It’s creeping towards 2pm on a brisk early January afternoon in Seongbuk-gu. Chores done and coffee freshly brewed means no interruptions for an hour of Korean conversation. Sitting at his kitchen table, Dara prepares for his first lesson with Seniors and Youth (SAY Global Inc.). He thinks the topic of the lesson (selected from a list available for his level) will give him the best chance of practicing the grammar he has chosen in advance. He checks the questions that will be used for the discussion and the vocabulary he has prepared to allow him to interact fluently with his new teacher. Tapping the notebook in front of him, he points out the list of relevant vocabulary and phrases he has researched and committed to memory for today. “There’s no way I’m going to forget these words,” he says. The familiar ringtone announces the incoming Skype call from, her profile explains, a middle-school teacher based in Jinju. Over the next hour she will take him through initial greetings, questions based on the topic, a short grammar focus, pronunciation practice, and a role play. With the lesson plan window open alongside the video, following the lesson structure is easy for both of them, and they are soon exchanging information and opinions on the stress of adolescence, which allows him to practice past tenses. As a middle school veteran, one can only imagine how much knowledge his teacher must have on the topic.
You won’t have needed long in Korea to realise that the older generation’s experience and wisdom is no longer valued in traditional Confucian style. Being shuttled into retirement at an increasingly early age (the average retirement age in Korea now stands at 53), the traditional concepts of respecting the elderly is increasingly being pushed aside in favor of faster development and more work at a cheaper cost for companies. Electoral promises for pension reform have been downscaled or even ignored as politicians pay lip-service to acquiring the loyalty of the king-making elderly vote, but then do little to act on those promises once they attain power. Korean society is inexorably moving on, and the people that did so much to build the foundations of this society – consider that South Korea’s GDP was similar to the North’s in the mid-1970s – are being left behind to idle at home, babysit, or in extreme cases sell chewing gum and collect plastic for recycling. What can be done to still utilise a resource that this country seems increasingly bent on ignoring?
In response to an obvious need to utilise such life skills, a program was started at a senior’s centre in Seoul to channel available skills into a worthwhile project. Aiding Korean language learners at Princeton and Yale, the initial short-term project was expanded due to strong demand into a four-semester program. But could it go further? The SAY organization has since expanded to assist Korean language learners outside of the ivory towers of American education, offering gainful employment to just a few of the approximately 3 million unemployed retirees living in this country while also giving students the chance to start learning Korean, or to develop or hone their Korean skills.
Back in Jinju, Soonjung utilises a small whiteboard to write down any words that need clarification. Her involvement in SAY stemmed from the difficulties she saw multi-national families encounter in her own teaching environment. This made her want to branch out from her own background in home economics into Korean language teaching. SAY, she believes, “not only teaches language as a tool to communicate, but also plays a broader role; a chance to change the prejudice about another culture through talking.” She is one of a number of SAY instructors who have been working with the program since its inception in 2014. Being a teacher already, she perhaps found the job training less challenging than others, but with lessons designed by staff at the prestigious Yonsei University, the design allows all staff to work and communicate lessons effectively to their students.
So how can you get started? The Seniors and Youth website is an easy-to-navigate site that allows you to book lessons at three different levels. Starting from $8 dollars for a single lesson and ranging up to $130 dollars for a set of lessons in the Advanced category, there are also regular special offers such as the Chuseok and Seollal packages. For beginners (one year of study recommended), knowledge of the Korean alphabet is important to get you started and the level promises you the chance to apply everyday expressions to real-life situations over an 8-lesson package. Intermediate and Advanced levels offer a maximum ten lesson package.
Upon purchasing a package, the student receives an email outlining the schedule and lesson materials they will be using. Lesson plans are provided featuring main lesson points, a grammar focus, key vocabulary and dialogues to help with pronunciation practice. Role-plays also play a part in each lesson, with the student using language learned during the lesson to complete a real-life task with the SAY instructor. These role-plays often form the fundamental goal for a SAY lesson, building a student’s fluency through conversation rather than the typical focus on basic drills and limited practise common in many Korean classes.
Back in Seongbuk-gu, the lesson is finished with a thank you and goodbye. Having not had the experience of speaking one-to-one for that length of time before, Dara had initially found the idea of so much conversation quite daunting. “But after ten minutes I got into it and I actually really enjoyed it.” The questions sent in advance allowed him to prepare for the topic, and the grammar exercises used real-life practices which he found systematic, useful and enjoyable without being prosaic. He nods his head as he looks at his notebook again, before throwing his hands in the air. “I just wish I had written more stuff down!” Best of all though was the convenience; a one-to-one Korean lesson without getting up from the kitchen table.
Looking ahead, SAY hopes to continue to make a difference across nationalities, cultures and age-groups. Plus it’s about a lot more than just Korean language learning for all involved. Soonjung remembers well experiences like meeting someone of the Jewish faith for the first time. For her, it has been “a great pleasure to get to know a student’s culture that I may have misunderstood or didn’t know.” It also offers Korean seniors the chance to interact with a younger generation, passing on their own wisdom while, in Soonjung’s words, having “our [own] lives become more energized” through interacting with young people. So if you are looking for a new Korean lesson experience at an affordable price, then SAY might just be for you. Whether your focus is grammar, vocabulary, natural speaking or listening, SAY offers the chance to develop your skills at home in a comfortable and patient environment. And all while helping make a tangible difference to a generation which still has plenty to offer.
60-min Lesson for $30
90-min Lesson for $45
- All lessons are taught by trained teachers that either have their own Korean teaching license or have completed 20 hours or training with SAY and the curriculum is designed by expert Korean professors from Yonsei and Princeton university.
Packages are available in sets of 5 and 10 lessons that will be discounted at each level. Check the website for current promotional offers with big discounts for new users.
SAY uses Skype, appear.in and Google Hangouts to bring 1:1 video chats into your own home at a time convenient for you.
Check out http://www.seniorsandyouth.com/ for more details