The Race is On (with apologies to George Jones)

It’s 10:45am and I’ve got my class of ten beginning language learners doing a speaking activity in pairs. It’s a dialogue between two people asking what they like to do in their free time; the students, once they’ve read through the dialogue are supposed to substitute various “free time” activities like “listening to music” “reading books” and “watching TV” in the appropriate place in the dialogue. In ESL terms, it’s commonly known as a “substitution” drill.

For my students though, it is a race to finish all the substitutions.

One pair gets through all the substitutions in near record time and announces, “finish.”

Another pair, not far behind the first with their substitution mastery finishes next.

“Finished.”

And another pair, feeling the heat and wanting to come in third is next.

Fin-ee-shee.”

(Many Korean language learners have a problem pronouncing the final “sh” sound on words like “finish,” “wash,” and “Bush.” In Korean, or Hangu-mal there is no final “sh” sound; however, there is a final “shi” sound. So, many beginning language students will say “finish-ee,” “wash-ee,” and “Bush-ee.” Now, I know teachers are not supposed to laugh when a student mispronounces a word, but when some students say, “Your President Bush-ee” I am sorry, that is just funny.)

I have been teaching English in Korea for 17 years now and one of the things (and believe me there are many) that has never ceased to amaze me is this notion of having to “finish” first in English class. Here are these students in an conversation class, learning a new language (or attempting to learn a new language) and what matters most to some students is not the fact that you are in a class-and EFL (English as a Foreign Language) one at that-where practicing as much as you can is everything (or at least should be everything), but that what is most important is finishing an activity first.

And announcing to the teacher and everyone in the class, “fin-ee-shee.”

I think a lot has to do with this “ppalli-ppalli” (hurry, hurry) mindset in Korea that is just as prevalent in society now as it was when I first came here. It’s hurry this and hurry that. It’s the way some people will dart across the street running between cars because they don’t want to wait a few minutes at the pedestrian crosswalk, the way some people will slurp down a bowl of ramen in record time, the way some people will walk out of a restaurant still putting on their shoes or the way students will race through an exercise to finish first.

Sometimes I just want to tell my students to slow down. There is plenty of English to learn; you don’t have to learn it all in class today.

Then again, maybe they are “finished” for the day-which sort of reminds me of this Gary Larson Far Side cartoon where a pudgy, bespectacled boy sitting in a class raises his hand and asks the teacher if he can be excused because “his brain is full.”

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