3 Common Misconceptions About Teaching ESL in South Korea

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In May, I’ll be returning to South Korea, this time not as a backpacker but as an English teacher! I’m excited and nervous for this new opportunity. It’s been interesting to hear how people react when I tell them my plans to teach in Cheonan, South Korea. I’ve found that people have a lot of misconceptions about my motivation to teach in Korea. If you’re currently teaching in South Korea or have taught in South Korea, perhaps you can identify with these three common viewpoints…

In May, I’ll be returning to South Korea, this time not as a backpacker but as an English teacher! I’m excited and nervous for this new opportunity. It’s been interesting to hear how people react when I tell them my plans to teach in Cheonan, South Korea. I’ve found that people have a lot of misconceptions about my motivation to teach in Korea. If you’re currently teaching in South Korea or have taught in South Korea, perhaps you can identify with these three common viewpoints…

  1. Everybody who goes to work in South Korea must know South Korean (OR THEY’RE FUUUCKED!).
    • Inevitably (and annoyingly), whenever I tell someone that I’m moving to South Korea, he or she will ask if I speak Korean. I don’t. But that’s okay! It’s a misconception that everyone who lives abroad needs to be fluent in the language of their new country. First of all, learning a second language (as an adult) is difficult at best, especially if you aren’t immersed in a community that uses that language on a daily basis. Since America is largely a monolingual country (acknowledging the presence of substantial hispanophone communities) there’s virtually nowhere for me to conveniently develop practical skills in Korean. Sure, I could have studied Korean at Wellesley, but even then, chances are I would not be fluent. Mastering a second language in a monolingual-English setting would take a borderline-obsessive iron will (or the brain of a linguistic genius). I’m not saying I’m dumb or uninterested in the Korean language. And I’m not saying that I stand by “those Americans” who traipse around the world expecting everyone to know English. I’m saying that you can travel abroad and communicate with people in their local language without being bilingual or even close to fluent. Get a guidebook, a dictionary, and a little creativity and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. If you think you have to be fluent in every country’s language that you want to travel to or live in, you’re not going to go to very many places!
    • “But how are you going to be able to teach if you don’t know the local language?” Ah, that’s a good question and I don’t really have an answer for you. The company that I will be working for privileges an immersion English-only pedagogy. I personally disagree with immersion-style second language learning (unless you’re like two years old). I know that when I took Spanish in high school, I greatly benefitted from being able to ask questions in English about higher-level grammatical concepts. People studying a second language can learn better if they’re able to process ideas in their native tongue. But alas, I know that my place as an entry level foreign ESL teacher isn’t to revolutionize the company’s teaching practices from the grassroots up so I guess I’ll have to deal!
  2. Everybody who goes abroad to teach English must be either volunteering or studying abroad.
    • When I tell people I’m going to teach in South Korea, sometimes I get a response that goes something like this: “Oh, that sounds fun but it’s going to be really expensive”; “What study abroad program are you going through?” and, even better, “My neighbor did a gap year like that!” Yikez. From my experience Americans tend typecast young people who travel abroad as either A) students or B) volunteers. But ESL teachers who work abroad are neither. I have a great education and a passion for teaching so it annoys me when people see my (future) career as volunteer work. ESL teachers should be seen as working professionals who have a skill that they have mastered (or rather, are working to master) and deserve to get paid for it. Volunteering and studying abroad are great but definitely not why I’m going to Korea. On top of that, South Koreans pride themselves on education and would not want random volunteers teaching their children English.
  3. South Korea is the most random place on Earth to possibly want to go to.
    • “Why South Korea?!” is a question I get again and again. “Why not South Korea??!” is my official response. But seriously, I’m going to South Korea because they pay ESL teachers fairly well (I will be making about $29 USD an hour). Also, the country is beautiful, the food tastes great, and the people are friendly.

 



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