Friday, December 17, 2010

The sorrows of fake native speakers

A week ago I posted on an article about Koreans working as 'fake native speakers' at phone English companies, which put the blame on the companies for the situation. On the 15th, Sports Seoul decided to go a step further publishing an article titled "Ddeokbokki should be pronounced 'ddeobbogi'" - the sorrow of fake native teachers."

You really can't make this stuff up.

The article begins by referring to Mr. Kim (27), who works at a famous language hagwon as a native speaking teacher, who was startled by the news of the recent crackdown on 'fake phone English native speaking instructors' because he also poses as a native speaker at the hagwon. Saying that one can't easily distinguish between a fake and the genuine native speaker based on pronunciation alone, he asserted that hiding one's identity is easy at Phone English companies. The same is not true for those pretending to be native speakers at hagwons, where instructors frequently come into contact with students. After the crackdown on phone english companies he is sweating over having to disguise himself as a native speaker more thoroughly, saying, "I feel grief in my life." The author then urges readers to listen to the difficulties of fake native speaking teachers.

Most Korean instructors acting like native speakers lived in places like the US during their childhood and so their pronunciation is the same as a native speaker, and their command of Korean differs according to each person, with some being stronger than others. Obviously, in language hagwons they pretend not to know a word of Korean, and sometimes make up that they are mixed race Koreans.

We're told that the reason they have to pretend to be native speakers is that because of the demand for native speaking teachers. As an official from a famous hagwon in Seoul explained, "Parents prefer native speakers over Korean instructors who are good at English because they want them to teach not only English but also their culture and etiquette, so parents only send their children to hagwons with foreign teachers."

The next section is titled "Ddeokbokki should be pronounced Ddeobbogi," and tells the story of Mr. Gang (29) who works at a language hagwon in Seoul, and who has become fearful during meal time. Not too long ago, thinking he'd just grab a quick meal at a gimbap place near his hagwon, he ran into students he taught there, and for awhile he didn't know what to do and debated and agonized over how he should speak while his students watched. Almost instinctively, he placed an order for 'ddeobbogi,' deliberately using poor pronunciation [that's also how it's been newly Romanized]. Another fake native speaking teacher always carries an electronic dictionary because after class students often inquire about the English terms for particular Korean words, and acting as if he doesn't know the word (or Korean), he shows the students the English words in the search results. At that hagwon, if the students ask what a word is in Korean, another instructor acts as if he doesn't know and puts on an agonized expression while finding the relevant English word.

Up next is a look at what happens when teachers who are 'invisible' because they are thought not to understand Korean hear secrets said in front of them by unsuspecting students. At one hagwon in the capital area, Mr. Song (29) was amazed when he heard a girl in her early teens speak in Korean to her friends about a sexual experience. He said he'd heard students speak openly in front of him and many times had wanted to tell the parents. There are students who bear untold animosity towards their parents, and others who are overworked and stressed. He hears private conversations and secrets and agonizes over the 'sad fact' that he cannot do anything about it.

Then we learn that it's not these teachers' fault for doing what they do, and the special circumstance that we have to understand is that "the idea of preferring blue eyes" mass produces these fakes. We're told that not all korean instructors act like native speakers, but the number of fake native speaking instructors is higher than one would imagine. Mr. Song, who has for 8 years moved from one famous hagwon in Seoul to another, says that usually at famous hagwons in seoul, the rate of real native speaking instructors and Korean instructors is about 5:1, but at small scale hagwons there are no small number of fake native speaking instructors. In October a Canadian wanted for murder in Canada was discovered teaching as a native speaking teacher in Korea, showing how difficult it is to properly obtain native speaking teachers. Even if fortunate enough to retain good teachers, the cost is not insignificant. For them insurance and accommodation, and even utility bills should be paid. Because if this, some hagwons pressure Korean instructors to pretend to be native speaking instructors. In spite of deception regarding nationality, the backdrop to their business is the parents' preference for native speakers.

What a tale of woe about these fraudulent native speaking instructors.

Back in September there were several reports, including one from the Chosun Ilbo, which were basically advertisements for Best ID Korea, which purported to be the best at doing background checks, which told readers that "The problem of foreign instructors with criminal records who have faked their background is becoming serious." Much of the reports back in 2005 and 2006 about foreign teachers focused on them being 'unqualified' or having fake diplomas, and we can see outcries against foreign teachers with fake diplomas here (!), while NoCut News reported in July that new E-2 visa rules would require an apostille with a diploma, an "active measure to solve the problem of fake diplomas."

Neither article about these fake native speakers has shown calls for them to be punished, and both go out of their way to defend the fake Korean teachers, revealing that it's not really their fault, they're forced to do it by hagwons, or can't resist the lure of easy money (never an excuse for foreigners). It's not really the hagwons' faults either, as they are forced to do it by parents who want their children to be taught be native speaking teachers and by the high costs of real native speakers who are treated so well that even their bills must be paid by the hagwons. The case of the Canadian teacher [no mention of his ethnicity] wanted for murder in Canada who taught in hagwons in Seoul is just an example of how difficult it is to hire good teachers, not an example of how a policy of excluding F-4s from criminal background checks has allowed wanted killers to teach children.

The accompanying cartoon, depicting the ddeokbokki incident and the teen talking about her sexual experience in earshot of the teacher raises questions:

Do they have blond hair (and a goatee and earring) because they are masquerading as foreigners? Hard to know, considering how bizarre it is.

I have no doubt that there must be a lot of pressure on these Korean teachers, and that some of their experiences acting as someone they're not must be unpleasant. It would just be nice if media reports about real native speaking teachers gave even 20% as much consideration to them as is given to the fake ones. But that's probably 20% too much to ask.


Unknown said...

Matt, really, blaming people who want to work for working by any means necessary is pretty low.

I can't figure out the reason you'd want to taunt Korean laborers. I could guess, but that wouldn't be fair. As is your guess about what reasons Korean have for taking jobs intended for foreigners. And who

Companies and business owners, employers in other words, are to blame for this. It's not fraud. It may be dishonest, but when it comes to earning money to pay rent, I think it's better to insist that business owners and corporations always get the upper hand.

And when it comes to employees, the first thing I learned as a labor organizer is instructive here: the workers always find it easier to criticize each other than to address the more powerful employers.

The employing classes and the employee classes simply have nothing in common.

Honestly "fraudulent"? Is your point that Koreans harshly criticize foreign employees but fail to criticize fellow Koreans? Well, which Koreans do that? Certainly not enough to use the general term "Korean" without "some".

I don't get it. Can you explain the point of your post?

matt said...

Read the last sentence again.

Or see here.

matt said...

As for fraudulent, the article describes them as repeatedly as 'fake' or 'phony' native speakers. I added 'native speakers' to that sentence to make it clear I didn't think they were fakes as instructors.

brent said...

Matt, excellent work. Gary Norris is really reaching here to criticize. I don't know why he comes here. I worked with one of these fake instructors my second year in Korea and I was pretty angry about it. She was an uber bitch and I couldn't believe she would lie to parents like that- of her own accord and for her own benefit.

Bonnie said...

I think this points to the fetishization of "native speaking/native speaker" in Korea- it's like some Koreans (hagwon owners, parents) can't believe that someone could be "native-level" in two languages. I am sure that some of these Koreans who grew up in English speaking countries are close enough to "native-level" that they can do their jobs perfectly well. I had a friend who moved to the US from Russia at age 10, and speaks English just as well as I do with no accent.

So, on the one hand I think it's sad that kyopos or Koreans fluent in English are kept away from this line of work because of the obsession with "native speakers." However, I don't like the other side- lying- either.

I also feel an irrational rage coming on whenever I hear the word "ddobeogi." Koreans and their stupid national food superiority/inferiority complex (linked with "Korean is too hard for foreigners).

X said...

I was having a dinner in a restaurant in Gangnam a couple of years ago. A middle-aged Korean woman walked in with two Korean women in their early twenties. The older woman was speaking to them in English; the girls were speaking Korean between themselves and broken English to the older lady.

She spoke English quite fluently, and I assumed she was their English teacher.

The weird part was that she asked them to order for her (and asked them to make it "not too spicy (!)"). She wouldn't speak to the staff.

I thought she was just trying to force them to speak to her in English. Perhaps she was one of these faux-natives.

If so, it is a shame she was forced to lie. Her English was fluent, and she could've just insisted that their lessons were carried out in English instead of the theatrics and web of deceit.

Kamiza said...

Interesting topic!
I think the whole thing is silly as well, esp. since it doesn't touch upon more valid concerns like
teaching ability/experience/qualifications, but on the appearance of the educators--be they fair-skinned, blondes or of North-East Asian descent. I think we all know that a good teacher is a good teacher no matter what.
Sad that the public opinion here in SK seems to be more along the lines of "a teacher is 'good' if he or she appears 'good'"

I've seen this type of anti-ethnic Korean English teacher sentiment among Korean employers at many levels (including at one of the prestigious institutions of higher learning which I used to work at a few years back, where they refused to hire Korean-American teachers
for mandatory conversation classes)
Pretty f'ing pathetic if you ask me. What is so difficult about giving the job to the most qualified candidate?
This is far too rational an approach for this country though . . .

Chris in South Korea said...

The last time I heard the 'Korean is too hard for foreigners to learn' BS, I simply informed them that I would never again speak Korean to them, and would therefore only speak to them in a language that they themselves said was easy - English.

On one level, I really feel for the gyopo. They're often expected to fit into this Korean culture they may or may not know, speak the language (or risk being shamed because 'their parents didn't teach them'). They're making perhaps the same as native Koreans yet (typically) have a much higher level. They sound like the whipping boy, taking all the risk and getting all the blame.

"In October a Canadian wanted for murder in Canada was discovered teaching as a native speaking teacher in Korea, showing how difficult it is to properly obtain native speaking teachers. Even if fortunate enough to retain good teachers, the cost is not insignificant. "

I really hope that was a quote and was just badly formatted. For starters, those two facts are not related one iota. It is NOT difficult to find foreign English teachers, especially with a down economy. You want qualified teachers (e.g. people with degrees in Education, CELTA, people with experience)? PAY THEM WHAT THEY'RE WORTH! If you pay 2.0 million won a month and wonder why you get 22-year-olds with no teaching experience, it's time to review what that qualified teachers gets paid in their home countries. You know, without having to uproot themselves or risk a school that lies to them.

Kamiza said...

Oh yeah, and Gary Norris:
What are you f'ing talking about dude? What 20-something kid in SK pays rent? These are uni kids doing "arubaitu" to get some cash to see a movie or have a 6000 won coffee at Starbucks or something.
(You are aware that Englsih ability is very closely linked to economic status in this country . . . aren't you?)

Shall we wave a great flag for these oppressed workers? Maybe march down Sejong-Ro or Jong-Ro? Shall we cut off our pinky-fingers or set ourselves on fire in protest?

Gimme a break guy.

Class warfare in the English classroom?
Whatever floats your boat man.

King Baeksu said...

Wow, "Gary Norris," are you really that obtuse?

The point of this post, and a key theme of this blog, is a critique of Korean media representations of ESL teachers in Korea; more specifically, as this post illustrates all too well, Korean blood seems to make one far more deserving of "sympathy" and "understanding" in the eyes of the Korean media, compared to individuals performing the exact same jobs but lacking the all-important "blood of the minjok" coursing through their veins. Far from "beating up on" Korean laborers or "taunting" them, Matt is simply asking if such an obvious double-standard is really fair or just?

I really hope that you are not an English teacher, because your reading-comprehension skills are well below par!