Monday, August 30, 2010


I am finally in Korea! Over the last several months, Heather and I have been planning and preparing to go to South Korea to teach English as a Foreign Language. It took a while to get all the necessary paperwork together, and the embassies and recruiter were kind of difficult to work with, but after putting in all the work, it is nice to finally be here knowing that it was all worth it.

Korea is a very interesting place. I didn't have many ideas of what Korea would be like prior to getting here, probably because there isn't a strong presence of Korean culture in Colorado. California has a bit more, but there is a great difference between the presence of American culture in Korea and the presence of Korean culture in America. Once I got here, I realized that they have adopted so much of American culture here, that it is almost the same. I like to think of it with the following allegory: Korea is like someone took a small but very populated part of America, turned it over, shook out all of the people, sprinkled some nicer, more pleasant people, replaced all the signs with signs in the Korean language, and then called it Korea. Seoul is literally like a big New York City, with more nice people, with less crime, and with greater cleanliness and population. It was very fun to explore Seoul for a week before coming to my new hometown, Hongcheon.

Hongcheon is a small town of about 50,000 people right on a river in the Gangwon province (Gangwon is like the Colorado of Korea: highest percentage of mountains and national parks with the lowest percentage of people). It is great here. Just last night Heather discovered an awesome network of trails behind her apartment that go up into the mountains. We are very excited to explore there. There is also a lot of local paragliding and rock climbing, so we are right at home!

My daily routine is pretty simple so far. I just bought a bicycle for 50,000 won (about 40 dollars) so the commute is a bit shorter, but if I don't have a ride to school from one of the other teachers (carpooling is really popular here), I can ride my bike to the bus station and take the bus for between 20-50 minutes to get to one of the schools I teach at. Because it is so rural here, instead of having one central school with lots of students (in which some would have to travel a long ways to get to), instead there are several smaller schools with fewer students. As such, I teach at 4 different schools throughout the week. Hwachon Middle School (my main school) for 2 days per week (there are 34 students here), Naechon Middle School for one day per week, Pallyeol Middle School and Pallyeol High School for 2 days per week. If I had a car, it would only be a 25 minute drive to the furthest one, Pallyeol High School, but taking the bus is a little slower. I am certainly excited to be working at all of these schools though, as the students are all so different and in some they are very eager to learn English!

Teaching English as a foreign language is a little difficult to do effectively, but it is a very necessary thing in the schools in Korea. Recently (in the last 10-20 years) there has been an epidemic of English Fever, which is very detrimental to the stability of Korean society. As Korea has grown from a very 3rd world country (it had an economy the same size as Ghana right after World War II) to what it is today (13th largest economy in the world, and bigger economy than all of Africa, excluding South Africa), the demand for English skills has increased tremendously. It is so important in Korea, that if you are Korean fluent in English, you will generally earn $20,000 more per year than you would if you were not fluent.

Families who are well off can afford to send their students to private English academies to learn English for 4 hours a day, and these students excel quickly. But as it is a foreign language to them, the students are not fully immersed in a native English setting. Some parents are able to send their children to the US or Canada to study for a year or two, and the students come back being very very proficient in English, as it turned from English as a foreign language to English as a second language, or as I call it, English as a survival language. This has created a large gap in the English levels of children in rich families and poor families (most of the families in my province are poor, compared to the families in Seoul and the other big cities). These students can't go to private academies, or travel to Canada to study for a year. But they still need that native English instruction in order for them to have the same opportunities as those in the upper class.

The Korean government has put great emphasis in this, and is funding all these English programs, such as EPIK, the English Program in Korea, under which I am a teacher. We teach in the public schools and give the public school students the same or close to the same opportunities to learn English and prepare them for their professional lives. It is good that the government recognizes this problem and has done something to act on it, because from what I have observed so far, Korea has become so successful by collaboration, not competition. It seems that this competition to learn English is starting to tear parts of the country apart, and who knows what might happen because of it.

Anyway, my job is very important, but also very difficult. When I was learning Spanish in High School, I actually retained very little from the class. In a whole year I learned only a fraction of the language and its application. However, when I was finally able to travel to Spanish-speaking countries, I learned at light-speed. Being in Ecuador this year I definitely saw incredible growth in my Spanish skills. For my students, they probably won't have an opportunity in the near future to travel to an English speaking country, so they will probably have the low retention level that we all have when learning a foreign language. If I am able to give the students a more realistic "Second Language" experience, then maybe they will be able to learn faster and retain more. But that is the goal for now, time will tell if it is attainable at all in the next year.

Thanks for reading!



Anonymous said...

Scott, This is so interesting to read. What a wonderful experience for you! Please keep the blog up with all the details you can share. I can't wait to hear more about the culture and how you are doing with your students and the sight-seeing! Love you, MOM

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing. You make me smile!
...How is your Korean coming along?!

Anonymous said...

Scott, I taught at Naechon Middle School two years ago. I know those kids are the most wonderful students a teacher could ever have. Please keep me posted about that school because I'm very worried with the recient events nearby in Pocheon.
Terry Lawson