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Hooray! A thoroughly enjoyable field trip at last. We went back to the petting zoo which we tried to go to last month, only this time it wasn’t raining and there were actually animals there.

After yesterday’s miserable excuse for Spring weather, today was gloriously warm and sunny. The petting zoo, although small, was surprisingly filled with a good array of animals. Asides from the expected cows, donkeys, sheep, goats and rabbits, there were also monkeys, badgers, some interesting birds, some extremely cute deer and a magnificent if slightly revolting turkey.

AS far as I could tell, many of the kids had been here before, so I was probably the most excited one of us there.

For obvious reasons many of the animals were off limits in a petty capacity, but the goats and sheep were quite happy to be petted even if the kids were too scared/disgusted by the ddong.

The high-point was definitely the abrupt lesson given to the children about the birds and the bees by a couple of goats.

Check out the gobblers on that!

After a nice stroll though some of the rest of the park, we headed home. Definitely the best field trip so far.

The birds and the...goats

This bird was really cool. If anyone knows what it is, let me know


The Obligatory Activity day posed photo

On our activity day today we taught the kids how to make a chicken salad with a yoghurt dressing. It was kinda fun but we were also pretty rushed for time, so the teachers ended up doing a lot of the work. The salad was made with lettuce, egg, peppers, celery, tomatoes, cheese and chicken.

Tthe kids certainly had fun doing it and they definitely enjoyed their food.

Fruit flavour salad dressing is a big thing in Korea, and they slather it on  thick,

something which is not to my taste.

Gloving Up

Digging in

here comes the big aeroplane


I have been learning Korean for around a year now and I just wanted to share some of the things that I found to be easy, and also some of the things that made me want to stand around a nice little grammar-book bonfire with hatred in my eyes.

(For the record I am no expert on either Korean or English grammar and the points made below are based on my own experience of Korean. Please feel free to correct any mistakes that I have made about the technicalities of either language. Don’t bother if it’s just a spelling mistake, I’m just too lazy to use spell check right now)

Hurray! Korean is Easy!

1. Simple Conjugation

One major advantage of learning Korean as opposed to some other languages is that the verbs conjugate in the same way regardless of the Verb’s subject. This makes learning a new tense a matter of moments rather than much, much longer.

2. Phonetic Alphabet and not silly little pictures

Hangeul looks confusing if you are unfamiliar with it, but unlike mandarin Chinese, the symbols are actually composed of distinct characters that effectively function the same way as the letters do in English. The only difference is that the words are formed in blocks, often in two layers. Even though this is tricky at first, it’s not so bad once you learn that each block of letters counts as one syllable.

What is particularly ingenious about Hangeul is that it was originally designed by Kind Sejong (of 100 won coin fame) so that the characters represent the shape of the mouth and the tongue movements when voicing the character in question. For example, the ‘m’ character is a square ‘ᄆ’, and the ‘n’ character is  ‘ᄂ‘ which mimics movement of your tongue as you voice it. Sejong originally used this technique so that uneducated peasants would be able to read and write, however it did prove useful for me when I was learning the alphabet. When the characters were first put into use it was said that “A wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days.”. It took me 2 months of on and off study to master the alphabet, so I’m not sure what that makes me, but anyhow, it’s certainly not as hard as it looks.

There is a good book called Yes! You can Learn Korean Language Structure in 40 minutes which proved to be very useful although temporally, slightly inaccurate.

3. The Lack of Irregulars

My memories of learning GCSE French at school are marred partly my teacher Mme Staten’s armpit hair, and partly by the relentless study of irregular verbs. Even in Italian, which has far fewer irregulars than French, was I frustrated by this seemingly thankless task.

Happily then, Korean has very few irregulars. There are a few, but in my (admittedly limited experience) they seem to still operate within some kind of logical system. The main benefit of this is, I think, that of a greater confidence in application. As with the simple conjugation, I am always fairly certain that I am getting it right, purely because it’s much harder to get it wrong than in other languages. This means that I don’t catch myself worrying about whether or not I got it right, a situation which would inevitably lead me to over think the problem and thus get it wrong.

Booooooo! Korean is hard!

1. Korean is a Codified Language

You know what I said, like 5 minutes ago, about how Korean is easy because the conjugations are a piece of cake? Well the downside is that the verbs do change, but not based of the person, but based on to whom you are speaking.

I’m sure that you would speak differently to a child than you would if you were reading the news or speaking to your parents, but this would presumably manifest itself in terms of the register of language you used and only minimally in your application of verbal grammar.

Not so in Korean. Because Korean culture is so centred on the respect of position in society , the language follows suit. Thus speaking in what is usually termed “informal polite language” to your boss would be considered a great disrespect. As far as I can remember them, the codes of language are (roughly) as follows

-Informal – Speaking to children, close friends and family members of the same age. Or sometimes just someone who is younger than you.

-Informal Polite – Used in general conversation with people around the same age and social position, or with acquiesces who you don’t know too well.

-Polite – Used to speak to bosses, elder family members etc

-Formal – used when speaking on TV, by people in the customer service industry, and generally when really trying to show respect to someone.

Generally when you start learning Korean you will learn the Informal polite because as a westerner it’s the easiest and the most applicable to anyone you will meet. The problem with Formal language is that when it is used in shops and restaurants, it can be difficult to understand because it is less commonly learnt than the informal polite. The other problem I have found is that there seem to be no text-books which teach the informal, impolite language. This is particularly frustrating to a teacher of young children, although granted in that line of work you only have to listen to pick it up.

Supposedly Korean’s themselves have problems using these different levels of speech, and it is common to ask someone’s age much earlier in the process of meeting them than in the West, just so that they know which form of language to use.

2. Sentence Markers

Korean as a language seems generally much more efficient and much less convoluted than English. One thing that is tricky about forming sentences in Korean is the use of what are known as “Sentence Markers”. These are short words which add no extra meaning to the sentence, except to denote different parts of it. There are subject markers, object markers, topic markers, place markers and time makers to name just a few.

Whilst some of these are fairly straight forward and are very helpful when reading Korean, I found it really tricky to remember to use them when I was speaking it, and even am still sometimes confused as to which marker to use.

As a small example, the word ”I” can be said as “Na Nun”, “Jeo Nun” and “Nae ga” (“nun” and “ga” being the markers for topic and subjecdt respectively) and I still haven’t been able to ascertain from anyone which should be used in which context. I would go into more detail about them now, but I seem to have mislaid my Korean grammar book, so maybe that can be a fascinating treat for another time.

3. Learning Vocabulary

When I was friends with a French guy a couple of years ago, I found that despite my meagre French ability, I was usually able to blag not knowing a word simply by saying an English word in a comically stereotypical French accent. This was possible because French and English share many words, and if the words aren’t exactly the same, the at least share a common Latinate root, thus making it easier to memorise them.

The Korean language, whilst borrowing a fair few English words (usually for things and products), does not share any root language with English. This makes learning Korean vocabulary an arduous task.

I find the only way to learn a new Korean word (if I don’t want to sit on the bus and repeat it to myself 400 times like some crazed old drunk with a grudge, and believe me I have done this) is to link the sounds, however intangibly and improbably to English words and names by way of a powerful image.

For example, today I learnt the Korean word for “anxiety” which is roughly Romanised as “ggok Jjeong”. The image I created for myself was of Gok Wan (the TV personality who tells woman that they look bad naked) being threatened with torture by Jim Jong-Il and consequently being anxious about his predicament. This is a particularly tenuous example, but it’s really not all that anomalous.

Of course, without a decent vocabulary you can still be understood, but it’s a different story when being spoken to. Sadly I’ve realised that to have any chance at good Korean conversation I’ll probably have to just tough it out.

Continuing the theme of seasonally inappropriate field trips, this week we went to a Flower school distinctly lacking in flowers.

The flower school is not in fact, as I had hoped, somewhere that a flower can gain an education, but rather an old public school that has been turned into a place where children can learn about flowers. Despite it being the middle of April, the weather was as dull as dish water but with a chill in the air. The spring’s capricious weather had apparently delayed the blossoming of many of the flowers within the manicured grounds. There was however a fair-amount of cherry blossom which was nice to see. Despite the cold I was informed that I was to have my photo taken with all the kids, 2 at a time. This was slightly embarrassing but mostly just uncomfortable given that I repeated had to crouch down.

There were also about 700 other school children who had come for the day. As I was apparently the only westerner there, this meant that I spent roughly 75% of my time saying hi to every single one of them whenever we crossed paths. Rather endearingly, the students from my school became protectively jealous of me whenever this happened saying “No, Thom Teacher is Wonderland Teacher!”

After a brief tour of the exhibition room’s limited offering, we watched a couple of uninspiring nature videos in a cinema room. Next the kids got to do rubbings of leaf engravings which didn’t really seem to work

We went upstairs and managed to find a room full of various board games for the kids to play with, and they seemed genuinely engaged for the first time that day. Sadly after only 10 minutes a Korean man came in and told us that we were not meant to be there.

And so back out into the school grounds we went. It was quite pretty even without the flowers, and I imagine that on a nice day in a couple of weeks time it would have been a great place for a day out and a picnic. As it was, it was a little drab.

With nothing else to see or do we climbed back on the buses and headed back to school. On most occasions I would prefer to be outside doing activities than stuck in a classroom and the students seemed to have a good enough time, but I do hope that the next field trip has a little more excitement than this one did.

The Korean ministry of culture, sports and tourism has announced plans to impose a daily 6 hour video game blackout for school children, the Korean Herald reports. Under the new policies, under age users will be forced off their gaming networks between the hours of 12am-6am, 1am-7am or 2-8 am.

The news hardly comes as a surprise in a country that has seen deaths from over-extended use of the internet and the recent case of the couple who caused their baby’s death through negligence after preferring to care for a virtual baby instead.

How efficient these measures will prove in reality remains to be seen. In some ways it seems like a reasonable measure to combat over-logging (to borrow a phrase from South Park) and the subsequent possibility of addiction. On the other hand, taking away Korean teenagers’s main relaxation activity seems cruel, especially when you consider that they wouldn’t be playing video games at 1am in the first place if they weren’t being kept so late in schools and hagwons.

Read the full story here:

(For reasons which will become apparent there will not be many photos on this blogpost. The one I have used have been lifted off of Google)

Sign for jimjilbang.

Yesterday I joined a gym next to my house, and experienced my first bang this time round in Korea. Just to clarify, “bang” in Korean means “room” and is a suffix added onto facilities that serve specific purposes. There are many types of bang in Korea: Dvd bang, PC bang, Norae bang and sojubang are just a few, and I will be covering all of these on the blog at a later date. Today I’m going to talk about the jimjilbang, something which I would recommend every foreigner do if they ever visit Korea.

Essentially it’s a big sauna/bathhouse. Sometimes they are attached to a hotel or gym but there are jimjilbangs that are independent also. I’m guessing that in the past jimjilbangs were frequented weekly by families who could not afford private bathrooms. These days it is seen more as a relaxing day out than a necessity, but people still go with their families and on one more than one occasion I’ve seen 3 generations of a family all bathing together.

Once you have paid your entrance fee (usually between 5000 and 7000 won (or £3-£5), you go up into the segregated changing rooms. Here you find not only lockers but also comfy chairs, tv screens, and refreshments. You can also have your haircut there (in the buff if you so wish, as many do). Because many jimjilbangs are open 24 hours they are a popular place to take a nap, or indeed a whole nights sleep as I have done on a few occasions (although I wouldn’t recommend doing unless in a state of slight inebriation). The atmosphere really is quite relaxing.

After stripping down (nudity is strictly enforced in the bathhouse area, the men’s and women’s areas are of course separate) you enter into a large room with baths of varying temperatures (from very hot to very cold), a sauna and steam room, a heated floor area, massage tables and rows and rows of showers (it is necessary to shower before using the baths unless you want to elicit angry stares from the Koreans).     I’m sure that there is a particular sequence in which you are supposed to use all the various amenities, however as I am ignorant, I usually just do whatever takes my fancy. My particular favourite is a warm bath that has power jets of water which massage different parts of your body.

Once you’re done with that section, there are rows of plastic stools in front of shower heads and mirrors which are used to wash and scrub oneself. It is a common sight to see men lending each other a hand in the washing duties, something I cannot imagine happening in England.

After that, you return into the changing area to towel off. Inside, there is a row of hair-driers and various grooming products to make use of. If you are going to sleep for a while, there are usually T-shirts and shorts that can be used as pajamas.

The result of the jimjilbang is certainly invigorating. It seems particularly effective to switch between the very hot and the very cold baths, so as to leave you with a certain dizzy euphoria that lasts for at least a couple of hours. At any rate, it certainly ensures a newfound level of cleanliness as well as a newfound removal of modesty.

During my time in Korea I have slept in a jimjilbang on 3 occasions and I could not honestly say that they were ever particularly comfortable experiences. There are no beds, so you must either make use of the reclining chairs, or of the floor. A friend of mine chose the latter option on one occasion and woke up sweating having forgotten about the under-floor heating.

The most interesting time I stayed, was in the big jimjilbang in Haeundae. After a night of drinking we made our way there and had good relax in the baths. As it was nearly morning, we decided to make our way upstairs to get some sleep. As the doors to the lift opened an almost hysterical sight (at least it was at the time) came before my eyes. In a huge room similar in size to half a football pitch, were around 250 sleeping Koreans. They were sleeping on thin mats on the floor. Rather than being segregated, this was a communal area for men and women alike. The men wore blue pajamas and the women pink. It was hard not to burst out laughing so surprised was I to see it. We just about managed to find a small space on the floor and laid our mats out and tried to get some sleep. There was a Korean man snoring next to me, but I was able to drift off before too long….only to be awoken 3 hours later by an ajumma “accidentally” kicking me so she could retrieve one of the 3 mats I was using as a makeshift mattress. Evidently she thought I was hogging them.

All in all it wasn’t comfortable but it was endearing and a great experience, and for £4 I can’t complain. I’d love to see what would happen in England if you tried getting 250 drunk people to share a room together for the night. Well, I’d like to see it, but I’m not sure I’d like to join in.

(One note to those westerners who wish to use Jimjilbangs: the Koreans will doubtless take an interest in your naked foreign form having probably never laid eyes on one before. This is either quite unsettling, or quite exciting, depending on your proclivity to voyeurism. The fact of the matter is that Koreans grow up using jimjilbangs and are quite unconscious about their nudity when they are there. I think in many ways it functions as a bonding experience.)

In April 2009 plans were set in motion by the Korean government to implement a 10 pm curfew on hagwon opening hours. This was a reaction to the rising cost of private academy education in Korea. The news this week was that these plans are being met with stiff resistance from all sides and will be scrapped if the majority of hagwons fail to enforce them by June of this year. (

Regardless of the financial impact that a curfew would have on a hagwon, keeping kids at school until late in the evening seems not only cruel, but ineffective. Hagwons are private academies that students attend after regular school, usually for 2-3 hours. However, some students attend not only English hagwons, but also hagwons for other subjects such as maths, science and social studies.

In real terms this means that a high-school student might start school at 9am and, depending on how many hagwons they attend, not be done with the day’s learning until 1 am the following morning (albeit with breaks for food and homework and maybe a little r and r). Oh, and this happens every day. Often including Saturdays.

In fairness to the students, they mostly show an admirable degree of commitment and energy at all times, but surely this workload must get to them. At my old school, I often found that by my last classes of the day (at around 8.30) the students were understandably uncooperative and it was not uncommon to find them slumped on their desks in their meagre 5 minute break time.

It seems fairly obvious to me that there’ll be detrimental effects on learning ability if you force students to work that hard. Studies have shown that the average academic attention span of a teenager is around 40 minutes. Even though Korean students are socially conditioned into working these long hours, it’s hard to imagine even half of the things they’re taught sticking in their minds. This becomes particularly true when you take into account that the primary style of learning in Korea is rote. If more of the classes were based on an immersive, practical application of English I would not mind quite so much. But the fact of the matter is, the students are mostly being smacked repeatedly into a wall made from grammar and vocabulary.

I imagine that even someone with a strong intrinsic motivation to learn a language would be turned off by this approach. The best way to learn a language, as with anything, surely comes from a passion for it. What then of the students whose only motivation to learn English comes from being forced to be there? What damage could this approach do to the gusto with which students study English, and by extension, other subjects?

Koreans of all ages work hard (more than any other country), but surely the time to enjoy yourself is when you are young. It seems to me that a little less time spent studying and a little more time spent relaxing would do good not only to the mental well being of the students, but to their prospects of actually learning something useful.

These are some pictures of Kim Jong-Il the North Korean leader touring farms and factories and the like.