Differences in Learning English

September 12, 2010

The idea of escaping one’s national economy to go teach English in Asia is nothing new; I don’t why it’s been getting such attention lately, but I might as well put more information out there. Of course there are differences in the way children learn English, just their countries offer unique cultures. With each culture and language comes different pronunciation problems, certain hangups on grammar, and a few quirks in the classroom. These are their stories.

I should make one note before I begin: I taught at private schools in Japan and Korea, and rural public schools in Thailand. This entry is about my experience teaching kids.



I’ve only had the pleasure of teaching children in Korea, but, like Japanese kids, they have a problem distinguishing Rs from Ls. In addition, Ps from Bs – the city of Busan is sometimes written as Pusan, because the Korean pronunciation is a mix of the two.

There’s not much of an emphasis on actually learning anything in English academies across Asia. If there were, you can bet the respective Departments of Education would make the effort to bring decent teachers into the country; as it stands, we get newbies who can’t deal with kids, travelers who don’t have their hearts set on teaching (hint, hint), and sometimes just angry, dangerously unqualified English speakers. There would also be a fixed curriculum, with goals based on writing, reading, and overall fluency. From what I’m hearing, goals vary day-by-day, jumping all over the place; it makes it difficult for students to retain even one lesson that day.

As far as Korean students are concerned, I’m not too impressed with their behavior. I know, you’ll hear stories about how there’s almost an invisible line of respect between students and teachers, but that doesn’t always apply to foreigners, especially those teaching in hagwons (private schools). Students know they can get away with shouting, misbehaving, running around the room, because they know the foreign teacher can’t understand them, and isn’t allowed to hit them. In public schools, they might be a little more orderly due to the environment and the fact a Korean teacher is within striking distance, but, left to their own devices in a hagwon classroom? Trust me, they can go crazy. Ages 6-9 need the most monitoring, 9-13 are a little more orderly. After 12, you’re probably fine. IMHO, of course.

The quirks of teaching English to Korean kids?

1. Students are obsessed with my arm hair. Whenever I get close to check their books, they reach and stroke it. I can’t say whether this is exclusive to Korea, as I always wore long-sleeve shirts in Japan, but it’s interesting.

2. My students aged 8-11 are reaching the point where they start to speak back to me in Korean to see what I understand. However, I can usually keep them on their toes with a few choice phrases:

조용 (joyong): BE QUIET!
하지마 (hajima): STOP THAT!
앉아 (anja): SIT DOWN!

Like kids in any country, they need to be put in their place at times. Just be careful. Don’t hit them, even if you see Korean teachers doing it. It’s not the answer.


I’ve made quite a number of students cry. Not by hitting them, giving them bad marks, or ignoring them. Nope, it’s all in the competition. Just silly games I have them play to practice their English. We’ve got one fairly simple spelling game on Fridays: students have letter cards on the floor; there are two teams; one member of each team tries to spell the word with the letter cards faster than the other. Simple, right? Yeah…

One girl will inevitably slam her fists down on her desk and start crying if I don’t put her on her friend’s team. Another just won’t be happy unless she’s playing all the time. A boy and a girl trade insults over the results of the last game, and end up crying. It’s a vicious cycle, and one I’m not likely to fix this year or the next. When one team wins and celebrates, the other’s members hang their heads and tear up. How can I assign teams according to English ability and make everyone happy? How can I let both teams win? I can’t, so I just get over it. Let them cry.

There are a few things in Korean pop culture that will just help you when you need to reference something to your students. Uljin-gun, where I reside, is famous for crabs and mushrooms, so I usually use those as examples for animals and food, respectively. Most students will already know a few English words that they probably say to their friends to sound cool: “Oh my god!” seems common enough; “hacking” refers to cheating or stealing answers; “chance” is getting help.


Japanese kids also have a problem with Ls and Rs, not to mention Bs and Vs. Articles (a, an, the) are probably the smallest of the big hurtles any student of English faces, and Japanese learners are no exception.

One thing I will say about the educational system as a whole, whether you’re teaching in a public high school or an eikaiwa (English conversation school): it’s more organized that most. This doesn’t necessarily mean kids will benefit from better textbooks, resources, and class structure, but they are available. My classes at AEON, one of the bigger eikaiwa chains, always started without fail at the top of the hour and not one second later, and ended fifty minutes after the fact; to do otherwise is to invite chaos. My students had textbooks designed by the company with individual vocabulary cards. Things worked, even if the classes focused on repetition and not originality; for children with English skills so low, that’s no surprise. Necessary, even.

This is not to say that larger Korean hagwon don’t design their own books or theirs managers aren’t uptight when it comes to time. They certainly can be. But I think this is pretty universal across Japan, especially in the eikaiwa; there’s a great deal of respect for not being late, whether it’s your train coming to take you home or your expensive English class starting at the time agreed upon.

Japanese kids seem to be a little more focused than those in Korea and Thailand, but the difference is minute, and may just have been based on my limited experience teaching.

I know there are some public high schools and situations in which an ALT is allowed to speak Japanese in the classroom, but for the most part, those in English conversation schools are contractually obligated to only speak English. Not a word of Japanese which might otherwise restore order in a rowdy kids class: よく聞け!

High school students are extremely well-behaved IMHO, and usually have a difficult time participating in English games and conversation because its such a marked change from their “real” school. Those who do see it as quite a nice release. This brings me to a key point I’d like to make to those teaching English in any Asian country.

English class is different from every class every student has ever taken. Why? Once they reach a certain age, it becomes obvious English is necessary for entrance exams, but until then, it’s practically a farce to them. Teachers cannot speak their language, answer their grammar questions (spoken in Japanese). Nor do they fit the mold of Japanese teachers; as a foreigner, you look more like a rodeo clown to them than a professional to be respected. Even the way classes are conducted throws them off: with games, encouraging free conversation, getting them out of their chairs… with all this going on, who can blame them for not taking English seriously until it’s absolutely required?



My experience teaching in Thailand was very selective; I’m talking about rural schools in areas where kids couldn’t even afford to bring pencils and paper to class. But, I did have the chance to see a cross section of schools as I Couchsurfed in Surattani, Nakhon Si Thammarat, and Bangkok.

There is a great deal of incentive in Thailand to learn English, with foreign tourists always pouring in to spend absurd amounts of money at beach resorts. Real time results are achieved. On the other hand, between Japan, Korea, and Thailand, Thailand is probably the least English friendly, and the one whose average citizen has the worst grasp of the language. In general.

Because Thai is a tonal language that carries most of the sounds in the English language, I noticed many adults and kids didn’t have too many problems with pronunciation. It’s the school system as a whole that leaves much to be desired when in comes to English education:

– Teachers have been known to just not show up for classes for days at a time.
– Lack of funding means lousy textbooks (if any), few computers, and few resources like games. Classes are overcrowded and schools are small and old.

One school I visited sorted their English students according to ability across all ages. Want to know why this is a terrible idea? Of course if someone speaks near-fluent English, you shouldn’t have him in the same class as someone learning his ABCs, but when the differences are smaller, students with varying abilities can benefit from each other; if every student is at the same low level and no one understands anything, little is going to be accomplished. If, on the other hand, a few students at a higher level are present, they may not only have an easier time understanding the lesson, but also in encouraging others to do so (i.e. we can do it, so can you).

My kids’ classes, phratoms 1-6, were huge. Thirty-five 12-year-olds in chairs too small for them. Not to mention the violent behavior. Of course “boys will be boys” across the world, but in all the countries I’ve taught, I’ve never seen more disrespectful classroom behavior than that in Thailand. Real fights with strong punches over a discussion of grammar. And I couldn’t even ask the Thai teacher for assistance; occasionally she would poke her head in and scold anyone not paying attention, but this does more harm than help. By giving the students validation that I don’t have any authority in the school, and they only have to listen when their “real” teacher is present, I lose all control. I tried to explain this to the Thai staff, but it didn’t translate very well.

2 Responses to Differences in Learning English

  1. Jeffrey on September 14, 2010 at 6:04 pm

    Nice article. What’s your user name on CouchSurfing?

  2. Turner on September 15, 2010 at 6:26 pm

    Didn’t you link this from CSing? I’m turnerw.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to OAT

Created by Webfish.

Need Advice on Living Abroad?

Thinking of teaching English in Japan? Volunteering in Thailand? Backpacking around New Zealand? If you're looking for some insider tips on the places to go and the people to meet, check out my consulting services. If you just have a few questions, no worries: email me.