15 cultural differences in the Korean classroom
This article is based on two similar ones I wrote on Japan, and a more general one I wrote on culture in the EFL classroom everywhere. In contrast to Japan, I only stayed in Korea for two years and only taught in two different schools and didn’t learn the language, so although I did teach all ages and try to read a lot to make up for this, the inevitable generalisation of such articles might be even more of a problem in this one. So apologies in advance, but I nonetheless hope that it will at least give teachers things to look out for and make their own conclusions on, or maybe prompt a little debate from the many teachers who know more about the topic than me. Links to my other articles and some books and sites on Korean culture are given at the bottom.
More than Japan but less than China, Korean students fairly often give themselves or have been given “English names” such as June or Sarah. Like many Guardian-reading TEFL teachers I am in principle against this practice, but personally not enough to refuse to use the names they have chosen. Instead, I double check “What is your Korean name? But you want me to call you ‘Carmela’, right?” The response is occasionally “What do you prefer?” or an indication that they have chosen the name to make life easier for the teacher, at which point the conversation can get quite involved! This gets more complicated when they use an “English” name with a pronunciation from another language (fairly common with nuns) or if they can’t pronounce their own name (e.g. “Andrew” being “andooroo”). I tend to use their chosen pronunciation in the case of the former and use my own pronunciation in the latter case but not correct them. Rather strangely, I’ve found that my students carry on using their English names even when they switch to Korean at the end of the class.
There are also several issues with using their Korean names. As very few Korean sounds map closely onto English ones, it is virtually inevitable that you will mispronounce some names. Although this is less common than in Chinese where you also have to worry about tones, this might well lead to a pronunciation that is close to another Korean word, with the inevitable potential problems with giggling and teasing from other students etc. In one case, I even had to ask a mother to choose another name to use for her son in class as I got laughs every time I tried to say his Korean one. Perhaps for this reason, some students will ask you to use a nickname or shortened version of their name. Sometimes this is their surname, but it is usually best to use it as a nickname rather than to add Mr or Ms to it, unless they are much older than the other students.
As in many of the points mentioned in this article, Koreans are in an awkward middle position of trying desperately to avoid their own cultural norms and language in the classroom, but not being comfortable with the British or American ones. Two examples here are never using Korean polite titles like –shi in class (unlike the Japanese with –San, the Germans with Herr and the French with Monsieur) and avoiding the Korean respectful word for teacher, but not being entirely happy with using first names. The can lead to even adults calling out “Teacher” and starting emails with “Dear my friend”.
One seemingly minor but important point is that you should avoid writing any names in red, as there is a superstition about this being related to death. Although some students don’t seem to mind, others are absolutely horrified and it is impossible to predict people’s reactions by their age etc.
2. Bullying and behaviour
Unlike the Japanese, Koreans are quite physical, with touching of arms during pairwork speaking fairly common in class and girls walking hand in hand quite common outside. This extends to quite a lot of rough play, especially between boys. Even understanding this, I tend to enforce more British or American standards of basically no physical contact during class, and have usually found students eventually understand and more or less stick to this.
More difficult to deal with, especially if you don’t speak the language like me, is swearing, teasing, and picking on one particular student. Although this is fairly common in Korean schools generally (perhaps due to a lack of tolerance of individualism and continued use of physical punishments), parents of the kids who are the victims are less than shy about complaining or even taking their kids out of the class. Students who are the perpetrator as much as the victim have also been known to use false accusations of bullying to deflect attention from themselves. Some teachers find banning Korean in the classroom is the only solution to this, although I tend to only do this with older and higher level students. Many native speaking teachers in public schools also complain that they get a lot less respect and a lot more discipline problems than their Korean counterparts. There are many possible reasons for this, including students knowing that you can’t understand Korean back-chat, local foreign celebrities usually being a figure of fun on TV, foreign teachers not using physical punishment, an idea that the spoken English taught by native speakers is unimportant for the crucial exams (and a lack of testing by native speaking teachers generally), and the use of games. I personally think that the first and last reasons are the most important, and so have switched to starting classes with worksheets and mini-tests rather than warmers, and highly recommend learning at least common Korean insults that they might be shouting at each other as soon as you can.
Korean young learners respond very well to the taking away of points, especially team points, as punishment for bad behaviour, but this could of course lead to further bullying of students who rarely get points and/ or often lose them.
3. Competition, marks and points
Korean society is very competitive, and cheating, dobbing people in etc to get on top is generally seen as cheeky at worst. As mentioned above, however, love of competition can be a great classroom motivator and way of imposing some discipline. Students will also expect regular testing, but this can lead to too much stress, a further prioritising of less important things (e.g. asking to skip a class to take a test that they missed), and some students dropping out as soon as they fail a test or think they might fail the course. One possible response to this is to give marks for things you want them to focus on, such as spoken tasks or task completion and paragraphing (rather than just accuracy) in written homework.
Koreans are used to a school system where students will pass almost all exams with reasonably high percentage scores and good students will get used to getting As (if not perfect scores) all the time, so they often have problems adjusting to a British system of most people getting around the pass mark of 40 or 50% and As being rare.
A small but important point is that a tick in Korean means something is wrong, with a circle meaning that it is right. Students can therefore get very shocked the first time they see a page covered with ticks!
In common with Spain and most Latin American countries, students seem very reluctant to put their bags on the ground. In Spain I became convinced that it came from a habit of avoiding filthy bar and restaurant floors, whereas in Korea it might be because the only clean floor is by definition one, like inside the home, that never has a shoe touching it. Whatever the reason, I like to put any extra chairs in convenient places to put bags on, or tell young learners to hang all their bags on the hooks to save them getting in the way. If students do put their bags on chairs next to them, you might need to be on the look out to ask them to move them when the inevitable latecomers arrive.
5. Seniority and gender
Korean society is traditionally very stratified, with different vocabulary and grammar needed when speaking to a higher status person such as someone older, a teacher, boss, customer, or a man if you are a woman. The higher status person will also expect to initiate and dominate conversations. Koreans will therefore not be shy about asking each other and you about your ages, as it helps put you all in your place on the social scale. This gets more complicated in the English class, as we have no equivalent language forms to mark out social status, nor even expressions like “He is my senior” or “My juniors at university” that Koreans often try to use to talk about their positions in the scale. The polite forms that we do use are generally used equally by people of both status levels, e.g. customer and server using “Please” equally. Others, such as “Sir” and “Madam”, are almost exclusively used in service situations.
Koreans can actually find the lack of complicated language choices based on status to be a relief, but might have difficulty switching to Korean with each other before and after class as they won’t know which language to use. They might also have to change speaking roles as the younger person who was just speaking as an equal in English will have to now sit down and listen to the other person in Korean. This might explain the tendency of the first four students to arrive at my class to sit at separate tables in silence (along perhaps with an obsession with the L1-free classroom).
The habit of letting the higher status person lead the conversation can also be confusing in the English classroom, as I fairly often get an older student (often male) who dominates the conversation, but that in no way is received well by their partner who is paying an equal amount to be in the classroom, has a focus on speaking skills, and knows that in English they should get a fair say. It must be said, however, that quite a few of the dominating students that I have taught have not had too good social skills, so it might be silly, as with so many other things, to blame this on Confucius.
The concept of “face” is also something that has been used to explain a ridiculous range of Asian behaviours. If you teach Koreans straight after Latin students, however, you will certainly notice a lot more embarrassment and discomfort in the English language classroom. This is a lot easier to understand in Japan, where the Japanese often seem embarrassed and uncomfortable in their own language and culture. Koreans seem a lot more uninhibited and natural in the street, and yet even more uncomfortable in the classroom. There are lots of other possible reasons for this, such as being more ambitious and focussed on a native-speaker model of language and even behaviour while speaking L1, but “face” does seem to be the best explanation of some noticeable factors in Korea. One is that students expect a lot of correction but are horribly uncomfortable when they do get it, e.g. often hiding their corrected written work in their folder without even looking at it so that other students can’t get a look. Others include never coming back to class if they have failed a single test, being uncomfortable with a greeting if they arrive late, and freezing up when I step close to them during group speaking.
7. Methodology and the role of the teacher
Koreans spend most of their English language learning classroom hours being taught with grammar translation by Korean teachers with somewhat limited English (especially pronunciation) and dated materials. All that is done in some of the largest and most mixed-level classes in the developed world, where they have little opportunity to talk and students not paying attention are just ignored. There is also a great emphasis on rote memorisation (of vocabulary lists, idioms, proverbs and/ or fixed phrases such as sentence stems). Some of those things can transfer to their expectations in your classroom, but the stronger effect is them expecting exactly the opposite from classes that they chose for themselves.
Things that Koreans might still subconsciously expect from your classes include being able to switch off from time to time (mainly meaning staring into space during grammar presentations in my classes), and a teacher who has all the answers. The opposite things that they might expect from your classes include small class sizes, lots of opportunities to speak, lots of individual attention from the teacher, and a lack of focus on grammar. If you are a non-Korean teacher, they will also expect something from you that they could not get from a Korean teacher, for example cultural tips, lots of pronunciation practice, up-to-date idiomatic language, or improving their understanding of native speakers by listening to you. The last one obviously doesn’t fit in very well with expecting to speak a lot too! You might have also come to the conclusion that most students would be much better just doing one-to-one classes, but high prices, a shortage of native-speaking teachers and visa restrictions that make it hard to work outside schools make this difficult or impossible for most students.
Matters on which there might be wildly varying views depending on age, personality etc include pairwork, correction, language learning games, and testing.
8. Hard work
The Koreans have got themselves where they are today, from sub-Saharan African levels of poverty and post-Korean War devastation to developed country status in record time, and mainly through hard work. For example, the two day weekend is a relatively recent innovation and the government is trying to cut down on cram schools for kids that stay open past midnight. Students therefore enter class with an expectation that they will cover a lot, that they will be given lots of homework, and that the teacher will be strict about completing those things. However, apart from an initial surge of enthusiasm and preparation for tests, the work rate of students is hardly likely to match those expectations. This could be because of tiredness, other demands on their time and energy, not being able to reproduce the family and company pressure that keeps them busy elsewhere, relying on self-study and self-motivation skills that they don’t have, a lack of testing, or a focus on fun and speaking making students not take the classes seriously. The attitude to games can be unfortunate, because their lack of energy and motivation, along with their inefficient study skills, make some fun absolutely essential. I therefore still use a lot of games, but make sure that there is lots of new language involved in them and usually calling them “communicative activities”.
Perhaps because the impressive lack of religious conflict in Korean history, Koreans seem perfectly happy asking “What is your religion?” and talking about it. I tend to tell them this is a question I never heard once in 23 years in the UK, partly because I don’t want to answer it myself. That openness seems to extend to acceptance of almost any answer to that question, and telling them that you are an atheist is unlikely to cause the shock (or even student complaints) that it would in the Middle East. This lack of offending people with religious topics seems to extend to blaspheming, and I’ve had to tell lots of students that “Oh my God!” is not really suitable language for the classroom, nor probably for the host family they will be staying with in America.
Another thing related to religion is that the traditional Korean customs that you read about may be specific to one religion, depend on religion, or at least not be performed by committed Christians. That might also extend to not being familiar with what other people do, leading to less frenzied discussion of the topic that you might have expected or even embarrassment that they don’t know something about their own country.
10. Time keeping
Although it’s not as bad as Spain, my students are often late. With kids it is often due to having their parents pack too much into their days and so finishing a piano class 10 minutes before your class which is a 15 minute walk away. I have a feeling a lack of knowledge of their own limits is also a factor with my adult students, as students demanding more homework in week one have often burnt out by the end of the course and the extra copies of worksheets that they ask for usually go unread. This is also famously how Korean companies operate, by setting impossible targets and almost reaching them through sheer hard work and slog. My students also tell me that Korean time keeping has always been quite bad but is getting better. In a questionnaire on acceptability of certain classroom actions given to advanced level learners of eight different nationalities of student in America (http://w3.coh.arizona.edu/awp/AWP%202003/Beckman.pdf), the Korean student was the only one who said that it was totally acceptable (1 point) to arrive 7 minutes late for a lecture, whereas the other two East Asian students gave it 4 or 5 points (unacceptable and totally unacceptable).
I make my young learners apologise for being late, but they seem shocked to be asked and not even to understand what I am asking them to say, so I have a feeling they would just be expected to sneak in without making a fuss in their school classrooms. Adult students seem to be so uncomfortable coming in late that they cringe at any kind of acknowledgement, so I often ask someone else on their table to explain what we are doing (in English of course) so that they don’t feel like they are getting too much attention from me and so from the rest of the class.
11. Politics and nationalism
Many Korean students, especially higher level ones, often see talking about serious topics and a bit of debate as exactly what they expect of an English class. I’m not so convinced myself that endless practice of agreement and disagreement language is useful and there are always other students in class who have nothing to say, but it does seem to be expected. Topics connected to Korean history and their relationships with their neighbours, however, are likely to be pushing things too far, and I would certainly not play devil’s advocate on touchy topics like this. A particularly dangerous topic is which country owns which particular uninhabited rocks in the region, and what names are to be used for them. This means that maps used in the classroom will need to be limited to ones produced in Korea, especially as a map with Sea of Japan written on it is something students will and do complain about. Telling students that East Sea is not the correct English name and that even the French don’t expect an English language map to say The Sleeve (from the French name for the English Channel) on it is unlikely to lead to productive debate or happy students! Sensitivity with names and borders is by no means limited to Korea, of course, and it’s worth keeping Derry/ Londonderry in mind if searching for a suitable map is starting to get you down.
The history that most Koreans remember from school tends to focus on overwhelmingly positive stories on a few heroes, similar to what most British people remember about Elizabeth I. Trying to extend the discussion into re-examination of those people’s roles or more obscure points of Korean history is unlikely to work well, either because they don’t want to lose a hero or because they will be embarrassed by knowing less than you about something in Korean history. The latter is also true of topics about Korean geography and traditional culture. For example, as in many countries most young people will only be vaguely aware of what public holidays are supposed to be for and won’t appreciate being told by a foreigner.
12. Customer service
If you are working in private language institution like I was, you are in the strange position of being half respected teacher and half someone serving them for money and so right down the bottom of the politeness scale with waiters and shop assistants in convenience stores (who get little more than a grunt from their customers). Many Koreans are not shy about making their views, e.g. complaints, heard, so it is easy to forget the others who are very uncomfortable telling a teacher negative things to their face. To make sure that a few vocal students don’t dominate what you do in the class, you will need to find a way of getting feedback in more indirect ways, for example a questionnaire passed out by a different member of staff. You might also want to tell the students what the feedback said, for example so that they know you aren’t responding to a particular complaint because everyone else has the opposite opinion.
13. Mobile phones and technology
Korean students tend to use a built-in or online dictionary in their mobile phones rather than buying a separate electronic dictionary, with the inevitable problems with the phones being on for distracting arrival of text messages etc. Other students seem to think that it is perfectly okay to answer calls during to class, maybe just to say that they are too busy, but sometimes to go out of the classroom to take the call. This is of course increasingly prevalent everywhere, but as it is perfectly normal to speak at high volume on the train or in a coffee shop (or even watch TV without headphones) and vibrate mode isn’t much used, there might well be a cultural element here. The respect for the teacher’s role and group decision making means that it should be fairly easy to deal with these things if you want a class policy, especially if you provide a paper dictionary. I prefer to approach things more indirectly and just ban all dictionary use, with all vocabulary enquiries coming to me or their classmates instead.
The other major influence of technology on your students is likely to be the huge impact of computer games on Korea, with sleepless nights in PC Bang (smoky internet cafes where almost everyone is playing online games) and two TV channels dedicated to professional computer game players is all part of the culture. To start with, this could explain the glassy eyed tiredness of your students! It also means that young learners will love computer games in class, but be totally dismissive of the basic graphics etc of your average EFL game.
The point above extends more generally to the use of technology in the classroom, which is likely to be popular but produce a very negative reaction if the technology and the teacher’s mastery of it aren’t up to the standard that Koreans expect in this most switched-on of countries. Better perhaps to set webquests etc as homework, as every student will have access to broadband internet one way or another.
Of all the nationalities I have taught, Koreans are by far the worst at understanding classroom instructions. It could be because they are used to familiar routines or following written instructions at school (they often read the written instructions and follow them after sitting through my long explanation and demonstration of the different thing I want them to do), because they have never had an English-only classroom before, or because of weak micro-listening skills that are usually hidden by good test-taking and listening strategies.
15. Pace and timing
Korean students seem to prefer an activity to stretch on a little until they are comfortable with it, and are happy to chat for a few minutes while other teams finish off. They tend to be much more impatient with long explanations of what they have to do, even when that often means they go and do the wrong thing!
Helen Moon says:
As a language teacher, I think you are lack of intercultural competences. At least, you need to acquire how to engage with different culture, understand and communicate with your young students in other culture, and then please try to teach them. If you have no adequate relevant knowledge about particular cultures, you’d better not to mention it because your opinion will be prejudiced.
@Marlon. Feel free, please cite TEFL.net and Alex Case 🙂
Good day. I found this article and the comments quite informative. Can I use some of the tips and ideas in a presentation I am doing on cultural sensitivity?
youngjoo Lee says:
Your suggestionj can make wrong cultural streotypes. I’m studying in the states now and taking 4 courses. I’m usually arriving in the lecture at first. Chinese and a man from middle-east country are always walking slowly, even though they are late in all 4courses. How ridiculous!
Appreciated reading this and found it very interesting. At the same time, one thing that seemed prevalent in this list seems to me a lack of understanding of what it is like to grow up in a homogenous culture.
I, myself, am from a much more heterogenous culture, but my mother is not, and I have witnessed how this impacts her first hand. The ability to interact with someone who is going to react differently, at a basic level, in any social or professional situation is a skill. And living in a homogenous culture, it is not a skill that is developed, by and large.
Growing up in a heterogenous culture, I don’t think I would have realized how much of a skill this is if I had not had my mother’s example to go by. I mean, anyone who travels knows that every interaction between people has a certain base level of…comfortable similitude. How close or far people stand to you, how long you hold eye contact, etc… But the level of how MUCH of your life involves this same comfort is so much more when you’re from a homogenous society: how loud your voice is, what type of touching is acceptable and for how long, what you say in greeting after any particular type of interaction (like coming to class late), what you say before eating, on saying goodbye, and so on.
We (from non-homogenous cultures) may be used to making allowances for differences in all of these situations because we don’t have nearly as many ‘standards’ among people we interact with. We’re used to it. But for those who have never had to do adjust in these situations, the different ways that foreigners (or foreign teachers) act and respond to every day situations can be unbelievably stressful or uncomfortable, and often leads to stress just being around foreigners, because there’s no way to tell what they are going to do.
When you mention in #6 how students were uncomfortable with your greeting if they arrive late, or when you stood close? Honestly, my first thought was, ‘of course they seem very uncomfortable. You’re not doing it the way they are used to and it’s confusing and/or upsetting for them.’ How you treat them when they come in late – different from every, single teacher they have ever had. How close you stand – I would bet money there is something you are doing, or failing to do, that Koreans usually do in that situation. Or even your size or coloring is different enough to be noticeable and uncomfortable.
When I see how my own mother reacts every time she is not expecting the actions of someone, the best example I can think of for us would be if, say, we walked into a classroom, carrying out books like we normally do, on time, and the teacher stands up and starts screaming at us about how we are carrying the books the wrong way and have to carry them in the other arm. That’s the level of shock folks in homogenous cultures can feel when something that they consider ‘basic’ is not adhered to.
It’s unexpected, it’s frightening or very startling, it involves something we would never in a million years have assumed would be a problem, AND…it happens all the time, every day we interact with them and a new situation comes up. So it’s not a surprise that they can seem very uncomfortable around us at what seem to be minor things, to us.
Again, it was really interesting reading about your experiences, but it does seem like you do not really understand just how your actions would be perceived by your students from this culture.
I am Korean so I think I can answer for the number 5. The honorific form in Korean is required as grammer. Strictly speaking the honorific form is irrelevaant of Confucion. Culturally it might have enfored each other. Japanese and Korean might stem from the same language origin, they both have honorific form like the gener-specific European languages as grammatical requirement, while Chinese and Vietnamese mihgt have the same origin and they lack of honorific forms.
Korean is not gender-specific, even it does not distinguish between he from she. Gramatically the honorific form is principally based on age. When you have a younger boss, you do not add “nim” after “sa-jang”, although recently that strict rule has been obscure. By the influence from English, some tries to distinguish he (그) from she (그녀), but this effort is still awkawrd in Korean. On the while, the honorific form has never been used on the basis of gender.
I only know Japanese in scratch but I think the honorific form in Japanese is determined by the social role rather that age. In Japan they do not use honorific form between family members, while Korean requires much strict honorific form between family than social relation. I knew Japanese girls were very shy and very polite to men, but I did not notice that they use different honorific forms depending on gender.
Alex Case says:
Ja Young Seo
Thanks for your detailed comments on my article, but I think you have misunderstood some points.
I would agree that late middle aged and above Koreans are very different, but they rarely study English (unlike bored housewives in some other countries) and so most students will be 40 and below. When kids are different from adults, I have tried to mention it. At other times, however, I think it will be obvious which one I am talking about.
1. That was precisely the point that I was making. I mention above that English teachers mispronouncing Korean names can lead to teasing and that Koreans choose English names at least in part to make life easier for the teacher. I don’t see how what I have said can be considered a criticism.
3. Although I didn’t mention Japan in this section, I do actually find that Korean kids are more competitive than Japanese kids. I happen to think the roots go deeper than just the school and business systems, but for teachers the most important thing to know is that points are great motivators but have to be used with caution.
5. I don’t speak Korean, so thanks for pointing out that polite language is not gender specific. This is different in Japan, where women use much more polite language and avoid some impolite forms like “ore” (impolite or macho I) almost completely. Even in English, men are much more likely to swear and much less likely to have a polite “telephone voice”. Does that effect really not exist for Korean?
6. I think you are right that most people think they should be corrected but feel uncomfortable when they are. I became particularly aware of this in Korea, but none of the points here are supposed to suggest that Koreans are unique. Even if it is a problem everywhere, I guess pointing out this point to teachers in Korea can’t hurt if it is a problem there too!
Alex Case says:
Youn Hye Sook – Could you please point out which things I have got wrong? A general comment that I shouldn’t judge isn’t much use, as this is a natural piece of human nature and they would mean I could give no advice at all to teachers who are in Korea or teaching Korean students for the first time. Do you also find Rough Guide, Lonely Planet and Culture Shock! books offensive? When your friends ask you about your experiences in Australia and Canada, do you really refuse to tell them anything and tell them they have to go and see for themselves? As I said, though, I would be very happy to hear which specific comments of mine you think are wrong. I’m sure there are some, hence the first paragraph above!
Youn Hye Sook says:
I’m quite upset.
How can you give a definition of the culture of Korean & students in Korea.
I studied in Australia & Canada for 4 years and travelled 28 other countries.
There were also differences in many ways between other countries and Korea.
But I respected what they thought and how they lived…
Don’t give wrong informatin please and don’t judge!!
ja young seo says:
As I read the article for the first time, the bad reviews of Korean were hurtful to me. I found that your article is far too pessimistic of Korea culture.cuz this article is about the story based on young student not all Korean people.
So what I concern me is that someone else can have much prejudice against Korea.
1. Name : this is ivolved in Korean peosonality.
The reason most Korean student using English name is that when you call my Korean name, I feel uncomfortable. in addition, It just much easier for you to call English name than Korean name.
Almost most of young student tend to giggle each other when I mispronunciate. I had the same experience, staying for 1 year in the U.K..exactly..Belfast.
In genarl, Children are famous for troble-makers. cuz ..U know.. They’re not mature.
3. There are too much competition as much as Japan.
Most Korean companies require various license including high score percentage of test. those things mean just criteria (=standards)of which How diligent you are…(In other words, this demostrates that you made more efforts to get them.)
5. different vocabulary and grammar needed when speaking to a higher status person such as someone older, a teacher, boss, customer, or a man if you are a woman
…….> Not partly true.. everyone but not woman
but you don’t need to worry if you are to learn Korean….
6. case by case.
according to my experience, a brazillian looked horribly uncomfortable when my teacher corrected what she said. I think all people don’t like it (correction) or thank for that.
I would like to say more..but there is no point of saying in detail.
In conclusion, as the proverb” To see is to believe” , It is important that we need to experience in person rather than to trust one person’s saying totally.
Apology for my rudeness if it is…
SIDY DIENG says:
It’s amazing.Proud of you because you have helped people understand a lot about Korean culture.It is as if I already visited Korea.I am a teacher of EFL in Senegal,West Africa and I am applying for teaching in ASIA(Korea,Taiwan,Japan,China…).Your article has opened my eyes on so many important aspects in the Korean culture.I would like to know if I can contact you for other details.If yes please send me your contacts.Thank you