For those of you who've not heard of Geert Hofstede, he's a Dutch university professor specialising in cultural differences in a business context. His research techniques have found him many critics (myself included) but to some extent his findings echo similar comments in tourist guidebooks and the Culture Shock series.
Between 1967 and 1973 he analysed data on over 70 countries, collected by IBM from employees worldwide. (The seemingly old age of the study matters little, according to Hofstede, as national culture is very slow to change.) There were 4 main elements of difference.
PDI - Power Distance Index
Large: Those in power try and look as powerful as possible. Others are a threat to one’s power and can rarely be trusted.
Small: Those in power try and look less powerful than they are. People at various power levels feel less threatened and more prepared to trust people.
UAI - Uncertainty Avoidance Index
Weak: Willingness to take risks. Uncertain situations are acceptable.
Strong: Great concern with security in life. Career stability is needed.
IDV - Individualism
Collectivist: Based on the social system. Order is provided by the organisation.
Individualist: Based on the individual. Autonomy, variety and pleasure are sought in the system.
MAS - Masculinity
Feminine: People and the environment are important. Quality of life is what counts. Service provides the drive. One sympathises with the unfortunate.
Masculine: Money and things are important. Performance is what counts. Ambition provides the drive. One admires the successful achiever.
There is also a 5th factor of cultural difference in East Asian countries: Confucianism.
LTO - Long-Term Orientation (Confucianism)
High: Long-term commitments are valued and business may take longer to develop in this society, particularly for an "outsider".
Low: The country does not reinforce the concept of LTO. Change can occur more rapidly as long-term traditions and commitments do not become impediments to change.
I shall for a moment assume his comments about South Korea to be generally correct. Having lived here for 2 years before and had the pleasure to meet many Koreans outside Korea too, they have an intuitive truth about them, even if things are changing dramatically with each new generation. And also being aware of the negative effect of over-generalisations...
What do the conclusions of his research bode for ELT pedagogy in Korea? (And also for EFL teachers here, and the learning and teaching environment?) What practical advice might come of them?
Consider that Korea's UAI is high - 85 - "indicating the society’s low level of tolerance for uncertainty". Consider also that most overseas English teachers here are from countries like Canada, the USA, the UK and Australia which have relatively low UAI scores (48, 46, 35 and 51, respectively).
This would suggest that a lot of teachers here would assume learners to be comfortable in a free classroom situation and willing to take risks (as language learners anywhere need to learn to do, right?) while the learners would assume the teacher should give a strict framework in which they should work and tell them exactly what to do.
Many Koreans feel insecure without the support framework of traditional power relationships - for example, traditional teacher-student "roles". (I recently had two students thank me for my "lecture", which, given the effort I make to make my classes as student-oriented as possible, hurt a little...)
"In an effort to minimize or reduce this level of uncertainty, strict rules, laws, policies, and regulations are adopted and implemented. The ultimate goal of this population is to control everything in order to eliminate or avoid the unexpected. As a result... the society does not readily accept change and is very risk adverse."
So, to bridge the gap in the most obvious way, the teacher should guide the learners to learn for themselves, can "scaffold" their learning, helping them to set realistic goals and achieve these.
To make sure learners don't clam up when they can't understand perfectly, students' will need a lot of practice of conversation strategies, negotiating meaning, and perhaps discussions/debates, to be carefully prepared for the real world. Lower them into it at a pace that's comfortable for them.
Self-confidence IS something we can help them with in the classroom! Classroom dynamics are really important here, as everywhere as!
Bearing in mind the fairly high PDI (need for hierarchies of power), the teacher could do worse than to play the role of a big brother or big sister, rather than pretending relations in a classroom are fully equal.
"They generally lack flexibility..."
A new language entails an extension of one's identity, possibly new ways of imagining the world. (One good reason to feel sorry for monolinguals!) Of course, even in our first language we often adapt our personal characteristics to fit different situations (learners should maybe be made aware of this chameleon-like social identity we all have).
This goes for our use of foreign languages too. (Maybe conservative students could be nudged to develop their foreign language identities in a more open and conversational direction that would stand them in better stead when communicating with foreigners?) What do you think?
They'll probably need a lot of speaking practice to achieve this - slowly but consistently moving them away from the heavy grammar and overgeneralised dialogues found in oh-so-many English textbooks (thankfully the books I'm using right now are focussed on getting conversations going!).
Using plenty of graded real language material would help - plus perhaps a concordancer, real transcribed conversations and Eugene O'Neill, etc. whenever appropriate. This may seem obvious, but so many Koreans seem to be learning from the non-English of the TOEIC test or from over-enunciated TV news and the like. Building their confidence with real English as an extension of the language they already own and use every day.
The existence of Confucianism in Korea, according to Hofstede, signals an aversity to change. If this is true, changes should be made carefully and with due warning. You need to help them overcome the possible anxiety they might get from the fear of the unknown. Let them know what'll be changing, why you're making the change and what things will be like therefater. In other words, removing all unknowns and making the change a pleasant experience for them.
Confucian societies are also notoriously closed to / untrustworthy of outsiders, which is problematic for meeting new people, even for Koreans. You need heavy machinery to "break the ice" upon first meeting someone - or plentiful alcohol. We need to get them confident about meeting others and give them the skills to control the flow of the conversation. (Generally speaking, whoever initiates the conversations has the most control, don't you agree?)
Trust is more important in the West, because we have legal structures (fairness) in place to punish those who abuse that trust. Yet, everyone learners meet is potentially a close friend - so shouldn't they trust people more readily? Make them need to meet people: set homework tasks, questionnaires or the like, asking them to find out opinions from non-Koreans.
Confucianism advocates silent, passive learners. However, an ideal language learner takes the initiative, takes all the opportunities available and creates them when they don't exist. Korean's aren't known for their initiative are they? In fact, in many 'traditional' situations, it's actively discouraged. See iTESLj for ideas on how to overcome this.~~~~~~~~~~
"South Korea has a low Individualism (IDV) rank of 18." This apparently suggests that many Koreans are afraid of doing things on their own or trying new things. (From experience, Koreans abroad tend to form into little Korean cliques and will rarely do anything without at least one other person they know.)
Now, language learning requires a certain amount of learner autonomy. A language is a wee bit too large to "teach" in a classroom! Sadly, many Koreans seem ignorant (or willingly blind) of this fact. Perhaps though, if they know all their friends in the group are doing similar things, learning outside the classroom, this may inspire them to do likewise. (Probably also the reason why a number of them took the course in the first place!)
Having a study partner could also help - even though different people learn in different ways (with a certain degree of overlap), this support could be a strong motivational factor.
Don't be too quick to ask for personal opinions, especially in front of others. They tend to clam up, don't they? Debates in class, for example, will yield better results if you give out "roles" beforehand - they'll be defending a position, but within the safety of being merely an actor.
Socially-exaggerated gaps between hierarchical groups (old and young, male and female)...
We need to take into account the needs, interests, learning styles of ALL learners (and the fact we all need a bit of all those styles - variety) when teaching. Empathy activities and team-building activites are very useful. (Even if these do occasionally skirt the main point of language learning, a little time sacrificed for a more conducive atmosphere will allow much better use of class time thereafter. Also, these skills are at least as important as the language itself in the outside world, right?)
Make them realise that foreigners will judge them by their values and actions far more than by their age, and that a valuable person is one who contributes, finds things out for themselves and shares important information, and who can learn for themself outside class (no matter how young or old they are).