Learning Korean in Vietnam

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So it turns out Hanoi has a reasonably-sized Korean community. This was great news as I was keen to keep up my Korean, so I went trawling for lessons. Given that most Koreans are here with corporate jobs however, rather than the English-speaking community who almost all do some kind of teaching, the only place offering such a thing was the Han-Viet Family Centre. This is an institution set up and funded by the Korean government in response to rising numbers of Korean-Vietnamese marriages. We went along to see if they wouldn’t mind me signing up, despite being distinctly non-Viet, but after seeing that I fulfilled the ‘married-to-a-Korean side of the bargain they said it would be fine.

Fast-forward to a week later, and it seemed like it might not be quite so fine after all. Given that I’d turned up for a pre-intermediate class, which I’d asked the way for in Korean, one would have thought I might be able to understand an exchange along the lines of:

-       Hey Hyun-woo, can we let this foreigner in? Cos…she’s not Vietnamese…so…I dunno.

-       What? Weird. Shall we ask the others in the class if they mind having a foreigner?

-       Yeah, let’s do that.

*opens classroom door*

- Um, sorry ladies – do you mind if the foreigner comes in?

They did eventually let me in and what followed was fascinating on several levels, some more comfortable than others.


The class was entirely made up of Vietnamese housewives married to Korean expats. This led to sample sentences such as: ‘darling, please carry my handbag’ and ‘honoured mother-in-law, I am sorry, I have Korean class this evening so I want-but-am-unable to prepare the kimchi stew’. Though seemingly hilarious, the context was clear: all my classmates expect to return to Korea with their husbands in the near future, and most of them will live with their parents-in-law when they do so. As such, they’ll be at the bottom of the family hierarchy and expected to do the vast majority of housework and cooking. The pressure on them to learn Korean and to adopt Korean cultural practices is huge, far more than for me as a Westerner.

Like most adult learners that I teach, my classmates were highly motivated and keen to use their target language as much as possible, so they switched into Korean as soon as they entered the room. Except to me, they immediately spoke English. They translated the teacher’s instructions, and even used Korean to ask the best English speaker in the room to translate questions about my marriage. When I tried to respond in Korean, they seemed genuinely confused.

I am still at a loss as to how to navigate these divisions and – hopefully – make connections with my classmates. Not for the first time, I am aware of the uncomfortable blend of privilege and isolation that Westerners experience across East Asia. The legacy of our colonial past consistently rears its head through the expectation that Westerners will be either unable or extremely unwilling to adapt to local life. There are many assumptions made about us and concessions afforded to us as a result: from being told we can’t possibly eat local food, or (in Korea) sit on the floor to eat, or being resolutely addressed in English regardless of language ability. These can feel overwhelming and embarrassing, both on a national and a personal level, and I often end up tongue-tied as a result.  

Teaching styles

It would be difficult to find two teaching styles less alike than the Western and East Asian. For most students here, standardized university entrance exams will decide their futures and the foreign language tests often feature no speaking or writing component at all. This means that teaching focusses entirely on rote-learning vocabulary and grammatical structures, and on exam skills. Needless to say, this doesn’t lead to the most confident speakers, writer or in-context users of language. Meanwhile, my East Asian language tutors have been universally appalled by what they saw as my stupidity and laziness: high points include the Chinese tutor who would hit the table and shout ‘NO! BAD STUDENT!’ every time I mispronounced a tone (which was often) and my Korean teacher’s genuine mystification at my inability to learn 100 new words a day. A pattern emerged: for half the day, I would rattle my teachers by misusing grammar then demanding to understand why it worked as it did instead of merely rote-learning it; for the other half, I would set to work encouraging my own students to shed their fears of mistake-making, value successful communication over accuracy, and give over trying to rote-learn their presentations.

Contemporary ESL methodology is based on Communicative Language Teaching, which basically means it aims to make students talk to each other as much as possible. The rule of thumb in an ESL classroom is that Teacher Talking Time (TTT) should never exceed 30% of total class time: the vast majority of the lesson should consist of peer-peer communication in pairs or small groups. In this system the teacher acts more as a facilitator, grouping students strategically then initiating and monitoring interactions between them and providing feedback. New grammar or vocabulary is often introduced and drilled by the teacher, but thereafter students are expected to practice the language together in realistic contexts. Peer-peer communication really is integrated wherever possible: for example, rather than the teacher simply correcting errors as they hear them, they are put on the board at the end of a stage or a lesson for students to mull over and correct together with discreet monitoring and guidance from the teacher. Aside from simply upping the time students spend interacting in English, this is intended to reduce students’ anxiety about making mistakes – it’s assumed to be less stressful to have them corrected by a peer during group work than by a teacher in front of the whole class.

Lessons also take into account the different learning styles, different abilities and changing energy levels of the group. In-seat activities will be interspersed with others requiring students to move around the room, and textbook materials will be adapted or scrapped and replaced with versions to better suit visual or kinaesthetic learners. Classes will start with a ‘warmer’ and end with a ‘cooler’: short activities which often have no bearing on the material to be studied and exist to ease students in and out of an English-speaking classroom environment.

My Korean class was pretty much the opposite of this. It covered three grammar points: the verb endings for making suggestions, those for expressing obligation, and the negative particle 못, which means something like ‘want to but am unable to’. For each point, the teacher wrote a series of examples on the board, asked us to read them back to her in chorus, then had us do three gap-fill sentences and read them one by one. At the end of the lesson she showed us ten new pieces of vocabulary, got us to repeat them once, and sent us on our way. No warmers, no coolers, no peer-peer interaction and no contextualization: just a series of words and structures to memorise.


The single most valuable thing I gained from the lesson (apart from all the Korean, obviously) was increased empathy with my students. Since teaching in East Asia, even in groups with whom I’ve had a strong rapport, it’s been noticeable that many students feel stressed by making the switch from the teaching style they grew up with to the communicative method. The students in my Korean class, however, were infinitely more relaxed and gregarious than any East Asian student in any ESL class I have every taught. I couldn’t help but feel that this was related to a sense of comfort and familiarity with the teaching style. I found myself empathizing with their position: for all that I genuinely believe in some form of the communicative method as the best route to fluency, my own language studies were fraught with stress around this issue.  I was constantly told that the only way I would become fluent was to speak as much as possible. ‘Just talk!’ They told me. ‘Find some Frenchies and just…talk!’ Sounds easy, right? Annoyingly, the fact that the study of languages and cultures fascinates me does not alter the fact that I am a socially awkward introvert with a morbid fear of failure. Conversations with strangers in my own language frighten me as much as those in my second, even after finally clawing my way to fluency, so having to navigate a communicative classroom with a low level of language would be frankly terrifying.

My Korean lesson might not have built any of the communicative skills I spend my working life on, but in some ways I really did feel way more relaxed than in the French classrooms of my student days: all I needed to do was copy and repeat. No-one was demanding – as I do of my teenage students – that I understand and explain the difference between, say, the first and second conditional and then use them in natural conversation. I was simply expected to memorise the structure, apply it and chorus it back, my pronunciation errors conveniently obscured by those around me. Anything else, I could do in the comfort of my own home with only my husband being privy to my ‘stupid’ questions.

Quite what this means for my own teaching, I’m not sure – I’m still trying to figure out how to get some of that relaxed, outgoing energy into my classroom without doing a complete 180 on my methods, but it has been invaluable for understanding my students’ experience in more depth.

I’ll be taking Korean lessons in Hanoi twice a week so will post more thoughts as they come – in the meantime, let me know what you think!

Wanderings and Ramblings of an ESL teacher currently based in a tiny mountain town near the North Korean border.


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