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Why Every Serious ESL Teacher in Korea Should Also Be a Serious Student of Korean


“I’m an English teacher,” you say, “in an English-obsessed culture. Even when I try to speak Korean, people address me in English. So, why even try to learn Korean?”

That’s a great question. It’s also one that I’m sure every Weigook in Korea has asked themselves at one point or another. After all, isn’t Korean one of the most difficult languages to learn? And can’t we all get by in Korea without it? Here are SIX (non-obvious) reasons why learning Korean while in Korea is important (especially for serious ESL teachers):

1. To be able to empathize with your students

Learning a second language is tough. It takes real work. Do you know how confusing similar sounding words or spelling can be? Do you know how much effort is required to memorize a single 10-word vocabulary list? Do you know how long it takes for a student to sit down at the computer and type up a 100-word essay?

Let them know you understand how they feel. Show them how you also struggle with their language. And ask them to help you with your misunderstanding. “Teaching the teacher” will get them more engaged in the learning process and encourage them to keep going even when it’s tough. You’re in this together, right?

2. To understand WHY students continuously make the same kinds of mistakes

Ever given a writing assignment to a group of students and found that ALL the papers come back with nearly identical spelling and grammatical errors. The students have been conditioned day after day, year after year, to follow a completely different set of grammar and spelling rules according to their own native language. It takes considerable time and consistent effort to effectively unlearn what they’ve already learned.

For example: Did you know that verb tense in Korean often only matters for the second verb in a compound sentence? The first verb is never conjugated appropriately according to English grammar rules. It’s no wonder this kind of thing carries over into their writing.

3. To anticipate student mistakes before they make them (and address them)

This point goes hand-in-hand with the previous point. Once you know WHY students write, or speak, or spell the way they do, you can take a proactive approach to teaching them the proper way to do so. This is far better (more helpful to them, less stressful for you) than a reactionary approach to teaching – in which you simply react and respond to poor grammar, rather than addressing it before it becomes an issue.

If you study Korean, you’ll be far better equipped to know the what, the how, and the why they want to construct English sentences the way they do. It’ll make you a much more effective ESL teacher overall.

4. Being a student makes you a better teacher

When you think back to your school years, there were some teachers (and methods) that were more effective than others. You can recognize that, but can you remember which they were and why they did or didn’t work? Being a student again puts you in a situation in which you can observe and evaluate other teachers as they try to teach you. It’s a great way to get some new ideas or add life to old ones.

Besides that, there are probably some games or classroom methodologies that are uniquely Korean. Learning these first-hand in a Korean language classroom would enable you to teach with games and activities that are already quite familiar to Korean students. You’d just have to adjust them according to your need.

5. To check student understanding of vocabulary and grammar concepts

We aren’t paid to teach in Korean (nor are we able to). But there is a reason why most grammar classes are still taught in Korean by Koreans. It’s because many times, foreign English teachers can’t explain grammar to students – even in English! We don’t know why something works, it just does.

But if you become a student of Korean, you start to more fully understand grammar and its constructs. You’ll be more able to instruct students that a “gerund” is always needed in one grammar pattern, while a “past participle” is more appropriate in another (because you’ll recognize the terms).

Additionally, you’ll be able to match up Korean grammar you’re learning with the English grammar you’re teaching. And when you have students repeat vocabulary after you, you’ll be able to double-check that they know the word in Korean. (It saves lots of time and board marker ink rather than drawing pictures to illustrate the concepts).

6. By increasing interest in their language and culture, it will increase their interest in yours

Sharing is caring. When you learn Korean, you are sharing in a second language experience with your students. But not only are you sharing their learning experience, you are also partaking in and sharing their culture.

So much of culture is wrapped up in language (and vice versa). Just think about how you feel when explaining Western culture and how it relates to your language through dialects, holidays, or traditions. By sharing their language, you show that you care about the language and their culture. By sharing their culture, you also show that you care about them and their interests and their history.

And when they see that you enjoy their language and culture, it’ll help them have a greater appreciation for yours – and it’ll remind everyone that language learning can be fun too.

What are some other reasons for ESL teachers to learn Korean?

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