Thursday, July 16, 2015

Dear Korean English Educators

Dear Korean English educators,

For what it's worth, my name is Heather and I've been an English teacher in your country for the past two years. Thank you for welcoming me and allowing me to live and work here. After only two years, I am by no means an expert on English language education and I'm sure that my grasp of Korean culture falls below 10%, but I still think I have one piece of good advice for you as move forward:

Encourage your kids to make mistakes learning English.

Last week, I was teaching one of my 6th grade English classes (elementary school) and legitimately wanted to break down and cry. Every single day for the past two years, I have asked random students at the beginning of class, "How are you?" and every day there's always one student--if not, five students--who looks at me with a blank stare and ask their friends in Korean: What is she saying?

I know that we all have our days.
I know that these kids cannot be perfect.
I know that socio-economic status plays into their acquisition of language.
And I know that there are probably more factors at work than I'll ever know.

However, recently I saw this YouTube video by an American living in Korea that made me think differently about how and what we teach in the English classroom.


Korea has a habit of creating really fantastic test-takers. Some of the best! And, I think that many English teachers (natives and foreigners) will tell you that this isn't necessarily helping them understand and use English.

Part of the reason ANY of us struggle to learn a language is because we often don't have people to practice with. The kiddos here only get to speak with foreign English teachers living in Korea or people willing to chat with them on-line.

When we first arrived in Korea, I was surprised at how little my students could understand English. I kept thinking, "Was it this hard to teach English when I lived in Cambodia?" The answer to that question is absolutely no. And I know this because six months into our Korean experience, I was able to visit Cambodia again. And unlike Korea, where I often need a translator with me to run a simple errand, I could speak to almost anyone-anywhere from the guy pumping gas to the woman at the fish market. And my hypothesis regarding why a developing country like Cambodia seems to have better English is that there is less emphasis on perfection.

A Korean friend passed on two articles to me recently. This one about the shame culture in Korea and this one about people's fear of actually using English here because they don't want to be labeled "arrogant" or a "know-it-all."

And it makes me sad because there so many people who are eager to learn and practice and use English, but it's difficult when you have these factors working against you.shame working against you.

Last month, three of my Cambodian students (who are now college graduates!) were able to visit Korea for a business convention. We met up for dinner and talked about what they've been observing in Korea. The first thing they said to me is, "No one here speaks English." Which anyone can tell you is an exaggeration, but compared to where they are from, that's how it felt to them.

My best answer was: "They probably can speak English, but they are nervous to make a mistake in front of you."

And their response was: "Why?"