The Myth of Teaching English > IDEAS & IDEALS

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The Myth of Teaching English

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         Looking back at my life with English for the last fifty or more years, I have to confess ungratefully that my past English teachers have not done much to improve my English after all. If they did anything, they did very little. Since the time I started to learn English in middle school, and through high school to college, there has always been good and famous teachers of English all the time, but I have to say with regret that they were rarely of any substantial help or concrete use to me. They came and went one by one, and I remember some of them with fondness, but unfortunately for reasons other than teaching me English. Mostly I did it myself.

          For reasons unknown I was good at English from the start. More than anything else, I liked it. I felt at ease with the subject and I had a way with it, as someone has a way with mathematics. I liked to read English sentences aloud without being told to do so by anybody. Reading English text aloud was to me like singing a song, and it still is. Memorizing new English words was fun, not work. Without being taught by anybody my pronunciation of English words was very good, correct, and natural, they said. I liked to study English grammar and found it easier and more interesting than Korean grammar. Grasping complex and difficult sentences was a good challenge. In doing all these things I rarely needed anybody's help.

          On the other hand, I was poor at mathematics. From the beginning I felt uneasy and clumsy about numbers. I tried very hard at it but I could not excel in it as I did in English, and I had always to be satisfied with being a mediocre student of math. I also had good and excellent teachers of math, but they were not of much help to me either. More than anything else, they could not make me like it. They taught me much and worked hard, and I worked hard on the subject too, but the result was always disappointing. I knew I simply didn't have it in me. Some teachers made me hate the subject more and run farther away from it through their discouraging as well as affronting remarks.

          What can be deduced from these two episodes mentioned above is the undeniable truth that teachers can be of no or little help or use for real improvement in some school subjects such as English and mathematics. The students are already there already made, and teachers do not play such a great role as they (or we) assume or presume. However, all the teachers I have ever met in my life seemed to be convinced that they could make a big difference through their teaching.

          All English teachers are eager to teach English with passion and love but it will be to no avail or to little purpose unless the individual students show the same enthusiasm and willingness to learn it and make it their own through their own effort and interest. Teachers may explain, impart and instruct a great deal of knowledge about English to their pupils, but the language learning does not end there. It is more than a system of knowledge. Understanding is not enough. It requires natural as well as instinctive love for the language and insatiable desire and ambition to command it more on the part of the learners than on the teachers. Without this drive, urgency or enthusiasm on the part of the students any effort on the part of the teachers in teaching English will not succeed and, if there is any amount of success, it will only be a partial as well as a momentary one.

          Teaching a foreign language, English included, is like teaching art. There are many good teachers of art, but they cannot make their students great artists only by giving lessons. Artists are born, not made by teaching. Teachers of arts can only help, encourage or inspire the few who are highly gifted. The same is true of English and of English teachers. Any language, English included, is an art itself at its finest and highest, and it cannot be taught by anyone. Good English students are born, not made. If there is anything in the language that can be taught by anyone, it is only the basic level of the language and for the simplest stage of communication. There is plainly a limit to the teachers' endeavor to inspire all their students to excellence.

          Teaching a foreign language, English included, is, therefore, a myth, a good and useful one, but a myth nonetheless. Like the rainbow in the sky, the mirage of the oasis in the desert, or a classless society on earth, it looks and sounds great but does not exist. We just think it does somewhere and somehow. What actually exists is the cold reality that good students do well with or without the teachers' help, while the poor students remain the same, disregarding the existence of so many good teachers and so many exotic methods. There is no reason for teachers to be proud or elated in seeing a little progress made by some students, as if it is the result of their good and rigorous teaching. What would they say then to so many bad and poor students whose English scores remain the same showing no sign of progress despite the same efforts made by the same teachers?

          All the teachers, especially English teachers, ought to be honest and modest in their aims and efforts. They are greatly mistaken, if they consider themselves indispensable or all-powerful, or if they think or act as if they are miracle-workers. They are helpers at best. They are there to help some of the students (not all) find real interest and pleasure in English. They should not expect that all the students in the classroom they teach can be made to love English and do it well and better, if they only teach more and harder. What they are doing could be torture for some innocent students who could be geniuses at subjects other than English. By teaching too much and too hard teachers can simply make the potential lovers of English hate it and run away from it for good, as I did from mathematics.
                                                                                                                                                          (February 17, 2006)


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