My students are supposed to speak English all the time.  It’s kind of a rule. We offer an exclusively American curriculum and boast an English-speaking campus in the middle of Korea.  This brilliant design encourages and supports the acquisition of the language.  It’s a very, very good theory.  Like communism.

Because the students don’t speak English all the time, see.  They don’t hold up their end of the bargain.  They speak as much Korean as they do English, and they have all year, and that’s the truth.  It’s not a heinous offense, or anything, it just is.

They look at me with big brown, puppy dog eyes and tell me they’re sorry, that it won’t happen anymore.  Then do one of two things:  either start writing notes (in Korean) or speaking Korean in a much quieter voice.

I jest.  Sometimes they stop speaking altogether.

Well, you may be thinking, then punish them.  Hold them accountable.  Keep them after school.  Take away academic points.  Call home.  (And stop whining about it, Hamlin!)

Tried it.  Tried it all in the first few weeks.

I no longer punish them, yell at them, admonish them or shame them into speaking English because these tactics don’t work.  I cannot crawl inside their mouths and force them to speak English.  I tried that, too.  It was disgusting.

Also, it feels like an assault on common sense:  like punishing baseball players who aren’t concentrating hard enough on an out-at-home play by playing 3 more hours of baseball.  All that gets you, friends, is kids who hate baseball.  (Kids who hate baseball!  Have sadder words ever been uttered?)

It’s not SO much the lack of practice they’re getting as that I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT’S GOING ON if they’re speaking Korean!  And I don’t like this. What if I’m missing something hilarious?

Yes, this is giving enormous benefit of the doubt about what they’re discussing -that’s how I roll.   The point is: if I’m not “in” on their conversations, then, I’m out.  And that — that just won’t do.  Many a bully has wreaked severe havoc because a teacher doesn’t know what’s going on.  Which makes my stomach turn.


This week I’m preparing students for finals.  I decided to drive home the point I’ve been trying to make about the importance of them speaking English in my classroom.  The last 2 minutes of class on Monday went something like this:

Me (picking up and putting papers into piles):  So your final exam of the school year will be GIBBERISH and will be held on GIBBERISH day at GIBBERISH o’clock.  If you want to GIBBERISH you can see me at GIBBERISH and I’d be happy to GIBBERISH about that then.

Them (staring blankly):  Crazy teacher lady say what?!

Me:  What.  Did you not understand? I’m reeeeeaaaaally sorry.   I promise I won’t speak gibberish in this class anymore.  (Blink.  Blink.  Goofy smile.) GIBBERISH.  And GIBBERISH some more.

What I said was:  the GIBBERISH is GIBBERISH and you should study GIBBERISH or you will definitely not pass this class.  GIBBERISH.  GIBBERISH.  GIBBERISH.  Alrighty?  Ok, you’re late! Buh-Bye!

Them:  We don’t understand. (Nervous laughter.) Really, what are you saying about our final?

Me:  What’s that?  Really?  By all means let me be more clear.  What I said was GIBBERISH GIBBERISH and GIBBERISH blah, blah, blah, blah.  English final exam.  GIBBERISH.  Got it?

Them:  This isn’t funny.  Are you trying to be funny?

I stared at them, tilted my head, smirked a little.  “This is what is sounds like to me when you refuse to speak English and something you are saying is possibly very important or clever, funny or insightful or incredibly awesome and I CAN’T UNDERSTAND YOU!”

Them:  Really?

Me (squinting):  Really.

Them:  We’re sorry, Mrs. Hamlin.

Me:  I know you are.  At least for the next 10 seconds.

Them (nervously laughing again):  Seriously.  What’s this about the final?