Yeajin’s EFL World

I’d like to tell you about one student of mine, just #onestudent. She is a 22 year old first semester student in the Graduate School of International Studies at the university I am currently employed at in the modern capital of South Korea, Seoul.

The student, Yeajin, told me she is enjoying most of her classes and her life in graduate school. She said some classes are challenging but the workload is manageable. She is not really sure what she wants to do when she finishes grad school but is thinking about working in an NGO or government agency. From my observations she is a very polite and sweet young woman. She seems hardworking and curious. My impression is that she is bright and thoughtful.  She is not extremely outgoing or outspoken but will freely share her thoughts when asked. She is a pleasure to teach. I might be kidding myself but it seems to me that she looks more and more comfortable speaking at length in English every week I see her.

I am not about to take any of the credit for this, though. She is working hard and she has so much English around her and she uses English every day in her life and in other courses. She is taking courses like Global Economics and East Asian Security in English. In her coursework she has classmates from all over the world. She is enrolled in my course called International Discussion, which is a spoken fluency focused course talking about issues of concern to students like Yeajin and her classmates. As above, I think she is making great progress each week. I also think she started out in a good place for these improvements.

I am not an expert on such things but in terms of speaking I think she’d be in the 6.5-7.5 range on IELTS. I am pretty sure her TOEIC score will be above 900 soon if it is not already. I guess she’d have to be nearing in on C1. I think her TOEFL score is just on the verge of being high enough for her to able to study in US university without restrictions. I don’t mean to imply that these mean much of anything (or convey much of anything for that matter) but just want to give you, dear reader, an idea of this student’s level. She can handle complicated discussions and makes her points clearly. Her pace when speaking is not so fast but she is very good when she gets going.  It does not require “undue effort” from a listener to follow what she is saying. Mistakes are minor and outright errors are rare. In short, it is easy to understand what she is saying. She is a strong user of English.

I am not sure if anything I have said here sounds very much out of the ordinary or is very exciting. Maybe her English abilities sound right in line with expectations for a student in an English medium graduate program. You might even be wondering why I told you all this, and I am not 100% sure either.

I guess this is where I should mention that Yeajin has never left Korea and is from the most sparsely populated and rural province.

I would say she is higher than her average peer in the grad school in terms of communicative competence even though she is in her first semester. In the first few weeks I found myself wondering exactly why she was so strong at English. So, I asked her. I might have said something like, “Sorry for this strange and direct question but why are you so good at English?” She seemed a bit surprised but calmly answered that she has always liked English and that she reads in English a fair amount (outside and previously to grad school work) and watches lots of TV and movies from the US. She also said some of her high school classes (like science and history) were in English as her school was designated as an international/foreign language school (this not the type with mostly international students, as more than 85% of her high school classmates were Korean). Accordingly, she had more hours of English than the average high school student. Now, she has lots of non-Korean classmates and has weekly private lessons focused on TOEFL with a native (please note the lack of scare quotes here) English speaking teacher.

Another reason I shared this is because I am sick of people talking about how there is such a massive dearth of English in Korea apart from the occasional English class. I am, of course willing to admit that Yeajin is not a typical student but I am not sure if the experts realize that students like her exist. Please kindly note the lack of  scare quotes on the word experts. This is the result of a long and contentious internal monologue.

Where were we? Oh yes, EFL. Korea is an EFL situation. It seems to me so many people harp on about Korea being an EFL country or an outer circle situation they fail to see the whole nuanced picture. There is English out there. Just as an example, the young lady next to me in this coffee shop in Itaewon as I write this has just read more than half of a graded reader in the time it took me to aggressively but gently tap out these words. In past rants posts I have expressed my confusion about terms like ESL and EFL and have also offered up some newer categories that might be more accurate and telling. What is my point? Maybe something about relying on labels like EFL too much. Yeah, that and not assuming students need to go abroad to improve their English or to have access to English.


  1. Hana Tichá

    Hi Mike,

    This is a very interesting perspective on the way the world of ELT is labeled. What you describe in your post reminds me of the situation in the Czech Republic. There are students who have never been outside the country and in spite of that they have become proficient users of the language. Like you, I also believe that there is plenty of English around – you only need to look for it. I’m also sick of people saying that the only way to learn English is ‘to go to an English speaking country’. Which English do they actually mean? The English of the Inner Circle or the Expanding Circle? The written/spoken/formal/colloquial/business/poetic English, or some other brand?

    I had a conversation with a friend of mine the other day. He said he thought he was a proficient user of the language – he had read stuff on the Internet, listened to news in English, wrote e-mails, etc. But then he went on a short trip to England where, to his amazement and disappointment, he discovered he didn’t understand a word of what the receptionist was saying. Does that mean that he is not a proficient user? I don’t think so. He certainly knows the grammar and the vocabulary – all he’d have to do is to get used to a specific accent which they speak in a specific part of the world. Apart from that, what he knows is sufficient for what he does – at least for his everyday needs. He goes to England once in a blue moon (just to find out how demotivating it is).

    Well. I’m glad to hear you are so proud of Yeajin and the way you defend her position is awesome 🙂


    • mikecorea

      Hi Hana,
      I apologize for the delay in commenting. I should know better to blog during the term and not make a special time to comment. It just ends up getting pushed to the back. Anyway, thanks for commenting and sharing the story from your friend. I think that is a great example!
      The fact he can use English for his everyday needs is very telling and interesting. If he were to judge his English by just the tough situation with the receptionist he might be mislead to thinking he is really poor at English. Very interesting and telling example, thank you.

      One of my favorite things about blogging is finding similar things in different countries. I think many English teachers in Korea think Korea is unique in many aspects but the same or similar challenges are found around the world.

      I don’t know about CR (i just learned this acronym yesterday!!) but one thing that frustrates me at times is the idea that since it is an EFL country that means certain things are not possible to do with students. I am not sure i believe this. Of course there are always limits and considerations but the simplistic “this is an EFL country so…” doesn’t work for me. Thanks very much for reading and responding.

  2. geoffjordan

    Good rant, Mike! Immersion courses, trips abroad, going to the Irish pub near you, … none of these guarantees success, and there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that they’re not even likely to succeed on their own. Nobody should claim with any certainty what the best way to learn English as an L2 is. It’s good to see you, yet again, question standards of proficiency and the prevalent views of how to get there – wherever “there” might be.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the comments Geoff. I am glad you liked the rant (or whatever it was) and I like how you expanded it. I have seen so much money and time used on studying abroad it is unreal. The more I think about it the more fascinating I think Korea is in terms of the English around and the persistent belief there is no English around. There is so much to question. Thanks again for commenting!

  3. Rob Dickey

    Hi Mike,
    Kachru’s Inner-/Outer-/Expanding-Circle and all that was “BI” (before Internet). And I’m sure there were always degrees between these, it was a simplification.

    I teach in Daegu, Korea’s third (or fourth) city, yet arguably the most conservative and traditional of the major cities. I ride the subway every day, I see life there. I live in Miryang, which is pretty-much still countryside approach to life (and foreign languages). My basic cable has four channels that carry some English programs/movies sometimes — No CNN or BBC or English-subchannel NHK. I’m raising bilingual kids here in Miryang. I probably understand the limits of English availability in Korea as well as anyone not living in a cave…

    Yeajin (your student) went to a Foreign Language High School… even if in Chungbuk, it makes her special. Competitive exams to get in there. Three or more hours of instruction through English (including the English class) each day, which is about 5x what ordinary schools offer per week. Competition and cooperation with other students also better than average in English. So she’s not representative of Korean learners. A (happy) outlier.

    No, you don’t have to leave Korea to get English.

    English is available to those that want it. Some city libraries are better than others. Some bookstores don’t offer much. But Korea is the most-wired (and wireless-connected) country in the universe. It’s there if they want it.

    The challenge is the cultural norms that say “it’s strange” or “you’re showing off” when Korean kids speak English to anyone who is not a foreigner. (Of course foreigners can’t speak Korean!?!?!?) Playing (or practicing) with English on the subway or bus is considered inappropriate. Quietly studying a book or listening to recordings in preparation for the next TOEIC exam is OK, but God Forbid they indicate any speaking skills.

    Be proud for Yeajin. But recognize that she is one of the 5% in Korea who can do more than a self-introduction without getting the shivers.

    * note – I just made up that 5% figure. Anybody seen a better figure?

    • mikecorea

      Thanks very much for the comments Rob!
      (And I apologize for taking so long to respond)
      I think you raise some great points. The BI (before internet) one and the fact that there is in fact a lot of English around in Korea are very important points in my view.

      I also think you make great points about the cultural norms regarding English as well.

      Your introduced your (admittedly made up) figure of the 5% in Korea who can do more than a self-introduction without getting the shivers. I think it is a great question. I’d argue it is higher than that but I’d also be willing to say I live and work in Seoul so things might be very different.

      When my future sister in law came to Korea I told her she didn’t need to worry because people speak English everywhere. She didn’t find that to be the case, which was very interesting to me.
      (She might have had higher expectations and a faster rate of speaking than me)

      Regarding . Yeajin. I am of course ready to say she is not representative of Korean learners and is an outlier (which is why I wrote, ” I am, of course willing to admit that Yeajin is not a typical student).

      You wrote that Kachru’s circles were always a simplification. I fully agree. I think my issue comes when people start to believe in such simplifications too much and this reification turns into excuse making and people start to believe it is real. Yes, I am just going on again about the lack of usefulness of terms like EFL/ESL and the circles. Nothing new, I suppose. 🙂

      Thanks again for the thoughtful comments.

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