Skip to content ↓

December 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 6

ISSN 1755-9715

Native or Second Language Speakers, It Makes No Difference

Lyman McLallen lived in Korea for over twenty years and worked as professor at Kyungnam University, Korea University, and Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, and as a copy editor at THE KOREA TIMES. He lives in Memphis, Tennessee. Email:



An earlier version of this essay appeared in THE KOREA TIMES on March 3, 2017.


People all over the world are in a rush to learn English and have been for more than a century. So much so, second language speakers of English now outnumber native speakers by more than 3 to 1.

No sooner do Korean children barely acquire their own language ― mostly by the time they turn three or four years old ― many of them begin learning English at private academies in small classrooms with small chairs and small desks to fit their small little selves, frequently from teachers who are native speakers but not always.

Typically, small Korean children start by learning a few English words for everyday objects. They start learning about verbs (“action words”) then slowly begin to grasp the rudiments of word order so they can make sense of simple phrases in English. Also, they start becoming familiar with the peculiar pronunciation of English and getting it into their voices. This is the start of their lifelong pursuit of English fluency.

Grammarians tend to make students conjugate verbs, sometimes for the whole class. They force them to memorize the meanings of endless lists of words even most native speakers of English find difficult to pronounce, awkward to use, and never hear in every day speech. All the while, the students sit in fear that their native and “ungrammatical” variants of the language they use outside of school will slip out of their mouths in front of the teacher. 

Having a sound sense of grammar is important, but learning it shouldn’t be drudgery, because it’s not a question of what’s right or wrong, but what people understand, what works. 

If students were to master the high standard of English the grammarians espouse and foist on them, will this qualify them for success in the world of commerce, science, and in the professions? When they need to get their car fixed, will formal English help them communicate more effectively with their mechanic?

Why should they spend their time learning the flourishes of diction, tone, cadence, highfaluting vocabulary and the so-called “proper” grammar so they can speak, write, and think in this exalted standard? So they can converse exquisitely on the golf course with their golfing partners? Probably, they could spend the time reading novels for the joy of it, or going to the movies or singing rock and roll songs. Or they could meet with their friends and decide to talk among themselves in English without thinking about making their speech textbook perfect.

If there is a standard of the language that is superior to all other accents and dialects, what is it? Could it be in the voices of newscasters in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, or Milwaukee, Wisconsin? Maybe it's the speech of prosperous Mercedes-Benz and Cadillac salesmen in Dallas, Texas, or celebrity plastic surgeons on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

Listening to others, we instinctively notice if somebody is phony in their speech, “putting on airs,” as you hear people say when a person is trying to be somebody they aren’t. It’s like they’re wearing a mask that doesn’t fit right and everybody can see it but them.

Obviously, everybody knows how to listen and speak, but it’s not formal, mannered, and spelled out in grammar and composition books. There is more to it than just “knowing the rules” if these rules are any good to begin with. Students should cultivate good English not to merely make high test scores or impress others with their finery of speech.

The best ways to speak and write should come from constantly reading and listening to good speakers talking about engaging subjects you can listen to on broadcasts of PBS, TED, and the BBC you can readily find on YouTube.

Tagged  Voices 
  • ELT in Korean Primary Schools: Three Common Methods
    Yoo Jimin, South Korea;John Breckenfeld, USA

  • Korean English Language Education: My Experience Learning English
    Minjeong Namkung, South Korea

  • When Experience Is Silenced...
    Quinton Stephen, South Korea

  • Native or Second Language Speakers, It Makes No Difference
    Lyman McLallen, USA

  • How to Motivate Lower-level Students in Korean EFL Context
    Kyungsook Kim, South