Guest post: A crash course in Korean Culture (please) by Sophia Khan

Today I think this little corner of the internet has pulled off something of a coup, a guest post by the blogless ELT person who I would most like to hear from™. That person is of course, the wonderful Sophia Khan (@sophiakhan4), who has been very generous with her comments here and on many other people’s blogs, and an always entertaining and enlightening presence on my Twitter feed. For those of to who are not familiar with Sophia, she describes herself as:

Half-Bengali Brit in Australia via France with 2 wonderful half-Canadian kids. Teacher, trainer, editor, mother, nerd, interested in stuff.

To that I would add ELT thinker, regional PLN guru, international webinar presenter and all round font of knowledge and discussion. In summary, you are strongly advised to read what she has to say here, which is…

Hi all, this is @sophiakhan4 doing a guest post for @breathyvowel…Alex kindly invited me to do a guest post on his blog a while back, and after a short but heartfelt exchange of tweets recently on “Korean conundrums” (with my fellow #AusELTer @trylingual too), he suggested that this might be a good topic.  So here we are. Thanks for inviting me, Alex 🙂

Well, I don’t know who said this but I’m sure somebody did: we don’t teach courses – we teach students. So why do I feel like I’ve been a million in-house PD sessions that focus on teachers teaching courses, without ever attending a session simply on who my students are? Of course, from an individual perspective this wouldn’t make sense – every class would be different – but from a cultural perspective, there’s definitely something to be learned. What do students of a particular culture expect? What do they respond to? What don’t they like? What’s ok to say and what isn’t? In short – how can we best reach them?

I’m based in Australia, and over here South Korean students have always been one of the dominant groups*  in my classes – sometimes even the only group. As a result, I’ve often wished fervently for a bit more understanding of Korean culture. It often seems to me that (in a multilingual context) the students’ own culture is swept under the carpet with a blasé “Well they’re here now”. But surely a better understanding of where our students are coming from leads to better teaching and learning.

So if a new teacher were to ask me for some pointers on Korean students, this is what I would say (I know it’s very generalised, and I don’t mean to stereotype, just to try and touch on some things that I wish I hadn’t had to learn the hard way – please let me know if I’m off track!):

1. Korean students have often been rigorously educated and may find it hard to accept a more “relaxed”, communicative teaching style. They are also used to a more teacher-centred, authoritarian style in class. This means it can be hard to get a true grasp of how they’re feeling about your course. They may sound very positive when they talk to you, and they may seem to be enjoying classes – but in their exit evaluations you suddenly discover that they wanted a “more strict” or “serious” teacher and “didn’t learn anything”. Some suggestions:

  • Make sure they are clear on the pedagogical value of what you are doing (e.g. by habitually outlining your aims and writing them on the board)
  • Take the time to explain why you are doing things in a certain way – for example, why you are using a task-based approach to grammar rather than a deductive, presentation-based one (this came up in a recent KELTchat on TBL).

2. If students do a placement test to determine their level and class, you can probably expect a few Korean students to complain that they need to be in a higher level than they are. Sometimes this is a genuine concern on their part (e.g., if there’s one thing many Korean students feel they “know”, it’s grammar, and 9 times out of 10 you’ll be teaching from a grammar-based coursebook). Sometimes their actual level seems irrelevant; all they want is a higher level on their certificate (this type of student may think persistence will win the day. One manager I knew had a Korean student in her office ALL AFTERNOON trying to negotiate a change of level. She left her office in the end; he stayed). Some suggestions: 

  • Acknowledge the student’s strengths but point out the reasons why they are not ready for the next level yet. Remember the idea that language classes aren’t just about grammar may be new, so explain in terms of the 4 macro skills and show the CEFR or similar descriptors if you need to (this also lends face validity to what you’re saying).
  • Ask what the learner would like to do in and out of class to help work on those areas.
  • Close the discussion firmly. Say something like “Great, we can definitely do some work on XYZ, I’m really looking forward to working on this with you. Let’s see how we go this week and talk again on Friday.” Then hope they don’t rematerialise on Friday, but if they do, rinse and repeat 🙂 

3. Korean students sometimes complain about lack of correction – some even say they want their teacher to correct everything. Some suggestions:

  • Make your correction policy clear – explain what you will correct and why (e.g., in freer speaking activities you won’t correct anything on the spot but you will take note of errors for correction later – this was touched on in a recent #AusELT chat on speaking).
  • Make sure there is a regular correction focus in your class, and explore varied ways of doing this. 

4. In your multilingual class, you might feel that your Korean students are being quite insular – living together, sticking together at school, using L1 in class, eating only Korean food and generally not taking advantage of the rich multicultural environment around them. My only suggestion:

  • Let it go. You can encourage use of English in class, encourage getting to know the local culture as way to better learn English, try to demonstrate this, but otherwise…let adults make their own choices. They’ll get there in their own time and their own way. (When I go and live in Korea, I’m sure I’ll be doing a fair amount of hanging out with other anglophones, eating sandwiches and speaking in my L1 too.) 

5. Young adult Korean students may not have experienced of the type of academic skills valued in a Western context (e.g., critical thinking, articulating and arguing your viewpoint, evaluating, etc.). Plagiarism can be an issue. Some suggestions: 

  • Sit down and talk to the student concerned – even the whole class – and make sure the issue is understood.
  • Provide strategies for proper citation and avoiding plagiarism.
  • Give them a bit of leeway at first, e.g. a ‘do-over’ rather than a formal ‘resubmit’.
  • Remember this is a process, and your job is to give practical help, not be angry.

And that’s about it. But before I go just a few general things I’ve learned:

  • I had no idea just how ‘rigorous’ Korean education could be until I read this post by @alexswalsh. I’ve since learned that South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world**.
  • Be a little wary when you have Korean and Japanese students together. There’s a complicated history there. I’m ashamed to say I don’t know much about it (if anyone has a link to a non-Wikipedia potted history I’d appreciate it) but there have been tears in my class (again) on this count.
  • Maybe it’s something to do with that beautiful alien-heiroglyphic script of theirs, but I’ve found most Korean students can draw really well and make beautiful charts and posters. Exploit this!
  • Make sure you have been to a “Korean BBQ” and that you know at least what kimchi and bulgogi is. Plus you will like it and (in a multilingual context) it’s a great option for an end of course meal.
  • Don’t ever do a foreign language lesson that involves drilling the word ‘cheval’ (French for ‘horse’). I kept saying it, wondering why everyone was giggling and looking shocked instead of repeating. I suspect it is male-appendage-related in Korean. Please enlighten me 🙂

And that really is it. I’d be interested in knowing what you guys think. Have I missed something important? What do you think teachers need to know about their Korean students? How can we understand our Korean students better?

Australian Education International



27 responses to “Guest post: A crash course in Korean Culture (please) by Sophia Khan

  1. Hi Sophia,

    The first thing I have to say is a huge, huge thank you for writing this. I hope that we can provide you with some extra advice and cultural background about Korean students, but I’d say you’ve also managed to do the opposite and help a lot of people here out with their teaching. I particularly like your advice about plagiarism, it’s something that I have encountered here a lot, and I think that allowing a “do-over” is a great idea, and one that I will be incorporating henceforth.

    I think that a lot of your problem with getting sincere opinions about how the course is going comes from two places in Korea. The first is the concept of ‘face’, which I’m sure you’ll be familiar with. Directly criticizing a teacher, especially in person, would be a threat to the face of both the teacher and the student giving the criticism, constructive or otherwise. Linked to this is a tendency for many people here to tell you what they think you want to hear. In the more ‘live’ part of #keltchat last night I was talking to Anne about how when I ask students to set the rules for class, they’ll tell things like “only speak English at all times”. Cue disappointment when I ask them to explain why, and tell them that I don’t necessarily believe it. I think that Korean students see evaluations, especially early course, as just another thing that they have to provide a “correct” answer, just like all of the other exams they have taken over their academic career. Talking about this yesterday, I wondered if students are actually all that great at grammar (mine aren’t particularly, even knowledge about grammar) but the better students are good at spotting exam questions about grammar and choosing the right answer. Anyway, if you want honest evaluations, it may pay to be a little dishonest. I get my most frank student comments from written evaluations given to the office (that I promise not to read – I don’t, I just get the office to tell me what they say). Also, giving them the chance to write in Korean might help, if you have someone to translate for you, as they may be more able to use hedging and politeness strategies in their L1.

    Finally, I’ll tackle your problem with “cheval”. I don’t think it’s actually male appendage related, but I strongly suspect that with an Aussie accent the “e” ends up sounding very close to an “I” sound in Korean, and the “v” probably gets heard as “b”, which makes it sound almost exactly like the Korean word “sibbal”, which would be the closest equivalent to the f-word in English. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t have any specific meaning, but is generally an exclamation when things are going wrong. A quick google will get you more info.

    I’ll hand over to everyone else at this point, but I’d like to say thanks once again for your awesome post, and I hope we see you blogging sometime in the future. I think this would also be a great topic for a #aus(k)eltchat, and would be very keen to start putting some ideas together for that. I really think that this is a great example of regional ELT communities working together to help each other out. I hope that anyone reading this post who has suggestions for Sophia will leave her a comment below.



    PS When you come here, avoid the sandwiches with extreme prejudice. Koreans do many things well, but making sandwiches is not one of them! 🙂

  2. Ahhhh, is that what it means!?! I’ve been wondering for years! Thanks again for the invite to post, and for your really kind comments, wow…Just doing this helped me reflect on and let go of a few things – the plagiarism thing you mentioned, for instance, really happened to me and I handled it pretty badly. The fact is – if you mark those essays, and in a pre-uni course you probably have to – it takes ages to track down and comment on all the issues and why they’re issues. This resulted in LONG and slightly cross-sounding written feedback, and a resubmit which was, unsurprisingly, little better. Sadly, this then spoiled my relationship with the student, and her experience of the class, for the next 5 weeks – and my evaluations (again!) Your comments about evaluations are really interesting by the way. I wish I had the option to use translation more – doing it in English just makes it another task – and yes I agree that the resulting “directness” of expression is sometimes unnecssarily painful to the teacher! Thanks again for the opportunity to post here, and for the advice and ideas! Roll on #AusKELTchat!

    • You are most welcome Sophia 🙂 Just a quick note to say that I think the politeness strategies also apply to student comfort, as well as the teacher’s. Koreans are notoriously indirect in some ways (“maybe” is a very common word here) and so having to be direct in English if they lack the ability to use politeness strategies will put them in a tough position, and may discourage honest feedback.

  3. Sophia you’ve actually mentioned a couple of things here that were on my list of ‘things to say in the first class of next year’. Just as you mention, Korean students are simply not accustomed to many of the teaching methods modern ELT techniques utilize, mainly task based learning and lack of formal error correction. Again, just to reiterate what you already said, it is SO important to explain to Ss why they are doing what they are doing. Make it obvious to them what they are gaining from the activities and what skills they are practicing or what knowledge they are gaining.

    One thing I would add is that grades are VERY important to Korean students, and they will argue and argue and argue over the smallest details if they think it will get them just one extra mark. Be sensitive to this, it is accepted in the Korean education system and not considered rude. In fact such a scenario could be used to teach a lesson on the pragmatic of complaining.

    Really loved this post Sophia, if you ever fancy writing any more guest blog posts you know where I am 😉


    • Thanks Alex! I haven’t really experienced the grade thing, but now you mention it, I can see exactly how the placement testing scenario I described (and went through pretty much weekly) would make perfect sense from that perspective. A lesson on the cross-cultural pragmatics of complaining sounds GREAT. Roleplay, intonation, language choices, body language and eye contact….You should do it! [And thanks for the guest blog invite. I am trying to dip my toe in the water here and there, so much appreciated!]

    • Hands off Walshy – she’s mine 😀

      Just to say I love your lesson idea, and the grades thing is an excellent point. If you wind up teaching university it gets even worse! 🙂

  4. Hi Sophia, and Alex!

    I would echo others sentiments in wishing to hear more from you in blog related form ;). This is an excellent post that gets to the heart of what most foreign teachers struggle with when working with Korean students.

    The Alex’s covered most of what I have to say about the post, I’d agree with them, and you.

    Quite insightful all around and it definitely gives me something to think about next year for, as Alex Walsh said, “first class of the year” discussion.

    Thanks for sharing!

    John Pfordresher

    • Glad you liked it John and if it adds anything to your first-class-of-the-year discussion I’d be totally stoked (as they say over here). And getting support from bloggers and project go-getters like you and others in the PLN is pretty inspiring – so, thanks 🙂

    • Hey mate,

      Just wanted to echo Sophia’s thanks for stopping by and commenting 🙂

      Hope to hear some good job news from you soon too matey 🙂


  5. Many thanks. I will forward this summary to the teachers at Strathfield College in Sydney, where we have a healthy quota of Korean students.

  6. hahah “SHEBAL” sounds like 18 in Korean but also means like “motherfuker”

  7. Ahhh, Koreans ss…used to think they were really ‘hard’ until I heard their stories of having to be at HS ’til 1 am (or so) in the morning – this floored me!
    One of my first Korean ss in Oz, many years ago, accused me of favoring other ss over her because her grade was not as she wanted, and some classmates had received a better grade than her. I found this quite confronting at the time and very difficult to appease her, even though I felt my grading had been fair. Since then I have had many Korean ss who have worked very hard, and who through this think they have deserved a better grade, but for the majority, the only grade that is good enough for Korean ss is an ‘A’ (or equivalent). Saying this though, my Korean ss generally work hard, even if it’s not exactly in the way that a western tradition would have it.
    On a more positive note, I have also had a great amount of Korean ss who have really taken to the ‘Aussie’ way of doing things, and have revelled in the less competitive, more inclusive environment.
    Oh, and 1 more important thing I have learned about Korean ss; age is sooooooo important to them.

    • Thanks for the comment Kristin. Yes, I was shocked to discover how hard these poor kids are worked (note use of passive). I just don’t understand it and disagree with the underpinning notion that “quantity=quality” in terms of education….It links into your point about how only an A grade is OK, and how “hard work” should equal good grades…As for age, do you mean the older you are, the more respect you will have as a teacher? I would agree with this, but failing in age (although not anymore!) I also think it’s worth stressing qualifications, experience and knowledgeabilty (is that a word?) I always do a “get to know your teacher” activity in the first class, during the course of which I can subtly make sure they find out that I am well qualified and experienced. Then I give a very authoritative course overview, and then we’re usually all good after that. I feel this may pre-empt some problems that I have seen affect other teachers who are perceived as “not qualified” even when they are. And I wonder how much of this relates back to their experiences with native English speaker teachers in the Korean education system?

      • This is a fascinating discussion, and touches on a lot of things that I have pondered in my time here. The first thing I’d say is that the quality/quantity thing is a very important point. They are at school until terribly late, but often (and I would think this varies with the academic level of the school) they are texting friends and gerneally doing anything but study. While the sessions are supervised, they’re often not supervised particularly harshly, especially at the school that I worked at. This ties with something I have noticed here, in which being at work is much more important than doing work (cf people serving me while being on their phones, restaurants where the staff outnumber the customers). There also seems to be a kind of masochistic element to study, in that students will force themselves to learn huge lists of vocab until 3am, and then naturally sleep all the way through class the following day.

        The other point is that Kristin is right, age is crucial in Korea. Even for students one year younger (usually measured by birth year), it is incredibly rude to use an older student’s name, at least without a suffix. In Korea, they would call them “hyeong” (older brother), and my students in class often use “Joo-wan-brother” or suchlike when addressing each other. Given the situation, and that this is very strictly adhered to at university, I tend to let this go, but explain what would happen in an English speaking country. I wonder if you guys have similar experiences?

        With teachers, the age thing is important, but not so much. Just being older than them (hope I’m not insulting anyone here!) should be enough, and you’re right about qualifications too Sophia. I would make a big deal of your MA. I’ve taken to bringing the chunkiest linguistics textbook that I can find to class as realia in my first day get to know you session 🙂

  8. I agree witrh everything stated above and would agree too with how important age and hierarchy are within Korean culture. I have taught in Korea (Iksan) and here in Australia and in a diverse class I like to validate each culture within the class. Korean student love hearing a foreign teacher praise historical figures like King Sejeon or other aspects of Korean culture as textbooks can be verry Eurocentric at times. It is a very comprehensive and insightful Blog post with great comments too!

    • Hi Trent, thanks for the comments – I think I was just writing about age & hierarchy maybe in reply to Kristin above – would you agree with that? And I completely agree that showing a bit of recognition of Korean cultural symbols (whether people, food, phrases, etc.) is often greatly appreciated (and often greeted with huge surprise?? Bonus points!) You also make an excellent point about coursebooks. In a multilingual context, as you say, it’s important to validate all cultures represented in the class, and there’s a strong subliminal sidelining effect in using materials that are easier for some of the class to identify with and talk about than others…And if the same coursebooks are being used in a monolingual context it must be bewildering at times…

    • Hey Trent,

      Thanks so much for your comment. I think it’s great that you manage to slip little bits of Korean culture into the class. Even in Korea, textbooks at university level are horribly Eurocentric. I’m going to name and shame Inside Out here, for featuring a lesson on appearances without a single Asian person!

  9. Hello all, very interesting discussion! In my experience, Korean students respond well to western pop culture, (even from the 70s & 80s for older students!) It can be a fun, engaging gateway to English. In return, enjoy an episode of sbs pop asia (sunday mornings) for a luscious dose of k-pop! (=Korean pop music)……..I am already hooked!

    • Chem,

      Thanks for reading and commenting. A very good point, Koreans love music, and signing. You may, in a group, even be able to get them to sing a bit! As a Korean resident, I’m going to skip the K-pop though – I get enough every time I step out the door, whether I want to or not 🙂

  10. Hi Chem, excellent point! Recently I’ve heard of at least 2 Aussie projects where teachers have implemented a voluntary student pop choir, not only because the students over here LOVE it, but because they have also been able to collect data showing significant improvement in speaking confidence, pronunciation, automaticity and so on. So – let’s do more songs in class!!

  11. Pingback: 18 Things About Korean Students (part 1) « ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

  12. Pingback: Time to start | ROSE BARD – Teaching Journal

  13. Pingback: 18 Things About Korean Students (part 2) « ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

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