I recently took the KTX from Seoul to Daegu. I had high hopes of doing lots of work while on the train. This did not happen. One of the reasons for my lack of productivity was the loud little shit child in the next row. I figure he was about 5 years old. Among the many annoying things he did was yelling at babies who were crying, telling them that they were being loud and annoying. His younger brother pointed on the flaw in the logic of yelling about this but he continued undeterred. Lots of yelling. I tried to be understanding but it was a tough task for me. I figured his grandma not up for the challenge of keeping him in line for 2 hours so I tried be forgiving. My generosity dissipated a bit when I realized his mom was in the seat behind me, seemingly oblivious to her son screaming.

I did not start this post to excoriate the parenting skills of that mother. I wanted to share something the little tyke said. About an hour into the two hour journey, after all his screaming and smashing his toys against the window he took notice of me. I suppose tall, charming, handsome white people are not super common on Korean trains. He took note. He registered his surprise with his grandma.  “Wow, It’s an English language person” he exclaimed (in Korean). He didn’t say I was a British or English person, mind. He said I was an English language person, a 영어사람. This struck me as fascinating.


It was less fascinating when he shouted out “A, B, C, D” and commented in Korean to his grandmother on my big nose. He, in turn, was amazed when I told him in Korean that I’d understood what he said. Cognitive dissonance made an appearance on the train that day when a white person spoke Korean and made claims about understanding some parts of the language. The little fellow asked his grandmother how it was possible that an “English language person” could speak Korean. How could someone that looks like me (with my big nose and all) be there on the train speaking Korean?

I have to wonder if I’d be 영어사람 if I were an African American or Korean American L1 user of English. What if I were a Nigerian or Filipino? I am not sure. I am sure that somewhere in his 5 years on this earth he picked up that people who look like me are English users. I have no way of knowing exactly where this came from but I guess the little tot’s life experiences to this point might have backed up that hypothesis. It was all very interesting to me. Instead of simply being an annoyance and hindrance to the work I thought I *should be doing he gave me some insights and some things to think about.

Thoughts about language, race, nationality, identity, native speakers, native speakerism, media, hiring practices for teachers in Korea and the world, and English Education in general raced to my head.  I didn’t and don’t have any easy explanations but I appreciate the chance to think about these things.

I thought it was a fascinating experience so I shared it with my students, grad students and future interpreters/translators, who told me this word 영어사람 was not a common one. They also shared their opinion that he was just a confused kid still learning Korean and that Koreans don’t classify people based on language in this way. I personally wonder if this confused little kid was onto something. I also wondered how our industry might have helped him think in this way and what the implications of such thoughts might be for our industry.


  1. Pingback: In Mike Griffin’s class. | Ann Loseva's Space
  2. livinglearning

    I’ve heard and been called 영어사람 before as well. I think it might not have reached your students’ social bubbles yet, but it is a thing. Really fascinating to think and wonder about. Some of my thoughts include: can a person who is bilingual ever be a 영어사람? How about a person whose L2 is English? Is it just another way of packaging people so they fit into the worldview? What does this worldview look like now that 영어사람 is a part of it?

    • mikecorea

      and is a 한국어사람 (Korean language person) a thing too? Or is that the same as a 한국사람 (Korean person). All very interesting. Somehow strange to interrogate the views of a 5 year old but I think there is a lot to think about. Thanks for reading and commenting.

      [parenthesis not for you, Anne but for other potential readers]

  3. Andee

    I’ve been a 영어사람 numerous times. Mind you, I’ve also been called 중국인 by some kindergartner in Samcheok. World views indeed.

    • mikecorea

      I wonder if you’d be kind enough to share the circumstances of the time you were called 중국인?

      I am somewhat sad to hear that others have been called 영어사람. I thought it was just me. 😦

  4. Rob Dickey

    I think 영어사람 is not that common (that’s to salve your ego, Mike!), ‘외국인있다!’ is of course far more commonly heard.

    I had an interesting conversation with a pre-schooler one day when I told her I was Korean after called me a foreigner. (My Korean is plenty good-enough for little tykes!) Of course she didn’t believe me. So I asked her “Do foreigners know how to speak Korean?” “No, certainly no(t)!” she exclaimed. “But we are speaking Korean!” I pointed out. Puzzlement… “But you have blue eyes and are brown-hair balding!” So I replied “Some Koreans are balding and color their hair, many people wear colored contacts.” More thinking, turns, runs to grandmother “Halmony, a white Korean is here!” 🙂

  5. Rob Dickey

    I also tell my university freshmen I am perhaps more Korean than they are. Disbelief. “I came to Korea in August 1994, when were you born?” (Nervous Laughter) “Did you vote last time? I did.” (Loud laughter) Then I talk about my wife and family, we are “Miryang Park-ssi.” By this time I have students agreeing with me. Even though the full dialogue was done in English – they know it’s my job to speak English. And this is a running gag throughout the department, including many of the profs who introduce me as “our White Korean.” (And I’ll often start my remarks to a new group of students in Korean, and then pretend to re-group myself and start over in English.) In truth my Korean speaking skills are not very good, I have pretty much Zero grammar. But students know they can come cry in my office in Hanguk-mal if they want…

    • mikecorea

      Hey Rob!
      Thanks very much for these comments. I appreciate it.
      I am very sorry for the delay in responding but there is a silver lining in this horrible delay…I can tell you that I have used your example numerous times in discussions since November when you posted it! Thank you very much for sharing. So much interesting stuff there in your two comments!

  6. Chewie (Gangwon Dispatches)

    I’ve never heard “영어사람!” but I have heard “외국인!” too many times to count.

    It is fascinating when you consider that plenty of white people DON’T speak English.

    And yes, Korean children get amazed when I reply to them in Korean. Many have this idea that foreigners cannot possibly know Korean. But then, your comment about the little boy shouting “A! B! C! D!” made me want to ask him how he knows English. He asked you how you could possibly know Korean, so let’s flip it around: Do five year old boys from Oregon, USA think that an Asian person can’t speak English? Do they yell out “Asian person!”?

    Questions indeed.

    • mikecorea

      Hey Chewie,
      I very belated thanks for commenting here. I hope this finds you doing very well! Your questions got me thinking when I read them at first and then now again. I think maybe coming from multicultural place like the US makes it hard to see things in cut and dried terms. So, I’d hope little boys in Oregon are not shouting “Asian person” when they see an Asian person because it is not so rare or unexpected. Right? Do you have any reports from that country?

  7. alexcase

    Interesting musings. My five year old daughter defines herself as “half nihongo and half eigo”, that is “half English (language) and half Japanese (language)”, and I don’t think that has anything to do with my job. Then again, kids in the park playing with my daughter who I’ve never met sometimes call me “Sensei” (teacher), which is obviously some kind of conditioning.

    • mikecorea

      This is very interesting, Alex. Thank you for sharing it. I think here in Korea as well it can be very easy to assume every white dude a) speaks English and b) is an English teacher.

      Regarding what you wrote about your daughter I think its very interesting how (to me at least) the languages of Korea and Japan are so clearly Korean and Japanese so it might be easy to think about language as being the determiner of identity where in the US for example this might not be soo much the case. I am rambling already, months later. Thanks again for sharing here.

  8. Pingback: The Importance of Teaching Culture to EFL Students | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

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