Teaching English in Korea

I’m going to tread, very gingerly, into the minefield of discussing matters relating to English language teaching in Korea. A dangerous topic for an outsider to get involved in, firstly because the majority of English-language bloggers on Korea seem to be ESL teachers, and secondly because there are some hot issues. I’m not sure that I have any particularly original observations; and as ever one of the main reasons for posting at all is to make a note of some interesting links which I don’t want to lose.

To start with an understatement: Koreans take education seriously. And the ability to speak English well is an advantage. Sometimes parents think there’s a surgical solution to better pronunciation: the shocking short film Tongue Tied, part of the omnibus set If you were me is one that is seared on my memory. But one more conventional way of getting to speak English better is to have teachers who speak it as a first language. It also helps if those teachers understand their language enough to explain some of the weird things that go on. That’s a bit of a tall order, because at least in the UK English grammar isn’t really taught in schools, and hasn’t been for over 30 years (tell me I’m wrong someone, but this is what a English teacher at a sixth-form college tells me. She’s just written a book on English grammar and it’s a hot seller because there’s not much else on the market, and the teaching establishment is now waking up to the fact that we don’t understand our own language enough).

But having loads of foreigners in your midst can have a downside, particularly if you are a racially homogeneous country (see the various posts on diluting the Korean bloodline). Some Korean women regard having a western boyfriend as a status symbol (an unrepresentative sample of two Korean women have told me this, neither of whom had any designs on me, I hasten to add — I’m safely married). But if there are some Korean men who somehow regard Korean womenfolk as “theirs” and resent foreigners getting their grubby hands on them, I think there are men in every race who think the same.

In an ideal world, Korean hogwan owners would hire western monks with PhDs in linguistics. But there aren’t many of those around. Monks would be ideal because they wouldn’t want to be paid much, and some hogwan owners don’t like paying (I’ve heard stories of ESL teachers being really messed around by their employers). Conversely though I’ve heard stories of foreign ESL teachers being paid twice the salary of a Korean ESL teacher just because they have English as a first language — even though they may have a poorer understanding of the language than a well-educated Korean. Needless to say, there aren’t very many monkish PhDs around.

So how to bring this rambling post to an end, and meet my objectives of locking down those links?

Firstly, if you’re going to seek out a Korean girlfriend, be subtle about it. Don’t brag in the blogosphere about where the easiest girls hang out. This particular link is ages old, but then I’ve only started blogging in the last few months. The original website where the offending articles appeared has been taken down, but as ever the Marmot is an objective and thoughtful contemporary eyewitness to the story.

Secondly, if you’re going to get all anti-foreign about this, make sure your accusations and propaganda are based on some semblance of reality. The outrageous anti-foreign trumpetings of a regional teachers union prompted by some alleged sexual assaults by some Korean English language teachers don’t help anyone.

And finally, as an antidote to all this, take a look at the videos on the website of the Fat ESL teacher.

Update (10 August 2006). Another fine thread at the Marmot’s Hole: Don’t hold back: tell us what you REALLY think about English teachers and their Korean girlfriends

Other links:

4 thoughts on “Teaching English in Korea

  1. I think you may have the wrong end of the stick about the status symbol thing. It’s not unusual for long term ex-pat women to feel that way but not, in my experience, in Korea. The reverse, however, is not at all unusual particularly among “respectable” families.

    Incidentally, Britons excel in the minuscule category of Korea blogs by people who have never been English teachers, notably Lost Seouls and one of the first ever Korea blogs, Lemon Soju.

  2. Hi Max
    I take your point about the status symbol thing. I thought I’d caveated my comment enough to make it clear that I was not holding it out as a commonly held view. Thinking about it, the two Korean women who made the comment to me (independently of each other) had both had significant exposure to the west but live in Korea. They were making the observation not about themselves, but about (some) other Korean women living in Korea.
    It’s good of you to leave comments – it’s nice to know I’ve got a regular reader. Current readership per day is 100 or so, but I never get to find out who they all are because you’re just about the only person who leaves comments – apart from the v1agra spammers that is. I’d return the compliment on your site, but I don’t understand Korean I’m afraid.
    btw, since your recent post, you may have noticed that I’ve put a disclaimer on that recommendation you were casting doubt on!
    Thanks for reminding me about Lemon Soju. I used to be a regular visitor, but then it went a bit quiet and so I stopped visiting. I see he’s got a fantastic post on 29 May 06 on the dismal standards of some of Korea’s ESL teachers. Lost Seouls is one I hadn’t come across. He’s got a great A to Z on things Korean which I’ve just linked to on my travel page.
    Philip

  3. This blog deserves lots of comments so I guess I’ll keep going until more interesting people start commenting!

    Actually I was thinking of western husbands but you said boyfriends, I suppose that’s a bit different. Perhaps it’s partly because having a foreign boyfriend demonstrates fluent English, and that’s obviously a status symbol throughout Korean society.

  4. Hmm yes, never thought about it but you’re right – a big difference I reckon. In a non-Korean context, and again being careful not to draw general conclusions from an unrepresentative sample, I can think of one or two friends of mine who’ve had foreign girlfriends, but when it comes to marriage things are a bit different. Parents often have something to say about mixed marriages.

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