Category Archives: Guest Posts

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