not a discovery at all. They are the product of the two thousand year tradition of rote memorization. Confucius, we will make a modern man out of you yet.




Asher, James 2001 Future Directions for fast, stress-free learning on the right side of the brain”, [accessed November 2001]

Asher, James 2000 “Year 2000 update for the Total Physical Response,
known world-wide as TPR” , [accessed November 2001]

Asher, James 2001 “How to be an All ‘A’ Student” , [accessed November 2001]

TPR-World Internet Site . [Comment: in the timeless tradition of snake oil merchants and language text-book sellers, this site is obviously out to promote a product. However, the transparent commercialism should not, in this case, distract one from whatever real value is to be extracted from the TPR approach].


* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise.

"Thou Shalt Not Smile For The Photographer"... copyrighted to Thor May 2001; all rights reserved
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