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- English Language Acquisition of a 6th Grade Korean Student: A Case Study
English Language Acquisition of a 6th Grade Korean Student: A Case Study
Stephanie Ptak is an assistant professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, South Korea. She has taught English in South Korea and Spain, from elementary school to the university level. She is interested in fluency markers and methods of teaching writing. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
As I was settling in as an English teacher at a public school in Seoul, South Korea, I began to think about the ways in which students were acquiring the language. I had previously taught in Spain, and as a Spanish speaker, I was able to see some connections between Spanish and the errors that students made in English. With limited knowledge of the Korean language, I was unable to make such connections in my new work environment. In order to get to know my students’ better, get to know their culture and language better, and learn about how a person with an L1 of Korean acquires English, I decided to do a case study with one of my students. I hoped to see the errors that the student made while learning English and explore these within the context of a Korean environment. Then, I planned to share my findings with my co-teacher in order to help us better teach our students together.
Part One: Profile of Jimmy
I chose Jimmy as the subject of my language acquisition case study because he stood out to me in the first few classes that I co-taught at the school where I teach English. Jimmy is outgoing and not afraid to speak English in class, unlike many of his peers. He was quite talkative with me at first, sharing information about his relatives because we both have family in Chicago, which I mentioned during my introduction to the school. Jimmy is in the sixth grade, and he was born and raised in Seoul, Republic of Korea. His first language is Korean and this is the language used in the home the vast majority of the time. Jimmy also speaks English, which he has learned in the public elementary school beginning in first grade and in the private after school academy, institutions that are very popular in Korea. Jimmy’s Korean language abilities are at a slightly higher level than that of his peers, as he is able to vocalize and comprehend more oral English than his peers, while reading and writing at the same level as his peers. Jimmy has gone to the public elementary school throughout his formal education years as well as the private after school academy. Jimmy appears to excel in all of his coursework at the public school. His work reflects his understanding of the material and he is able to memorize very quickly, something that is highly valued in the school system that Jimmy attends.
Jimmy told me he is thirteen years old, stating his Korean age, as this system is widely used in Korea (Sudakov, 2013). Koreans say that during the first year of life, a baby is one year old, thus using ordinal numbers to count age (Sudakov, 2013). Other cultures use cardinal numbers to show how many years of life have been completed, as can be seen when people use months to describe a baby’s age (Sudakov, 2013). Some say this Korean way of counting age includes the time a person spends in utero (McCurry, 2019). It could also be due to an older system of counting where numbers started at one with the absence of a zero (McCurry, 2019). On the first day of the New Year, everyone adds one to their age (McCurry, 2019).
Jimmy’s Korean age is thirteen years old, his Western age being either eleven or twelve. He is a Korean student in sixth grade at a public elementary school in Seoul. He is an only child and lives with his two parents near the school. Both of his parents are teachers. Jimmy’s mother is a mathematics teacher at an elementary and middle school. Jimmy’s father teaches English at the high school level, so this has placed a level of importance on English in Jimmy’s life. The family speaks Korean the majority of the time at home, but Jimmy and his father will occasionally speak in English. In addition to this, Jimmy has cousins that live in Chicago, Illinois, USA. These cousins speak English and Korean, so Jimmy uses both languages to communicate with them. The ability to speak English with his father and cousins, along with the high emphasis of English education in the school system in Seoul, has pushed Jimmy to realize the importance of learning English as a second language, as stated by Jimmy when he said he needed to learn English (Personal Communication).
Part Two: Written and Oral Analysis
When I first listened to the oral sample, I thought that Jimmy’s English is comprehensible. However, it is clear that Jimmy does not understand all of the questions that I asked him, and he demonstrated limited vocabulary. I was a bit surprised, as Jimmy’s English level appears higher in class. I believe that Jimmy’s English level seems higher in class because we are in a context embedded situation, where the gestures, visuals, instant feedback, etc. help Jimmy more easily comprehend the material (Baker, 2011). During the interview, Jimmy and I sat down and talked in a context reduced environment, which was a bit more difficult for him as there was no supportive context (Baker, 2011). I see Jimmy two times each week as a student, and I believe this sample along with my observations in the classroom are good pieces of evidence of his English language abilities.
Korean consists of fourteen simple consonants, meaning that some English consonant sounds do not exist in Korean. When Jimmy was discussing his favorite classes, he said he liked “pysical education,” as the ‘f’ sound does not exist in Korean (Personal Communication). However, right before this Jimmy did correctly pronounce “physical” (Personal Communication). Therefore, Jimmy is capable of saying the ‘f’ sound, but because it does not exist in Korean he occasionally mispronounces it.
The Korean language, like many other Asian languages does not have articles, and Jimmy occasionally transfers this to his English, which typically happens for native speakers of Asian languages that do not have articles (Celcia-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman, 1999). For example, when I asked Jimmy about his home he stated that “home is apartment” (Personal Communication). However, in other instances Jimmy did use articles. He is aware of this difference but occasionally makes mistakes.
Prepositions do exist in Korean, but they exist as postpositions. Naturally, this would then be difficult for English learners, and “Prepositions are notoriously difficult to learn” (Celcia-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman, 1999, p. 401) When I asked him about his upcoming field trip, he said, “We will go Gyongju,” leaving out the ‘to.’ A possible explanation for this is that this type of preposition would be in a postposition to the word ‘Gyongju’ when spoken in Korean, as the postposition follows the noun in Korean (Celcia-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman, 1999). It is possible that Jimmy is somehow losing that part of the sentence if he is translating from Korean before speaking. The ‘to’ preposition seems to be difficult for many of the Korean students to master (Personal Communication).
In Korean, verbs do not conjugate according to number. Jimmy makes the mistake of not conjugating verbs correctly in English. When he told me about his family, of his mother, he said, “She teach math” (Personal Communication). Jimmy also said of his father that “He teach” (Personal Communication). Korean is a topic-prominent language which does not use subject-verb agreement. Subject-prominent languages, such as English, typically have subject-verb agreement. Therefore, learners of English with a topic-prominent L1 do not have the expectation of subject-verb agreement as they begin to learn English (Celcia-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman, 1999). So, “it is likely to take them longer to master subject-verb agreement in English than speakers of subject-prominent languages (Celcia-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman, 1999, p. 58). However, Jimmy did correctly conjugate other verbs. Therefore, I believe that Jimmy does understand the idea of subject-verb agreement, but he has not mastered it fully.
Nouns in Korean are made plural with a postposition, just like in English with the addition of ‘s.’ However, in most cases while speaking Korean the singular form will be used where the meaning is plural (Personal Communication). Jimmy may be transferring this way of speaking to English when he said that his father teaches “high school student” instead of ‘students’ (Personal Communication).
After examining the transcript in further detail, I noted that Jimmy hesitates quite a bit. For a few instances, I believe Jimmy did not understand what I was asking, and other times he was simply thinking over the question before he spoke. Jimmy uses the word ‘both’ correctly in some instances, and in others he used the word ‘together’ where ‘both’ would have been more appropriate (Personal Communication). These are separate and distinct words in Korean, so I think Jimmy simply made a mistake. Lastly, when I asked Jimmy why he studied English, he said “It’s need to me.” In this instance, I think Jimmy does not know the correct form of the word ‘need’ to use. He may simply have never learned the word ‘necessary.’
It is possible that Jimmy is translating from Korean to English in his mind before he speaks. This would explain a few of the errors that he makes. Jimmy does self-correct in class and he did so during the interview as well: “Little bit far. My home is a little bit far” (Personal Communication). When saying the answer of “Little bit far” in Korean, the subject would be implied. So, this answer would be understandable and acceptable by Korean speakers. Jimmy then self-corrected and gave an understandable and acceptable answer in English.
Jimmy’s writing sample is quite short, but still reflects a few errors that were made in the oral sample. For example, when Jimmy wrote about his family he said, “My family are,” and when he wrote about school he wrote, “My favorite subject is PE and math and science” (Personal Communication). These verb conjugation errors reflect his speech and may be due to the fact that Korean is a topic-prominent language as discussed above. Additionally, the distinction between count and noncount nouns does not exist in Korean. So, this could play a role in Jimmy’s “My family are” error.
Jimmy did not pluralize ‘subject’ when he wrote, “My favorite subject is PE and math and science” (Personal Communication). This also reflects his speech samples. Once again, this may be due to transfer, as Korean nouns are not always pluralized in speech even when they refer to plural items. Jimmy mistakenly pluralized ‘sports’ when he wrote, “My favorite sports is baseball” (Personal Communication). These errors show that Jimmy has not fully mastered the concept of pluralizing with ‘s’ in English.
Lastly, Jimmy incorrectly capitalized nouns in his writings (Personal Communication). Korean writing uses the Hangeul system which does not differentiate between capital and lowercase letters like the Roman alphabet. It is important to note, however, that Jimmy does not randomly capitalize letters but only capitalized a few nouns. This shows Jimmy has not yet mastered capital letters, but he is in the learning process of when to accurately use them.
Using the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, I would rate Jimmy as a Basic User A2 (“International language standards,” 2019). Jimmy is able to use “expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance,” and he “can communicate in simple and routine tasks” (Baker, 2011). Using the International English Language Testing System (only the scale, not the actual test) described in Baker, I would rate Jimmy as a Band 4 Limited User because his “competence is limited to familiar situations” (2011).
Part Three: Action Plan
Jimmy’s English is understandable even though he makes some errors. However, he needs more vocabulary and more practice to build up his cognitive/academic language proficiency (CALP). After analyzing Jimmy’s oral and written samples, I propose the following to help Jimmy improve his English skills: 1) Relevant classroom content with supplementary activities, 2) Reading books in English, 3) Practicing English with his father and family, and 4) Joining a community club.
First, I propose the classroom content be more relevant to Jimmy and his peers. When the material is more relevant to students, they will naturally be more interested (Reiss, 2012). The English curriculum spirals throughout the elementary school years, which benefits the students. However, there is little addition of new vocabulary each unit and many of the topics are irrelevant to the students. Jimmy needs more basic interpersonal communicative skills (BICS) so that he can communicate even further with others in English. The content of the classroom also needs to be supplemented with additional activities for listening, speaking, reading, and writing. The activities presented in the textbook are not challenging enough; they are too simple and do not require thinking skills. Students do not benefit from these low expectations, and instead will flourish more with activities that are more cognitively demanding (Reiss, 2012). Therefore, I propose that my co-teacher and I supplement the material with more differentiated tasks for Jimmy so that he is not bored in class and is challenged by the material. This will also help build up Jimmy’s CALP. For example, a recent unit focused on the past tense. The writing activities in the book did not connect well to the unit and simply had the students writing random sentences in the past tense. I proposed a postcard writing task for the students in order to give them a more concrete and demonstrable activity (Reiss, 2012). I brought in postcards that I had received from friends and family throughout the years. Students first looked through these postcards to find the words in the past tense. Students then wrote their own postcards using the past tense to describe their summer vacations. The students, including Jimmy, were enthusiastic about this activity, as it provided them an authentic writing exercise that also had them practicing the content of the lesson. Activities like this provide students with a context embedded situation that is cognitively demanding, as they find and use new vocabulary words.
Second, I propose that Jimmy read level-appropriate books in English. This will help Jimmy gain more English vocabulary and help him with his grammar. In the long run, reading will also help to build up background knowledge that will benefit him in the classroom (Reiss, 2012). Hickey describes how biliteracy helps develop “both oral languages in terms of, for example, vocabulary, automatic decoding, fluency, and positive attitudes” (2005). There are many leveled English books available in the city of Seoul at bookstores and libraries. This could also be integrated in the curriculum. Students could form book clubs and come together on a regular basis to discuss what they are reading in English. This would build their reading skills and grammar skills in English in a comfortable and supportive environment while keeping the students engaged in interesting content.
Third, I propose that Jimmy practice English more with his father and relatives. This will provide a safe space where Jimmy can practice English without fear of ridicule, something that prevents many Korean students from speaking English in and out of the classroom. This will give Jimmy more time to practice and build on his speaking and listening skills in English.
Lastly, I propose Jimmy join some sort of English speaking community group or club. Like speaking English with his father, this will provide Jimmy more opportunities to speak and listen to English. If Jimmy were to do this and build relationships with individuals, he will become more invested in English as it would be the means of communication between him and these individuals. There may not be many of these groups available in Seoul, as the expatriate community is quite a small percentage of the population. However, there is an abundance of private academies that teach English, one of which Jimmy attends on a daily basis. This is a step in the right direction to building his English skills.
Part Four: Presentation of Findings
I chose to present my findings to Jimmy’s homeroom teacher because she and I co-teach English classes with Jimmy. We are slowly building a good rapport, as we teach together two times a week and strive to strike a balance while co-teaching. It is a slow process, as I do not speak Korean and her English language skills are not very high. When I first approached the teacher to tell her I would be interviewing Jimmy, she asked if I would share my experience and findings with her. During a free period, I shared my findings and recommendations with the homeroom teacher. We discussed the recommendations and both agreed that while they are appropriate, it is difficult for us to differentiate so much in the classroom when there is a very wide range of English language skills in the classroom of twenty-five students. A few days after this discussion, the homeroom teacher told me that we would no longer teach together, and from then on, the class would be split by level and I would be teaching the higher level, the class that Jimmy would now participate in.
The units address reading, writing, speaking, and listening, but in a shallow and artificial manner; Students are generally expected to memorize dialogues, and there is no formal assessment. With a smaller, more advanced group, I am now able to bring in more realistic material to supplement the textbook, which I was told is to be strictly followed in each class. With this group, I am now able to cover the material much more quickly. Therefore, I have begun to supplement the content with additional vocabulary and activities. The activities are more realistic, for example practicing phone conversations and discussing symptoms with a doctor.
Part Five: Self Evaluation and Reflection
I believe that I served as a positive and effective advocate for Jimmy. I shared my findings with Jimmy’s homeroom teacher, and the classroom dynamics were changed after our conversation. Jimmy, along with the other students in my group, participates in class and does not seem as bored as he was before when he already knew all the material. I am hopeful that the changes will benefit Jimmy and his peers; however, I am disappointed that the other half of the class no longer has an opportunity to spend time with a native English speaker in the classroom. Additionally, tracking the students in this way may not be beneficial to all students. In schools where students are not tracked, studies have shown that those students outperform those who go to schools where they are tracked (Percell, 2010). Students in the higher levels of tracking are typically directly instructed about creativity and critical thinking, both of which I tried to do with my students (Percell, 2010). The other students were not instructed in this way, and instead were instructed to memorize and recite lines in English.
This case study has allowed me to delve deeper into the skill set of English language of one of my Korean students. This has prepared me to help Jimmy and other students improve their English while enhancing my teaching skills and working within the curriculum. In the future, I could improve this process by interviewing the parents and teachers of my class. It would be beneficial to the students to discuss their funds of knowledge as well and bring this into the classroom, thus making English learning more relevant. Additionally, it would also be beneficial to have a discussion about tracking with the other English teachers.
Baker, C. (2011). Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. Bristol:
International language standards. (2019). Retrieved from
Celce-Murica, M. and Larsen-Freeman, D. (1999). The Grammar Book (2nd Edition). Heinle &
Hickey, T.M. (2005) “Second Language Writing Systems: Minority Languages and Reluctant Readers.” Second Language Writing Systems, edited by Vivian James. Cook and Benedetta Bassetti. Multilingual Matters.
McCurry, J. (2019). South Korea mulls ending arcane age system to match rest of world. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/02/south-korea-mulls-ending-arcane-age-system-to-match-rest-of-world
Percell, C.H. (2010). “Social class and educational equality.” Multicultural education: Issues and perspectives (7th Edition), edited by J. A. Banks & C. A. Banks. Wiley.
Reiss, J. (2012). 120 Content Strategies for English Language Learners (2nd Edition). New York: Allyn & Bacon.
Sudakov, D. (2013). In Korea, all children are older than their European peers. Retrieved from http://www.pravdareport.com/society/125145-korea_children/
Please check the Methodology and Language for Primary course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Methodology and Language for Secondary course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the How to Motivate Your Students course at Pilgrims website.
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