Monthly Archives: January 2014

How to Enjoy Korean Life as an ESL Teacher

1. Everyday tips

-Find a balance between Korean friends/colleagues and your Western friends.

-Likewise, find a balance between embracing Korean food and culture, but also make time to enjoy familiar things (as much as is available, anyway).

-Take care of your health. It is easy enough to eat well in Korea, especially if you have a lot of rice and vegetables as your staple meals. Make time to exercise a few times a week, if you don’t already. And get enough sleep. It is easy to get worn out in Korea because of the amount of things going on all the time. This is especially true when you are starting out here, what with all the people you are meeting, new activities you are trying, meals you are attending and so on.

-Try not to get sucked in to the community of people who waste their time moaning about Korea. Many of these can be found on the forum at There are many good things that you can learn about Korean life by joining in on the forums on, but don’t fall into the temptation of wasting your time complaining about life here. Negativity breeds negativity. Stick to positive people and positive experiences. Make your time in Korea fantastic. It is in your hands.

2. What (South) Korea is:

-A fascinating mix of traditional and modern. One mountain I used to go hiking on had a man living in a cave on the mountain. He was a shamanist monk who mostly lived off the land, drinking and washing in streams, burning wood for heat and so on. This in the same country which leads the world in technology like Samsung Galaxy smartphones and 3D TVs. In Korea you can visit a centuries old Buddhist temple in the morning and go to a cat cafe in the afternoon.

-A democracy.

-A developed country. The 2013 United Nations Human Development Report ranked South Korea as the world’s 12th most developed country, ahead of countries such as Denmark,, Singapore, France, Italy, Finland, the U.K. and South Africa 1. However, you will occasionally see attitudes or behavior which make you think of a developing country. Remember the whole country was virtually destroyed by civil war 60 years ago, and the economy has grown six-fold since 1980 (and twelve-fold since 1970). That incredible speed of economic growth is so fast that certain attitudes and behavior have not caught up yet. But they are making progress.

3. What Korea isn’t:

-Korea isn’t a Western country. It contains many elements such as democracy, capitalism and Western style culture, but at its heart it is a Far Eastern country. It is fair to say that Korea is Westernized, but not Western.

-Korea isn’t a world-class vacation destination for Westerners. Korea has a lot of beautiful and fascinating places to visit, but in most Westerners’ eyes it isn’t top of the list for beaches, mountains, food, or architecture. Accept this and appreciate Korea for what it is- a fascinating, vibrant, friendly nation with a very good quality of life for Western English teachers.

-Korea isn’t Japan/China/Thailand/your country. However, look on the bright side. Korea is cheaper than Japan, and easier to save money in. Korean ESL salaries are on the whole better than in China or Thailand, in many cases more than double. It may not have the familiar comforts of home, but that is part of the challenge and reward of coming here. Many Korean ESL veterans try teaching in other countries and end up coming back to Korea because they miss the friendliness, ease of travel, comfortable working conditions, disposable income, trustworthy public school employers, and many other things.

4. Ten Challenges for Westerners in Korea

1.) Every Korean person will ask you if spicy food is OK (there is a myth in Korea that Western people are unable to eat anything spicier than a potato, despite our love for spicy food from India, Mexico etc.)

2.) When subway trains (and buses/elevators/lifts) stop, many people try to get on before the previous people have got off.

3.) Schedules are very flexible and liable to change at a moment’s notice compared to Western life. You will learn at very short notice that you have to teach a lesson with nothing prepared, go to a staff dinner in five minutes when you had planned to catch up on TV, go to the gym or call your parents, or submit lesson plans or some kind of essay by the end of the day without any prior notice.

4.) Things will also be cancelled at the drop of a hat, so be prepared for the Sports Day or hiking trip to be replaced with six lessons on a rainy Monday.

5.) To a certain extent, you will always be treated like a foreigner no matter how long you stay here or how integrated you become. This is hard for us to take as Westerners, due to the way we absorb people from other cultures into our countries. But look on the bright side- in many cases you will get away with doing a lot less difficult work than your Korean colleagues.

6.) Some Korean teachers and students will not value English, regardless of how good a teacher you are or how good your lessons are. But be encouraged- many students are very keen to learn English and a lot of teachers want to improve their English by talking to you.

7.) Older people will cut in line (queue-jump) at places like bus terminals. This is incredibly frustrating when you have 90 seconds to buy your ticket, go to the bathroom and board your bus, but it will happen and there is nothing you can do. Older people get away with much more in Korea than they would in Western countries, due to the Confucian traditions which put a lot of value on age.

8.) This is (still) a very homogenized country in terms of culture, race, architecture, language etc. In terms of race and culture it is changing as more and more foreign people and influences enter the country, but be prepared- this is no London or New York.

9.) Korean people of all ages may talk about their dislike for Japan, and this is currently most closely associated with Dokdo, a tiny group of islands over which both countries claim sovereignty (but historically they do belong to Korea). It can be very frustrating and tiresome for foreigners, especially those with a love for Japan, but view it in context. Korea has been regularly invaded and colonized by Japan over the centuries; the Japanese tried to eliminate Korean culture even to the extent that Korean people were made to speak Japanese and have Japanese names, and for most of the bad things Japan did to Korea, it has not only failed to apologize but also actively denies some events (such as the slavery of “comfort women”). This is as offensive to Koreans as Holocaust denial is to Western people. When you hear about Dokdo once a week, sympathize with Koreans and understand that it is about more than just the tiny islands. Love Japan, but understand why it is hard for Koreans to do so.

10.) Some days your school lunch will be a tray full of things you hate.

5. Ten Great Things About Teaching English in Korea

1.) You will have so many stories to tell, good and bad.

2.) Lots of opportunities to enjoy exercise and the outdoors. Koreans of all ages love exercise, whether it is hiking, volleyball, tennis, whatever.

3.) For a lot of things, especially services, Korea isfairly cheap by Western standards. Korean salaries tend to be lower than in Western countries, which means things like taxis, buses, restaurants, and even some medical or dental treatments are cheaper than back home.

4.) You can save a large chunk of your salary (so long as you don’t drink too much imported alcohol or go to too many expensive restaurants, clubs etc.)

5.) You appreciate certain things back home a lot more, plus you learn cultural elements that you wish were in your own country.

6.) Korea has low (but not no) crime. Violent crime is very low by Western standards.

7.) Fast internet and plenty of time to enjoy it.

8.) Koreans love sharing. You will get so many free snacks, rice cakes, beers, ice creams…

9.) Lots of great places to travel during vacation time, both in Korea and nearby countries like Japan, China, The Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam…

10.) It looks impressive on your Resume/CV.

Reference: List of Countries by Human Development Index.

The Main Differences Between Korean and Western Culture

1. The Eastern Group Mentality vs. The Western Individual Mentality

 As a general rule, it can be said that Koreans (and Far-East Asians in general) are more group-oriented than Westerners who tend to be more individual-oriented. This can be simplified to:

A Westerner does what he/she needs

A Korean does what the group needs

Of course this is a big generalization, but it fits well with what you will experience every day in Korea.

This can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you will (sometimes) be expected to give up your time and energy when you would rather not, for example being asked to attend staff dinners, school trips at weekends, (occasional) extra responsibilities during work time. But on the other hand, you will find people giving up their time and energy to help you with things, whether it is changing apartment,, arranging banking stuff, medical things etc. more than people back home might. So in reality there are good and bad things with both cultures. The most important thing is to be prepared for the Korean way of doing things.

2. Sickness and absence

It is very common for Korean people to come to work even when they are sick, if only to rest at their desk. This is part of the culture of showing diligence and dedication.

It is also the norm to go to hospital for most conditions, even a common cold.

3. Personal space (or lack of it)

South Korea is crowded. Of countries with a population over ten million, South Korea has the third highest population density (not population) in the world (higher than Japan or India) 1. In other words, in a small space, there are a lot of people. Because of this, Koreans are very used to standing, walking, eating, working, commuting etc. close to other people.

Note too that Koreans are much more likely to touch each other (and you) on the hand, arm, and if you are sitting down together, leg (men included). This is a sign of familiarity, friendship, closeness, or trust.

4. Personal questions and information

Be prepared that many Korean people who have just met you may ask you how old you are, and whether you are married. If you are unmarried and above a certain age (maybe late 20s), you may then be asked why you aren’t married. Korea still has many elements of a traditional and conservative society, and so getting married and starting a family is basically expected of everyone. These days a typical Korean man might be married by his early thirties, and a Korean woman by her late twenties. This isn’t so different to Western culture. But unmarried couples in Korea very rarely live together (at least not openly).

Korean people will often ask you questions like “Where are you going?”, or over the phone “What are you doing?” or “Who are you with?”. These questions might seem too direct or personal to Western people, but they are normal to Koreans.

Things like your annual medical check (required by employment law) will almost certainly be sent directly to your school. However, if you visit a doctor by yourself (and most doctors in Korea will be able to say at least medical conditions in English), the information shouldn’t go any further.

5. Direct way of speaking

Koreans are often more direct in their way of talking, for example they might say “Your nose is very big!” or “Why are you fat?”. This isn’t considered so rude to Korean people.

You may receive advice even if you don’t ask for it. “You should get a haircut!”/”You need to lose weight!”/”Your class is very boring!”. This is just part of the closeness of Korean culture. Interpersonal barriers are much smaller in many ways.

6. Food and drink

Korean food is fairly diverse and you are bound to find lots of dishes you enjoy. Most Korean meals will revolve around a main protein (either fish, meat, egg or tofu) along with various side dishes (such as kimchi), a soup and a serving of rice. Koreans generally do not have starters/appetizers and puddings/desserts in the same way as Westerners, although if you are craving cake or ice cream you can get it elsewhere.

As a general rule Korean food has a lot of spicy and sour flavors. It’s actually not as hot as other countries’ foods (such as an Indian curry). The sour flavors can take some getting used to (as an example, it took me about two years to finally like kimchi.)

Koreans do not tend to have alcohol without food, except in some bars. Most dinners with your school will include a lot of beer and soju (a clear Korean alcohol made from sweet potatoes). If you do not drink alcohol it is no problem, but be prepared that a lot of people will want you to drink something they poured for you. You can get around this by pretending to sip, replacing soju with water, or simply saying thanks but no thanks. Note that in many bars you can only order drinks if you order a plate of food (such as a fruit salad, fried chicken etc.).

If you are vegetarian (or in particular a vegan), be aware that some dishes which seem to have no meat/fish (such as many soups) actually contain some meat/fish stock or small pieces of meat/seafood.


1 Population Density.

Why English is Hard for Korean People

1. Pronunciation

1.) Korean words generally follow a pattern of consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel, for example “Sprite” is pronounced “suh-puh-rah-ee-tuh”.

2.) Many (or most) Korean students have been taught (or picked up) the wrong pronunciation of many English sounds. This is due partly to Korean pronunciation carrying over into their English, and partly due to a lack of knowledge of correct English pronunciation.

Main examples:

- “ch”, “sh”, “g” sound at the end of words- lunchee, watchee, washee, Georgee Bushee

-”th” sound- senk you (not thank you), wiz (not with)

-”r”/”l” sounds- classic problem for Far East Asians speaking English- rater (later)

-”z” sound- doesn’t exist in Korean. Usually replaced with a “g”- joo (zoo), jee/jed (zee/zed)

-”f” sound- doesn’t exist in Korean. Usually replaced with a “p”- pacebook (Facebook), or “f”- hurenchee hurai (French fries)

-”i”/”ee” sound- Korean only really has one “ee” (이) sound, whereas English has a short “i” and long “ee” sound. So Koreans struggle with e.g. hit/heat; lid/lead…

-short and long ”oo” sound- in the same way, Korean only really has one “oo” (우) sound whereas English has distinctly short and long sounds, e.g. good (short sound) and food (long sound).

2. Grammar

1.) Articles (“A/An/Some” and “The”)

Actually English articles are extremely difficult for English language learners, especially Far-Eastern language speakers. There are many exceptions in the use of “a/an” and “the”. Even very advanced English learners frequently make mistakes when using these articles. Korean doesn’t really have articles (although they do say “some” as in “some people”).

2.) Plurals

1. Korean does have a plural form. BUT they use it much less than English speakers.

2. Koreans drop as much from spoken language as possible, whereas in English we do not. So the English sentence “The students are going home” is often said as “Student house go” in Korean. In that sentence you don’t know how many students there are, one or several or many. So when Koreans speak English, they often speak in the same way.

3.) Verb conjugation (inflection)

1. In English we conjugate verbs in many ways, including depending on the subject (I go, he goes…) This is particularly true of irregular verbs (I am, you are, he is…)

2. In Korean, verbs are not conjugated differently depending on the subject (I/You/He/She etc.). Although, Korean does have a way of changing the form if you need to use “honorifics” (the way of speaking politely to strangers, people older than you or more senior than you etc.)

4.) Auxillary verbs

Auxillary verbs are verbs which add function or meaning. For example “Do you want some coffee?”or “I could go there tomorrow”. These are very easy for us to use, but explaining and translating these is very complicated as they don’t exist in the same way in Korean (Korean expresses could/should/might etc. by changing the verb itself).

3. Vocabulary

1.) Korean misuse of English words. Many words have been picked up by Korean but taken on a slightly (or completely) different meaning. This leads to confusion for English learners in Korea.

- e.g.: “meeting”: in Korean this has more of a meaning of “social meeting” (a date or friends meeting) than the “work meeting” we tend to mean.

2.) In some cases words do not translate directly, or one Korean word means several things in English (or one English word means several things in Korean).

- e.g.1: One Korean word, two English words:

“expect”: In Korean, there is one word which means both “expect” and “look forward to” (기대하다). So when Koreans say in English that they are looking forward to something, they usually say they are “expecting” it.

-e.g.2: One English word, two (actually more) Korean words:

“old”: In English we can say “an old man” and “an old car”, but in Korean, different words for old are used for each example.

3.) As a general rule, translating nouns (window, student, cloud) between English and Korean is pretty easy, but translating verbs (decide, fight) and adjectives (bored, old) is more difficult.

4. Accents

1.) There are so many different English accents. Even within your own country, people speak English differently depending on where they are from. Imagine the difficulty for a Korean student trying to understand English accents of speakers from all over the world.

2.) If you don’t have an American accent, you may find Koreans can’t understand you when you spell a word. For example, British pronunciation of “r” sounds like “i” to Koreans.

5. Writing

1.) Korean doesn’t have upper-case (capital) and lower-case (small) letters, so Koreans often misuse them when writing English. What’s more, as some letters are different between upper-case and lower-case (e.g. A and a), some lower-level students only know one variety or use a mixture (foR ExaMplE wrITinG likE THis).

2.) Some letters which are instantly recognisable to English native speakers are easily misused by Korean students (for example lower-case “n” and “h”, or “i” and “j”).

6. Phonetics

1.) English is a relatively phonetic language. In other words, if you know the alphabet, you can read words you haven’t seen before and have a good chance of pronouncing them correctly. Unfortunately for English learners, a large percentage of English words are not pronounced the way they are written. This is due to words losing their original pronunciation over the centuries, and the fact that many words come from other languages and keep their original (or similar) spelling.

2.) Some words with similar spellings can have completely different pronunciation.

Consider the suffix -ough: cough; rough; dough; through; thorough

7. Pragmatics

1.) Pragmatics is when context contributes to meaning. In other words, the same words have a different meaning depending on when, where, how and to whom you say them. This can be one of the hardest things for language learners.

2.) Example: “Is that your dog?” can mean several things.

“Is that your dog?” (as opposed to another dog)

“Is that your dog?” (or someone else’s)

Consider too that saying “Is that your dog?” can mean “Please take your dog away” or “What a beautiful dog!”. It can be difficult to deduce what people are really saying, even when you understand the words. This is not such a problem in our own language, but in a foreign language it can be challenging.

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How to Learn Korean Effectively

This is the transcript and printed information of a lecture I gave about how to learn Korean effectively. I hope it will be helpful for you.

1. Why bother learning Korean?

1.) You’re here a long time. Some people might say “Korean isn’t a major international language. When I leave Korea, I won’t need to speak Korean again.” This is probably true. However, you are here for a long time. At least a year. That’s a long time to get by with just body language and asking Korean people who speak English to help you all the time. I know many Westerners who have been here a number of years and still speak almost no Korean.

2.) Have a great experience. A high percentage (maybe 75%) of Westerners who come to Korea to teach English never learn Korean beyond set phrases (such as ordering food or drink) and a collection of random vocabulary words. This is enough to survive, of course. But don’t you want to do more than survive? Don’t you want to have a rich, exciting, varied experience where you can get to know anyone in a country, not just the ones who are good at English?

3.) Bridge the gap. Only speaking English contributes to the “Them and Us” divide which exists for many foreigners living here. Feeling isolated in the country you live in won’t make you feel happy or comfortable.

4.) Get closer. Speaking Korean, even just a little bit and badly, is a brilliant way to make friends and get closer to the people you see every day.

5.) Not much English. So much Korean. You will spend only a minority of your time in the English classroom. The rest of the time you are in an environment in which Korean is the language almost everyone is speaking.

2. Effective ways to learn Korean

01) Learner type- Some people learn best by studying with others and attending classes. Others prefer studying alone. There are obviously pros and cons with both. If you study with others it can be a good way to stay motivated and to get help from teachers and other learners. But you might not stay at the same level as the other learners, or you might want to study at different times to them. Learning alone can be extremely effective so long as you can stay disciplined and motivated. A combination of both styles might be best.

02) Find the right resources- When I first came to Korea in 2008, it was hard to find a good learning resource. Many of the textbooks and learning CDs taught expressions and language that were unnatural. But these days Korean is growing in popularity as a language of study, so the amount of learning resources available is growing. But this presents a new problem. Which one to use?

If you choose to invest in Korean learning books or CDs, don’t fall into the trap of thinking if you buy something you will definitely study it! Be honest with yourself. Will you really study those textbooks you are about to buy?If not, I would recommend using the following free websites.They have everything you need to start making fast progress in Korean, and won’t cost you a penny.

- If you are just starting out, and even if you aren’t, I would strongly recommend using this site. It has free lessons right the way from absolute beginner all the way up to quite advanced levels, so there is something for everyone. I use this site every week and still review grammar lessons that I have studied a hundred times.

- A great free website for learning vocabulary fast is. This is a site where you study vocabulary by seeing (and making) clever pictures or words to make things stick in your memory.

- This excellent site allows you to write a journal (or any sentences) in the language you are studying, and have it corrected by native speakers. The site works as a community in which you can also correct learners of your language. Learn Korean and make friends.

A combination of (for grammar), (for vocabulary) plus (for things you want to know and practise) will give you an excellent base for your Korean study.

03.) Learn the right things- Remember that if language is a house, vocabulary is the bricks and grammar is the mortar that holds it all together. Be sure to work on both equally. If you just learn long vocabulary lists, you will miss out on building your sentence making ability.

Be choosy about what you spend your time learning. Think about what you need for your everyday job, life, shopping, socializing, traveling, and so on. Also, be careful who you get your Korean from. Some Koreans are well-meaning and want to help you learn their language, but if they try to tell you that a particular word is such-and-such-word in English, beware that they may not know exactly what that English word means. This has happened to me many times. I learnt the wrong meaning of a Korean word because the English word I was told was the wrong one. Try to find a Korean who is very good at English, at least at the beginning.

04.) Variety is the spice of life- This is especially true when it comes to the effort of learning a foreign language. Try to focus on a different element of study each week, to prevent boredom and to stop you feeling like quitting. Personally I like to spend one week memorizing vocabulary, then one week studying grammar, then one week doing a lot of reading, then one week doing writing practice, and so on. This keeps my mind feeling fresh and my studies always seem more interesting.

05.) Repeat, repeat, and repeat again- Unless you have an amazing memory, it’s usually not enough to study something just once and remember all of it. For this reason it’s good to go over things lots of times. In particular, a language like Korean can be difficult to memorize for English native speakers because there are so few words with similarities.

06.) Make time for learning- With all the things you will be doing, it can seem hard to make time for learning Korean. But there are a few things you can do to ensure you are making progress in your Korean language skills no matter how busy you are:

- Set aside a regular time for learning. This can be twenty minutes in the morning every day before you start your lessons, or two evenings a week when you put in a solid couple of hours study. Try to stick to these times and make them a non-negotiable part of your week. Don’t let them be dropped for other, less important things, like TV or Facebook.

- “Bonus hours”: Think of all the things you do during your day which don’t require a huge amount of concentration. For example, brushing your teeth, washing dishes, preparing meals, commuting to work, some types of exercise (e.g. treadmill or hiking), doing laundry, ironing, cleaning your apartment, and so on. These times add up to many hours a week. So use those times to learn Korean. When I am doing these activities, I listen to Korean lessons (from which I have downloaded and put on my phone or MP3 player. You can easily add 8 or 10 hours of Korean study to your week without even changing your routine or becoming more busy.

- You will have a lot of free hours at work during a year in Korea. Use these well, don’t waste them all on Facebook or the internet. Try to practice speaking Korean with your co-workers or students. Don’t be shy, and don’t be afraid of making mistakes. They are the best way of getting corrections and remembering them. Korean people love it when you speak their language, no matter how badly.

07.) Keep going- Learning a language is a huge task, especially Korean due to the lack of similarities with English. It can seem daunting and impossible. But think of it like eating an elephant. You can’t do it all in one go. You have to do a little bit whenever possible, and as time goes by your progress will add up.

08.) Korean language learning hacks-

-A good way to get good at Korean numbers is to read car license plates. Every Korean license plate has a number between 1 and 9999. Read every license plate you see using Korean, and soon you will be very good at numbers.

- Write Korean study notes on paper/post-it notes and stick it all over your apartment. Good places are above your kitchen sink, on your fridge, above your desk, next to your bed, on the back of your front door, and next to your bathroom mirror. It will look a little strange at first, but after six months you will be amazed at how much you have memorized just by seeing it every day.

- As you go through your day, try to say in Korean what you are doing (for example “I have to brush my teeth, I’m going to work, I’m at the supermarket etc.). If you don’t know how to say a particular thing, find out from a Korean and then try to memorize it. The more you say these things, the better they will stick in your memory.

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