Tag Archives: Teaching

TBV goes back to school: Selected diary extracts


This post is intended both as a preview of some upcoming posts for the 2.4 people who are waiting for news of my recently finished Korean language class, and also a way of reviewing my notes from the whole experience in preparation for writing more detailed posts. During the course I was reasonably diligent about writing for 30 minutes a day about things that I noticed in class and how I thought I was progressing. The extracts below are from those writings, and might give you an idea of some of my raw reactions to the course. Apologies for any unpolished language, shouting and insensitivity that may occur.

Day one:

“It strikes me on the way in that language classes are MENTAL! You can forget as a teacher that gathering in a place to speak in another language is a fairly extraordinary thing to do, and learners often don’t have a clue how they are supposed to behave in this context. When I get to my classroom, there are two girls sat in the dark. I smile and issue a greeting in two languages, which gets little response. Silence and awkwardness descends, probably because nobody knows what language to speak. We are well outside our comfort zones before the teacher even enters the room.”

“One thing I note is that there is no effort at all to create a sense of a group, and no talking to each other initiated by the teacher, though thankfully at least four of us manage to get some chatting done in Korean and get to know each other a little. This to me is a big negative and maybe something that Korean teachers don’t consider so much in class?”
“Oh yeah. Paying 26,000 won more for a textbook when I’ve already paid 700,000 won for the course? Piss off.”
Day two:
“I feel like someone has tried to make Foie Gras by stuffing my brain so full of stuff that it explodes.”
“We quickly got sidetracked onto a discussion about whether nose shape was as important to Japanese people as Koreans (it isn’t). There wasn’t any feedback or sense that the teacher was listening. In fact, she went out of the room for a time.”
Day three:
“I’m feeling quite humble today. One thing you are maybe not aware of in class is quite the level of confusion amongst your students. Perhaps it doesn’t happen to you, but if it does are you wont to blame the students for not doing paying enough attention or not checking with you? I have been guilty of this in the past, but no more! This morning everyone turned up with different versions of what we were supposed to have done and we had to check with the teacher exactly what we were supposed to have done. We were almost all wrong too!”
“I’m finding myself becoming more and more of a fan of ICQs, just because they’d give us a chance to go over what was said one more time. Even asking “Do you understand?” would be a nice chance to say ‘no’.”
Day six:
“The teacher explains all of the vocabulary first, and then asks us to read aloud, filling in the blanks on the hoof. This is near impossible and really annoying, especially as I’m discovering that reading aloud focuses all of my energy on making the sounds rather than understanding the words and therefore is not helpful at all. I wonder if reading a phonetic and non- phonetic language aloud is a different cognitive process?”
“The whole segment is basically a disaster for me. The teacher assumes I will know words like 특징 (point of difference), which I don’t, and I spend the whole time struggling to stay afloat. I imagine the same is true for others, but the teacher never stops to find out. Once we’re through the reading, there are some comprehension questions that he asks and then answers straight away. At very few points are we left alone to read or think in peace.”
“Then again, I’m yet to experience a lesson structured around a clear target, at least one based on spoken output.”
Day seven:
“One thing that’s bothering me today is the sheer burden of the vocab learning on this course. Every day we are given 30 to 40 vocabulary words to learn, most of which are new (to me at least), and every day we are tested on them. The effort to get all of those into my memory is severely affecting the amount of work that I can put into other areas of language learning such as re-reading or pronuciation and it feels limiting. It’s bad enough having to get up at 6 am without having to study all of the way to school too.”
Day eight:
“We do some listening, and she breaks us into groups to discuss the answers. This is difficult because the people I worked with didn’t really say much. We fudge with the tapescript until the teacher tells us the answers. We then listen one more time with the teacher repeating. This is helpful in terms of making sense, but I would surely like to work a bit harder on the things that I didn’t know or didn’t hear.”
“There’s a horrible moment where as a personalization thing I have to create an example of the difference between Korean and English girls. I struggle for something inoffensive, fail and settle for a fat/ thin distinction. The girl opposite me sighs.”
Day nine:
“I would say that the big improvement has been in using Korean for the purposes of being a member of my class. I’m feeling noticeably more confident about speaking in public and using the respectful style and honorifics to other class members, even if I’m the oldest and these could generally be skipped. The confidence though could easily be ascribed to a getting used to new environs as to any meaningful language development.”
Day ten:
“I’ve found that I’m not very good at remembering to use stuff in general in class, unlike another girl who seems to be able to remember to jam things we’ve learned into conversations in class. Part of the reason is that a lot of the grammar we do is pointed out as more written and formal register, but this shouldn’t be an excuse. Still, some planning time would be great and I feel like I’m being denied the chance to create anything with language. I feel like a lot of the speaking that I do in class is not oriented towards language development, but more towards sharing ideas.”
 “I’m beginning to think of fossilization not so much in terms of errors, but in terms of ways of getting things done in the language, and I think that written input might be the best way to destabilize it.”
Day eleven:
“I think if I hear another unrelated anecdote I am likely to sink deep into a pit of incomprehensible despair. But at least I’m understanding, right?”
“In fact, I had got a bit lost towards the end of the first point, and it was the pause, not any structural knowledge that alerted me to the fact that something new was coming. And here’s the thing: do we really, really need to teach people to listen for pauses? Am I just such a go-getting, switched on language learner that I don’t have to be taught this stuff?”
“A final question is how much teachers of English and other relative majority languages should hold teachers of relatively minor languages to the same professional standards. I have almost effortless access to a raft of literature, blogs, conferences and colleagues from which and whom to learn.”
Reading those quotes back they actually paint a fairly accurate picture of my experience: really fascinating, yet not always for the right reasons. However, it did yield a fair amount of learning and confidence in my second language, and provided some really interesting insights into teaching and learning too. Writing this post has helped me develop a long list of things to blog about in longer form over the next few weeks, so stay tuned if you’re interested.

TBV goes back to school: Why I’m taking a Korean course this winter


This winter university vacation I have found myself with a lot of free time. Given that my pasty complexion means parking my corporation on a Balinese beach for the winter poses a serious health risk, I decided to instead take a busman’s holiday by doing a three week intensive Korean course at a university language center in Seoul. And further given that Michael Griffin put pressure on me to do so in front of the ENTIRE INTERNET, I will try to share some of my experiences and try to find some relevance to teaching and learning that might enhance my own practice.

I realise that I am not alone in this kind of endeavour, and in fact I am in some esteemed company: Scott Thornbury’s (De-) Fossilization Diaries rather set the bar for blog-based accounts of language learning, although I intend this to be less an overall picture of SLA and much more a few pieces focused on the experience of a teacher/learner on the other side of the desk  – a bit like Ken Wilson’s Diary of a Language Learner without the catty comments about my classmates’ dress sense.

My (Adult) Language Learning Background and Goals

Leaving aside my smattering of school French and German, I have learned two languages to some degree during my adult life. During a year working in Guatemala, I took free Spanish classes at my school in very small groups twice a week for about eight or nine months, and had a reasonable grasp of tense and aspect (we focused A LOT on verbs) but not much vocabulary and fairly little fluency due to limited chances to use it in real communicative situations. This bothers me as an English L1 speaker living abroad; you often find yourself working and living in English speaking environments, and inhabitants of your domiciled country tend to initiate conversations in English owing to their own desire to learn. In short, as an English teacher, you often have to swim down a long way to get truly immersed in the language, if you ever do.

While it could hardly be called immersion, life in Korea has afforded me some opportunities to use the language to do some things and be someone. After six months of not getting much past the language of restaurants and taxis, I joined the football club in my tiny mountain town. Suddenly, I had friends – albeit ones that I had very little shared language with. This provided the drive to put some time into self-studying Korean through the excellent and ever cheery Talk To Me in Korean, with weekly fried chicken and beer sessions in which my newly learned language could be experimented with. These were a lot of fun. The self-study, as I recall, was not. I tried to put whichever grammar point I’d learned into sentences that I could imagine saying, and did a lot of mechanical drilling using Anki, but it felt like a hard slog and the only way I could force myself to do it was to set myself a timer and sit studying for an hour, giving up as soon as the beeps sounded. Nevertheless, it gave me enough of a basis to start having real conversations with my football team-mates.

Now, on a hard-hitting language blog like this one there’s little room for mushiness or romanticism, but the second big influence on my Korean has been my girlfriend. We first met as a language exchange, which I think was influential in building a relationship in both languages. Since we became a couple about 30 months ago, I have done almost no formal study of Korean but again I’ve had the chance to practice conversation in a comfortable setting for at least 30 minutes each day. The result is that in general I am deemed to speak Korean reasonably well by people around me – both Korean and non-Korean. I would put this down to the fact that I have a good grasp of word class, basic syntax and grammar and can mark tense/aspect in a few different ways and can handle the basics of conditionals, embedded clauses and complex sentences. Additionally, I’d put my vocabulary somewhere just above the 3,000 or so word families suggested for everyday conversation* (Adolphs and Schmitt 2003), but the amount of practice I’ve had has given me a decent amount of (what I just read on Scott’s blog) is called “semiotic agility” by Thorne (2013). However, this agility seemingly is not effortless – as the owner of a guesthouse remarked recently: “you look so much more relaxed when you’re speaking English.” This is one problem that I have – things become cognitively tough when conversations begin to push the edges of my comfort zone.

So what do I want out of this course in language learning terms? I feel like the problems described above probably spring from a lack of vocabulary and lexical phrases that allow to succinctly express deeper concepts – I am some way below the 5-,000 word families required for 95% coverage of a reading texts* (Na and Nation 1985) and would like to work towards that. This brings me to the second problem: I generally don’t read anything longer than a text message and if I try, I get bored and often give up. Just being able to read some texts that are (hopefully) graded would be great in terms of giving me a boost in confidence and getting used to reading in Korean. The bulk of my audial input also comes from girlfriend-ese, which has adapted over the course of our relationship into a language that is 98% understandable to me, but when other people speak understanding becomes much harder. A greater exposure to other idiolects and accents would be very helpful. Finally, there are some grammatical things that I would like the chance to sit down and get a handle on. Things like the subtle difference between topic and subject markers, especially over stretches of discourse, and sentence endings (for example -거든) that I’m aware of in input, feel like I could use from time to time, but don’t really have the confidence that I’m really making meaning with them. One problem with learning almost entirely through speaking and listening is that the language just won’t stay still for long enough to really grab hold of the meaning. I’m looking forward to the chance to spend a bit more time with the workings of Korean, I hope with the result that mine also becomes a little more complex and subtle. If I can do these four things, I’ll be pretty happy.

* Note that both of these figures are for English – I have no idea if they apply to Korean.

What I hope to get out of this as a teacher

It strikes me that with my Korean learning, I’ve got a fairly long way without having to attend a class, and that most of the goals I just listed could be achieved at considerably less expense by buying a textbook (and probably a bleeping timer) and sitting down and studying. It also strikes me that in my adult language learning career, I have spent relatively little time in formal language classrooms, and none in situations like the one I teach in, where I meet up to 20 students three times a week for 100 minutes. Therefore the larger part of my decision to take the Korean course was teacher development.

The students that I get have studied English for about ten years before they get to be, often in and out of school, and so I get very few true beginners to work with. Mostly I’m dealing with lower intermediate or false beginners, and this is not a level at which much of my formal study took place, so looking at it from a students point of view should be illuminating, especially as while I tend to see big gains in fluency in my classes, I feel like I see much less uptake of discrete items that I teach (in terms of verb forms, lexical chunks or error corrections). This for me is one of the big reasons to take the course – to examine if this kind of learning is even helpful, and if so how I can help students to do it better. There is also, of course, a kind of general voyeuristic desire to get a look inside another teacher’s classroom, but specifically some things I will try to think about are:

  • How do materials help or hinder my learning? How does the teacher make best use of them? How do I try to use them as a learner?
  • What kind of practice opportunities are given in class? What kind of practice can I do out of class to help learning?
  • How is language presented by the teacher? Is this helpful?
  • If I prove to be a successful learner, what kind of habits, beliefs and attitudes do I take into class that help me to be successful? How can I encourage students to develop similar ones? Do the teachers try to get me to develop any meta-strategies?
  • How do I feel as a student? What kind of activities make me feel comfortable or uncomfortable? What kind of relationship does this have to my perception of their value for learning?
  • What features of language taught appear in my Korean? Do they stay there? Why?
  • How do the teacher and learner tackle pronunciation?

I hope to be able to report back on some or all of these over the course of the, err, course. If you’re interested in how all of this pans out, there’ll be a subscribe button around somewhere.




Adolphs, S. and Schmitt, N. 2003. Lexical coverage of spoken discourse.
Applied Linguistics 24: 425–38.

Na, L. and Nation, I.S.P. 1985. Factors affecting guessing vocabulary in context. RELC Journal 16, 1: 33-42.

Thorne, S.L. 2013. Plenary: Awareness, appropriacy and living language use in T. Pattison (ed.) IATEFL 2012: Glasgow Conference Selections, Canterbury: IATEFL.


뉴비즈: Korean Pronunciation of English

This post is aimed at anyone teaching in Korea, but particularly those who will be stepping into a public school classroom for the first time.

I’m going to begin this post with a challenge. Listen to the sound file below, and see if you can figure out the mispronounced English word. The answer is at the bottom of this post.

If you’ve figured it out, good job. If you haven’t, then you’re in exactly the same position as I was when a student said it to me. One study showed that mispronunciation was the most common cause of misunderstanding in English (Jenkins, 2000), so getting it right is important for the student. However, Jenkins goes on to suggest that effort should not just be made on behalf of non-native learners, but by native listeners as well. With this in mind, the following section gives some of the most common, and important variations in pronunciation that  you can expect to hear, and hopefully recognize in Korea.

Differences in Korean and English Pronunciation

A quick glance at the stats shows that English and Korean actually have a similar number of sounds, 44 to 40 respectively. However, they differ in distributions slightly:

Consonants Vowels Dipthongs Total
English 24 12 8 44
Korean 19 8 13 40

Figures taken from Rogerson-Revell (2011) and Kim-Renaud (2009).


While the numbers may seem very similar, there are features of the Korean palette of sounds which make it rather lacking when it comes to pronouncing English. 4 of the basic consonants have two further variants of the same sound: tensed and aspirated. For example, Korean has a sound very similar to the English /b/*, and this sound has an aspirated cousin much like the English /p/. There is a further sound made with slightly tensed vocal cords, which does not exist in English, but is romanized to /bb/. The upshot of all of this is that a lot of Korean consonant sounds are clustered around the same points of articulation in the mouth, meaning that English has a much more varied range of sounds, produced in ways alien to Korean learners.

This of course is not always easy to do, and often leads to mispronunciations. For example, if you sit down to dinner with a Korean and they seem to be offering you a game of “poker”, they may really just be concerned about your ability to use chopsticks and offering you something that you’re a little more used to. This is because there is no equivalent to /f/ in Korean, and it is assimilated to a Korean /p/ sound. (The same goes for the voiced equivalent /v/, assimilated to /b/). In this example, there is a further problem caused by the fact that in Korean, final consonants are unexploded (sounds dangerous, but just means there’s no little “pop” of air as there is when “up” is pronounced on its own in English). Therefore, Korean adds a small “uh” sound to imitate this. This is called paragoge, and is very common in Korean speech, and means that, if you hadn’t figured it out, your host is offering you a fork, not a game of cards.

Other consonants that don’t exist in Korean are /th/ (both as in “this” and “thin”) which becomes /d/, and /z/ which becomes /j/ (if your students tell you that they want to go to the “jew”, don’t look confusedly around for a rabbi). In addition, many sounds that are found at the start of syllables in Korean and English – /ch/, /s/, /z/, /sh/ – are not found at the end in Korean, so learners may have trouble with these, often again adding an extra vowel sound to make “churchee”, “missuh”, “whijuh” and “fishee” (Swan & Smith, 2001). Finally, there is the famous /r/ and /l/ problem. In Korean, these are approximations of /r/ and /l/ in English, but the /r/ ish sound only occurs in syllable initial position, whereas the sound more like /l/ is syllable final only. This means that while “real” will sound roughly the same, “really” may sound more like “rearee”.

Vowels-wise Korean has less pure vowels, and more dipthongs. This is because what would be a semi-vowel in English (ie. /w/, /y/), is a dipthong in Korean, made by combining two vowels. This makes the glides a little less pronounced in Korean (think the middle of “Guam”), and also means that students may create dipthongs out of vowel combinations, especially “oa” and “uo”, so “oats” may be pronounced “wats”.  Korean also does not distinguish between long and short vowels in the way that English does, for example in “sit” and “seat”.  This means that your students are likely to pronounce them exactly the same, leaving you to sort out the difference. A word to the wise as well, if you’re teaching “can” and “can’t”, stick to the US pronunciation, as the long “a” in the UK version doesn’t exist in Korean, and ends up closer to a /u/ sound, with predictable consequences.

Not wishing to bore the reader senseless means that this is just an introduction to the kinds of things you may hear in your learners speech. If it seems intimidating, it shouldn’t be. You will very quickly acquire specialized listening skills for the Korean classroom, but these notes may help you to be aware of some pronunciation issues. It was noticeable to me that, after six months of teaching here, I could understand my learners fine in English, but a native-speaking visitor I brought into the classroom often couldn’t make out what they were trying to say.

That example does of course point to a certain danger with language teachers, that our specialized, acquired knowledge of learner pronunciation makes us very bad judges of how good our learners actually are at pronunciation (Kenworthy, 1987). For most learners, pronunciation should be integrated into the course, with plenty of opportunity to hear native pronunciation and compare their own. In addition, individuals may need to work on certain problems, which can be set in consultation with the teacher. Some of those highlighted above may be good starting points.

Finally then, what do you do when it does go wrong, and you simply can’t understand what a student is trying to say? There are still plenty of options, ask the student to mime or draw what they are trying to say; ask if they know another word with the same or similar meaning, or, what may really benefit them and you, is to ask them to put it in a sentence. When I did that for the example at the start, the student responded with this:

Now do you get it? (Answer at the bottom if you didn’t).

If you’re aware of other common Korean mispronunciations, or you have any funny stories to share, please tweet me or leave a comment below. Cheers,


* This blog post does not use IPA symbols, the symbols betwenn the / /  are simply letters of the English alphabet.


  • Jenkins, J. (2000) The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Kenworthy, J. (1987) Teaching English Pronunciation. Harlow: Longman Harlow.
  • Kim-Renaud, Y.K. (2009) Korean: An Essential Grammar. New York: Routledge.
  • Rogerson-Revell, P. (2011) English Phonology and Pronunciation Teaching. London: Continuum.
  • Swan, M. & Smith, B. (2001) Learner English: A Teacher’s Guide to Interference and Other  Problems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Answer: If you didn’t get it from the sentence above, the answer is “Oasis“.