18 Things About Korean Students (part 2)

Last time, I shared some thoughts and generalizations about Korean students that I hoped might be helpful for teachers (especially in an EFL situation) that work with but not be super familiar with Korean students or Korean culture. The same caveats and apologies for generalizations and stereotypes apply as does the openness for disagreements and additional thoughts. I find myself wondering if as Tony Gurr (half?) suggested many of these are similar for students from every country. In any case, I will plug along.

Here is the rest of the list:

10. Hierarchy matters

Without going into a whole spiel about Confucianism (that’s what Wikipedia is for, right?)  let’s just say that hierarchies  teachers might not expect could exist between students. One might think that because two students are from Korea they’d always be happy to be paired off together. This is, of course, sometimes true. Other times, there might be a hidden aspect of the relationship. For example, maybe one of them is a bit older which could change the dynamics. Gender, regional and economic issues could also play a role here. I don’t have any super secret special tips here except to mention the confusing difficulty you have noticed between two Korean students could potentially be connected to hierarchy. If it is, obviously how you choose to deal with it is up to you but I think this is something to be aware of.

11. “Face” matters

Of course, face matters everywhere.  Students all over the world don’t respond well to feeling humiliated. However, I can’t help but think that the concept of keeping face is especially important in Korea.  To me, in a classroom setting , this means things like  not pushing students to disclose information they don’t want to and not putting students under the bright glare of the spotlight when they are not ready or willing.  Along the same lines, I also think it means not putting students in a position to fail memorably and visibly in front of their peers.

Possible tips:  Glorious thinking time. Wonderful “Think-Pair-Share.” Giving students ample preparation time before they are expected to speak in front of others. What else? Built-in challenges (ready-made excuses?) that might be the reason that students had a hard time completing the task. Somehow encouraging students to give it a go just for practice and creating a safe environment in which to do so.  Continually preaching the importance (through a variety of means which might include quotes and anecdotes) of using mistakes as learning opportunities

12. Pronunciation can be a sensitive issue

I mentioned previously that English is a big deal. I mentioned that people are judged and feel judged by their English ability. I mentioned the common desire to sound just like a “native speaker.” There is a lot of pressure to be “perfect.” Keeping in mind what I just mentioned about face, I suspect some readers can already see where I am going with this. My sense is that many Korean students feel judged or worried or self-conscious about  their pronunciation (including suprasegmentals) but sort of have the expectation that simply being in contact with “native speakers” will sort out these issues. I also think there is a bit of learned helplessness at play here with pronunciation so some students might fret that they are always going to be stuck with their “bad” (read: Korean) pronunciation forever.

Possible tips: This might be another “tip-free awareness-focused” point. I do think that helping students see their improvements is (as usual) very important here. I think a bit of time spent on word and sentence stress can go a long way because from my experience even very strong students are not always familiar with these. I am not convinced how helpful/useful/desirable it is to focus on specific sounds in English one by one, however (this is one of those points that might not be specifically related to Korean students…I just mention it because I have heard about and received complaints about too much focus on individual sounds).

13. Koreans are supposed be good at grammar

Before I’d even set foot in Korea I’d read a great deal about how Korean students excel at grammar but just have a hard time putting sentences together orally (more on this shortly). I heard that they knew the grammar books inside out and could talk about grammar until the cows would have come home. I will easily agree to the statement that the average Korean high school student has been exposed to copious amounts of grammar. I can also say that this fictional typical student has probably taken a lot of tests focused on grammar. However, I can also safely say the grammar “rules” that they have been studying are not always aligned with what I would consider to be modern appropriate usage. The question of what exactly we mean by “grammar” is conveniently left to float in the wind. The veracity of “Koreans are good at grammar” is tied up in generalizations,  the definition of grammar, and just what it means (especially in this context) to be good at grammar.

Possible tips: I think this is related to the point about high expectations for teachers but I personally like to occasionally “flex  my grammar muscles” and show students that I do, in fact, know what I am taking about when it comes to grammar. There are a lot of stereotypes (sometimes true!) about “native” teachers that don’t know a thing about grammar but just know about how to speak English. I like to show that I am not that teacher by busting out some heavy grammar lessons in the early stages. From my perspective, this frees me up later to not focus so overtly on grammar because I am obviously making a choice and not shying away from grammar because I don’t know it.

Bonus tips: Gently help students see (through corpora and authentic material?) that perhaps many of the “rules” they “learned” are in fact rules of thumb or might not be applicable in all situations. Teachers might want to tread lightly on this, rather than implicating every teacher the students have previously had in the crime of  teaching the wrong grammar.

14. Koreans are supposed to be good at writing and reading 

There might be some more mythconceptions here as well…or at least different ideas what is meant by reading and writing. My sense is that the majority of tests (yes, we are back to tests for a moment) that are said to be focused on reading are actually more focused on grammar and vocabulary rather than actual skills related to reading. As for writing? Well, perhaps we need to distinguish between writing for reinforcement (of grammar points) and writing for an audience or a communicative purpose.  I think maybe this rumor about  Korean people excelling at English writing but struggling with speaking comes from a different time (and thus perhaps a different generation of learners).

(Possibly obvious) Possible tip: Use needs assessments to find out where the students are and where they want/need to be going. Use your professional judgment, which means keeping in mind students might be swayed by the expectations and have inaccurate ideas about their strengths and weaknesses. This is to say that asking students for their thoughts on these issues is valuable but there is probably room for teachers to make their own assessments.

15. Koreans are not supposed to be good at speaking and listening

Or: Koreans are supposed to not be good at speaking and listening.  Or maybe: Koreans are not expected to be as good speaking and listening as they are at reading and writing. This is clearly connected to the above points. I am not sure how common this line of thinking is these days. I do know that lots of Korean people that I met tend to beat themselves up over their speaking skills even though they sound more than fine to me.

Possible tip: Help your students see how much they can say and how much they can understand in spoken language. Consider extending those fluency activities a bit longer in order to make up for the perceived (or even real) deficit.

16. Koreans are not supposed to be creative or critical thinkers

I think it is one thing to say that creativity is not focused on in standard public schools and quite another thing to say that a whole nation of people are not creative!

Possible tips: Disregard this stereotype! Give students time to think and plan. Be clear about your expectations. Consider exactly why you are expecting creativity or critical thinking and what you mean by it. Give help as needed.

17. They came to ____. 

This is pretty much the only “fact” on my whole list! The fact is that these Korean students came to study English in Australia (or wherever).  To me, this means that somewhere, somehow, a decision was made that it would be more valuable and helpful for the student to study abroad. To me this means that teachers need not follow the students previous experiences and current expectations completely. Of course, these expectations and experiences are important but if students wanted Korean ways to be followed exactly they could probably just save themselves the hassle and stay in Korea.

Possible tip: Without forcing students to always strictly follow the rules/expectations/mores/folkways/customs/teaching styles/whatevers of their host country  a reminder that this is an experiment and an experience for the students might be helpful.  Many things are done differently and the fact that things are done differently in Australia is not a judgment of how they are done in Korea.

I am wondering if there is an actual tip in here. Dunno, but maybe it is helping students be aware that difference is not a bad thing and reminding them that they did in fact choose to come where they are. I suppose it is about creating a balance between the blase “Well they’re here now” that Sophia mentions and bending over backwards trying to recreate a little Pusan in Melbourne.

18. The number 18

At some point realized that most of my list doesn’t specifically respond to Sophia’s post, which was the catalyst for me writing this, all that much. So here is at least one direct response. She advised:
“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 :)

I know she has already been informed over on Alex’s blog but I think her guess was pretty close. The French word probably sounded a little bit (and a little bit is all it takes) like 씨발 (shi-bal) which might be considered something like “emmeffing.” This is not to be confused (though it might easily be) with the number 18, 십팔 (shib-pal). Thus the 18 things.

The End (for now)  

Thanks for reading! I hope that post might be of some use for teachers of Korean students around the world. Of course,  these are just my own thoughts and perceptions so mileage will vary. I consider this very much a work in progress so I am hoping for additional thoughts and ideas.
(Speaking of which, be sure to check out Anne Hendler’s thoughts on items 1-9)


  1. Pingback: 18 Things About Korean Students (part 1) « ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections
  2. Adam Simpson (@yearinthelifeof)

    This is a great post, Mike. Not only have you described the situation, but you have also given some tips on how to handle them. So many blog posts like this get praised for merely listing stuff: there is true value in reading this.

    Thanks for taking the time to make it meaningful to your readers.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for reading and thanks for the comments, Adam.
      As you might expect I was a bit leery about all the generalizations. I finally decided that I had to start somewhere. I am actually usually quite leery about tips as well because without knowing the specifics of someone’s context (and teaching style and goals and everything else) I think tips can often be more harmful than helpful. Anyway, I am glad that you found value in it. I am hoping to compile both lists and get some feedback from my Korean friends, former students and former training course participants to make it even more valuable for teachers in a similar situation to Sophia . Thanks again for reading and commenting.

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