I was sitting quietly at my desk when a co-teacher approached from around the corner. “Can you do me a favour?” she asked plaintively. I am used to requests, usually of the “Edit this raging sea of grammatical errors and wrangle it into an English paragraph,” and so I prepared myself. A post-it was placed in front of me. “This boy has lived in America the last seven or 8 years,” she said. He was a third grader, and thus was probably born there, but the lives of kids abroad are always sort of talked about like weird wild-goose vacations. “He just moved here. He wants to speak to native speakers more… would it be okay?”
When something is brought to me in this way, as though I am really helping the other party out, I don’t want to rob them of the illusion. Korean schools are economies of debt, of repaying favours and oddjobs and kindnesses. Of course I’ll talk with the boy! Of course, underneath, she didn’t realize that this was basically a favour to me.
Every day I speak a kind of alterna-English, in order to get my meaning across and to actually communicate. If I spoke anything approaching how I usually talk, there would be chaos in my wake, as my coworkers and students would flee from the mighty and horrific sound. Fast English is scary, and I know that, so I generally refrain from wielding it.
But some of my kids are fluent. Scary fluent. Some were born in the States, or lived in the Philippines, or attend a frightening number of hagwons. One of my grade fours simply has an amazing aptitude for language, apparently fuelled mostly by watching aa lot of Hannah Montana videos.
They don’t always identify themselves to me. One or two have stumbled up one day and basically reported, “So, I speak English.” But the rest have been ferreted out via investigation or suspicion, or tidbits discussed amongst other teachers. One day I passed through the halls and a third grader said hello to me, and when I responded, he chirped a happy, “Have a nice day!” I cautiously threw back a “You too,” and when he was able to respond again almost instantly, I knew there was something up. None of my regular students are capable of regular pacing of conversation, and that’s okay, because they just started. But when a kid is suddenly capable of speedy back-and-forth, I know something is up.
Another time, in class. A flight attendant appears in the video. We ask the students what her job is, and most of the students brightly suggest that she is a “studious.” One boy quietly raises his hand from the back. “Her job is to navigate people to their seats and help them in emergencies and bring them food and water.” I narrowed my eyes, and handed over the reins of the comprehension questions to the co, before rushing to this boy. “Where did you live?” I asked, almost accusingly. Because that kind of English was not grown locally.
It is with these few kids that I can speak quickly. That I can use complex grammar constructions, generate sentences longer than 6 words, and never concentrate on slowing down my speech (beyond how I would naturally slow down a little for kids). I invite them to come and talk to me at any time (which I do for all of my students, although these are the only ones likely to ever take me up on the offer). I sneak over to them in class and drill them with additional comprehension questions, differentiated writing tasks, and anything that will cause them to break out their otherwise dormant English language skills. Anything that will allow me to break out my otherwise dormant language skills.
I also can actually know these kids in a deeper way. Because I have so many students, and because so many think of English as at most pragmatic and at worst something emerging from the depths of a Lovecraftian nightmare, I can only know so much about my kids. Where at home where I worked with single classrooms and knew the kids backwards and forwards, here so much is guesswork. And I miss actually knowing the students I teach, and knowing them is difficult when you can’t really ask them anything. All of their personalities and strengths and weaknesses I cobble together from inference, snatches of Korean conversation I pick up, and the few times when they un-self consciously and freely speak to me, in either language.