How Understanding my Korean Background Helped Me Learn English as a Second Language

This is a personal narrative about my experiences as a first generation immigrant to the United States, and how understanding my Korean background helped me learn the English language.

“She does well, but she’s very quiet.” 

I’ve heard this exact sentence in almost every parent teacher conference during my early school years.  

As a 7 year old who just immigrated to the States from South Korea, English was nothing more than a confusing and difficult task. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t magically just pick it up. 

“Practice,” my ESL teacher would tell me, “Judy, you have to practice and speak it as much as you can.” 

Research in Second Language Acquisition in academia points to three key elements of learning a new language — Comprehensive input, comprehensive output, and feedback. Comprehensive input is being exposed to the new language through auditory or visual intake and learning to understand it. Comprehensive output is learning to produce the language in speaking or writing. Feedback means to identify the errors and make changes in response. I knew I had to use the language in order to get better. It was essential to express myself, make mistakes, and receive corrections. To put it simply, I needed to talk more. 

But for those first few years in school, I was known as the quiet kid. The one that always nodded for yes and shook for no. I knew a surprising amount of words and phrases in my head, but I couldn’t formulate them into spoken coherent sentences. I was missing exactly what my teachers would tell me. Practice. 

Looking back on my childhood, it’s evident why I struggled to be proactive in the classroom. In order to fully understand what was going through my second grader brain, we have to step back and switch the lens. It ultimately goes back to cultural differences and the values instilled in me early on back in my home country. 

In the late 1980s under the leadership of Syngman Rhee and Park Chung Hee, the control of education in South Korea shifted from local school boards and concentrated in a centralized Ministry of Education. The success of these national education programs can be seen in the statistics. In 1945, the adult literacy rate was 22%, by 1970 around 87.6%, and by the late 1980s, around 93%. South Korea is now one of the most educated countries in the world. According to the OECD, 70% of 24 to 35 year olds in the nation have completed tertiary education, which is the highest percentage worldwide, and 20% higher than the United States. 

In order to implement and execute systematic reforms, change began in the classroom. There had to be a rigid hierarchical structure among the teacher and the student, adult and the child. This was not a novel system by any means. The quickly heightened nationwide emphasis towards education and the transformations that followed were only possible as a country rooted in the ideals and values of Confucianism. Delegating absolute authority to those in higher positions of power to maintain order was and still is the prevalent mentality. This is reflected in honorifics embedded into the language itself and the nation’s compulsory military service where hierarchical structure is a vital means of management. 

I still have distinct memories of my first year of elementary school in Korea. Back then, corporal punishment was a legal and acceptable approach to student discipline in the classroom. Students would often receive flogging or sent to stand holding an object over their head for behavioral issues, tardiness, or incomplete assignments. In order to receive good marks and praise, you had to be silent and only speak when prompted. There was no concept of raising your hand during class to ask a question. It was considered disrespectful to challenge the teacher or offer an alternative viewpoint or opinion. 

This mentality persisted through my early elementary years in the US. Although it wasn’t a conscious decision, I believed swallowing my questions, hiding my confusion, and limiting the opportunity to make mistakes were the best ways to be a commendable student who not only did well on assessments, but did not disrupt learning for other students. 

It wasn’t for a couple years until I recognized my cultural background and realized how it was affecting my learning. When I accepted these differences, I was finally able to start taking advantage of the classroom. I accepted that the teacher actually wanted me to speak more in class, to raise my hand and interrupt them if I had any questions. I accepted that my classmates weren’t going to judge me for being confused nor was I disrupting their learning. I accepted that in order for me to get better at English, I had to make mistakes and no one was going to look down on my grammatical errors. I started to take initiative of my own education. 

It wasn’t that I was shy or that I didn’t want to speak out. I had my own thoughts, my own opinions, and my own desires. When I started to take advantage of the classroom, my progress spiked. I quickly gained confidence speaking with people and expressing myself in an articulate and straightforward manner. This improvement was reflected in my grades, my relationships with peers, and my English language skills. 

Of course, this is a very personal experience and my own opinions on how I best picked up English in the U.S. as a young second language learner. However, it is also important to consider our backgrounds and cultures as immigrants and how they continue to influence our values, personalities, and relationships in a new country. Recognizing and accepting these differences will allow you to initiate the changes necessary to reach your goals, whatever they may be. No culture is above or better than another. But they do impact us in subtle and profound ways, whether we know it or not. Embrace the ideals you hold and challenge yourself as an integral part of this society. 

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