Spaghetti Alphabet?

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I recently realized that I am a complete hypocrite. Well, in all honesty I've known this for a while, especially when it comes to giving advice, but I had the fact practically thrown in my face the other night. As a teacher of a foreign language, I'm constantly trying to stress communication over perfection. By which I mean, it is more important that you can talk to someone, get your point across, even if your grammar is barely grammar and you're speaking mainly in nouns and hand gestures. Were you able to buy the coffee you wanted? Did they answer your question? Laugh at your joke? A+

My students, and I think most language students, struggle with the desire to be perfect. Often, when I ask my older students a simple question that I know they understand, I'm still met with...silence. Averted eyes. Maybe if we don't move she can't see us.

While of course I would love to only get answers like "My favorite food is pizza" or "I saw you at the store yesterday. You were wearing red pants", I'm entirely satisfied with "Pizza very very like" and "Teacher! At the store...I saw you! Red pants!" because hey, at least we're communicating. Depending on what we're studying, I'll either correct them or let it slide. Some of the mistakes are even a bit wonderful. "Teacher! Spaghetti...uh...alphabet?" I allow myself to imagine an alphabet of spaghetti before realizing that all they need is some help spelling the word.

Technically not spaghetti.

When school lets out, the teacher becomes the student. I may spend  8 or 9 hours a day trying to shove some English into their poor brains, but once I go out into the world. I'm the one trying to shove Korean into my own brain, with varying degrees of success.

The first few months of studying were fantastic. When you're starting from the bare minimum, if you put in a little effort, it's easy to progress pretty quickly. At least, that's what happened to me. Studying was exciting, because every new grammar point opened up whole worlds of communication previously closed to me, the uninitiated. I'd gleefully get into conversations with anyone who put up with me, not unlike a toddler who will talk to anyone about horses or ice cream or whatever they're super into at the time. I didn't know enough to know if I was making mistakes. I was Eve before the apple. It was glorious.

But, like shows directed by Joss Whedon, the easy part of language learning was doomed to end before it even had a chance. Like some kind of language junkie, it took me more and more studying to get my fix, and I was afraid to use my newly learned conjugations for fear of making a dumb mistake. When faced with a question I knew I could answer, I would freeze, avoiding eye contact, hoping that if I didn't move, the questioner wouldn't see me. Because I knew that I was capable of saying something correctly, I was no longer comfortable spouting out my usual combination of mangled sentences and charades. At the time I was totally unaware of the irony of that attitude. Or if I was, I avoided thinking about it too much.



All this leads me to last Thursday. I'm preparing for a violin/saxophone duet in an upcoming festival (that's a whole other story I'll have to narrate here), so I met...let's call him Music Teacher after school to work on our song. He barely speaks any English, though he can understand a bit, so any time we spend together is a big challenge for me. Also, he mumbles, which is an absolute nightmare for my comprehension. Fortunately he's also entirely willing to repeat stuff in different ways until I figure it out or we have to go to the dictionary.

Anyways, after practice he took me out for dinner and we talked for the better part of an hour, about music and teaching and things we've been up to. More than once my Korean completely fell apart, but since A) I didn't really have a choice and B) I managed to get my point across when I needed to, I didn't let my mistakes get to me.

On the way home, somehow our conversation turned to how much my Korean had improved since the last time he saw me. I responded with my usual "No, I'm not very good..." (of course imagine all this is in Korean), but he continued to try and convince me.

"I'm okay but...I want to be better. I want to be able to speak well now. I don't have any patience."

"But we're communicating already! So it's okay." 


That was the moment when I realized how much of a hypocrite I'd become. Here I was discouraging my students from beating themselves up over mistakes, encouraging them to do their best even if it wasn't perfect, while at the same time beating myself up over mistakes and not daring to try if I didn't know the best way to say something. I guess the whole point of writing this is to be a reminder to myself, and to anyone learning a language, to anyone learning, well anything; don't be afraid to make mistakes. Keep your spaghetti alphabet at hand, and you're sure to find success.

As my dance instructor Ling Hui used to say, "Try as you could."


Teacher Pretty
Middle school ESL teacher, lover of pink, eater of kimchi, addicted to Etude House, expert procrastinator, meeter of 2-dimensionial popstars: Ana. That's me.

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