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October 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 5

ISSN 1755-9715

A Foreign Professor's Perspective of Teaching English in South Korea

Bio Date: Christopher Irvin received his Masters in the Art of Teaching from Northeastern University in 2009. He has spent the last six years teaching mainly freshman and sophomore students at Dankook University - Cheonan campus a variety of English courses. Before that, he taught kindergarten to eighth grade students at a private institute in South Korean. He is interested in helping Korean students develop their English abilities while broadening his own understanding of Korean culture in order to design better curriculums. Email:



Over the past thirty years, English education in South Korea has been prioritized as a way to make the nation more globalized. Thus it seems natural that the Korean government, public schools, and private institutions would identify Native Speaking English Teachers (NESTs) as crucial to the long term success of this goal. In fact since 1990 the number of foreign teachers continued to grow. The creation of the Korean American Educational Commission in 1992 initially established a well-qualified group of teachers, and the explosion of recruiters to hire foreigners to teach English students (Sim, 2014) would make it seem that the situation is advantageous for both foreign teachers and their Korean students.

The main goal of this paper was to explore and discuss the current landscape of English education in Korea through the perspective of a Native English Speaking Teacher who arrived in Korea in 2010 and who has personally experienced the shift in English education throughout the nation. However, in order to reach this aim it is important to understand that alongside the boom of foreign teachers in South Korea there has been academic discourse trying to determine,, "Native or Non-Native: Who's Worth More," (Medgyes, 1992). As a result, it would be necessary to investigate the current situations for both Native English Speaking Teachers (NESTs) and Non-Native English Speaking Teachers (NNESTs). In order to do this, a brief summary of the history of English education in South Korea will be followed by a discussion delving into the experiences of today's foreign and native English teachers in Korea before concluding with some suggestions moving forward.


Brief history of English education in South Korea

In order to gain a deeper understanding of today's current English education landscape, it is beneficial to know the foundations of English education in Korea. The first English education in Korea happened in 1883 with institutes created specifically for global trade and diplomatic reasons (Chang, 2009). This was followed by other programs to, "cultivate young talented persons," in order to help the country prosper (Chang, 2009, p. 85). Yet, it was during the Japanese colonization of South Korea from 1910 to 1945 that striking changes were made to the educational system. At that time, the "Grammar-Translation Method" was adopted and would become the norm of Korean English education until the 1990's (Kown, 2000, p. 49; Park, 2012).

The Korean government began to develop their own educational policies starting with the "1st National Educational Curriculum (NEC)" in 1953 (Chung & Choi, 2016, p. 7) The first five of these national curriculums maintained the Grammar-Translation Method introduced during the Japanese colonization but with more influence from American ideologies (Park, 2012). The 6th NEC of 1995 saw a dramatic shift from the Grammar-Translation Method to a "Communicative Approach" (Kown, 2000; Chung & Choi, 2016). The main goal of this teaching methodology was to place a greater emphasis on fluency rather than accuracy, a focus on comprehension rather than production, a shift in the way books were produced, and included more weekly hours of English instruction required by the government (Chung & Choi, 2016). When the 7th NEC came into practice during the early 2000’s the Communicative Approach was kept along with policies such as the Teach English through English (TEE) and the establishment of the English Program in Korea (EPIK) to recruit native English speaking teachers (Park, 2012). These policies changes have directly affected the current conditions for both NESTs and NNESTs, therefore the next sections of this paper will investigate and discuss the situations for both foreign and native English teachers in South Korea.


Foreign English teachers in South Korea

Today’s Native English Speaking Teachers in South Korea seem to be confronting many of the same labels and stereotypes that began in the 1990’s and have continued into the 21st century. Early dialogue centered mainly on the positives that could be realized from employing a native speaker as an English teacher in a foreign country. To some researchers these educators set a gold standard as the ultimate arbitrators of the language simply by being born in a country where English was the native tongue (Braine, 1999; Braine, 2010; Kirkpatrick, 2010; Walkinshaw & Duong, 2014). This gave these foreign teachers a particular skill set which was greatly valued and could not be easily replicated by the native teachers in the country of employment. Specifically, the oral skills such as proper pronunciation and corrective language were seen as excellent abilities which could be shared and given to their pupils (Mahoob, 2004; Walkinshaw & Duong, 2014). Added to this, there was a desire in the foreign countries to learn about the homelands of these native speakers. The instruction of language through culture was another capability which the foreign teacher could utilize as a great strength (Mahoob, 2004).

Within the Korean context, this set of skills would have been very important with the shift to the Communicative Approach in the 6th and 7th NECs. However, it is also important to recognize the personality and teaching pedagogical strengths which native teachers bring to the Korean classroom. The first aspect that should be noted is that NESTs and NNESTs tend to have different proficiency levels and teaching practices (Medgyes, 1994) which was affirmed to be true within the Korean setting by the work of Chun (2015). The second important feature is in general a majority of Korean students find foreign teachers’ instruction styles to be, “open and free” (Chun, 2015, p. 19). The last point to consider is the ability with which a foreign teacher is able to implement rapport attributes, delivery attributes, and curriculum approaches and choices to create a safe and beneficial classroom atmosphere within a Korean school environment (Barnes & Lock, 2013). Considering the information above it can be surmised that NESTs should be able to use their entertaining and positive approaches to build relationships with their students; implement their biological advantages and experiences to distribute a wealth of practical knowledge to their learners; and develop rich programs which can easily be differentiated to support any person in need while showcasing the expertise of knowing what information is the most important and valuable. However, this is not always happening and some have argued that the reason for this is the negatives outweigh the positives. Therefore, let us examine what is the negative side of foreign teachers in South Korea.

Nearly as soon as the 6th NEC was implemented, the EPIK program was created, and the need for Native English Speaking Teachers seemed to be at its height, so to came the criticism that the people coming to teach were not qualified. Even in 1992, Medgyes suggested there was an important distinction being born in a country and speaking a language compared to teaching that language. Yet, these initial Korean programs prioritized the ability to speak English as the main requirement which led some researchers to find that schools in Japan and South Korea started to oppose the hiring of NESTs due to lack of qualifications (Brutt-Griffler & Samimy, 1999). Even in more recent years, Korean schools, institutes, and companies are still struggling with a lack of qualified teachers, but also have suggested that a lack of cultural awareness is another major issue (Chun, 2014). One potential cause for this shortage of competent teachers could be related to the nature of teaching in South Korea and the individual persons’ motivation for working here. It has been suggested that some of the people who end up finding employment in Korean schools are, “Stuck between a child and an adult” (Collins & Shubin, 2015). This is related to the fact that many people who come to teach in Korea are recent graduates who may not have studied teaching but are hired because they know English. Added to this, their main motivation could be related more to life experience or travel rather than educating Koreans or gaining work experience for themselves. Compounding this, the contract they sign could be for a single year which results in great turnover and many people being, “One and done.” For almost the past decade, this cyclical nature of bringing new teachers in has been observed first-hand. Yet in more recent years, the changes by schools, institutions, and companies to increase the level of qualification and prior experiences by foreign individuals seeking teaching positions at all levels has also been witnessed. However, the cultural differences and conflicts that foreign teachers experience in South Korea leads to many of the challenges and difficulties faced in the classroom today and should be explored more. 

The Confucian ideology has found its way into all aspects of Korean society, including education (Park, 2012). Therefore, it would seem natural that someone coming to South Korea to teach English would take it upon themselves to learn about the cultural differences, or at least would find ways to adapt once in the country and teaching their students. However, several researches have determined that this is not happening in certain aspects of teaching leading to tension. One example of this is the hardship that certain native teachers can have when attempting to teach grammar to Korean students (Walkinshaw & Duong, 2014). The former Grammar-Translation Approach can still be found in the instruction of grammar principles to Korean students which will utilize Korean or can be lost in translation when trying to use only English. One case in which this was viewed first-hand was the creation of separate Korean only grammar classes for middle school students to utilize aspects of the Grammar-Translation approach. This mode of instruction was seen as the best way to quickly and efficiently identify the knowledge needed for standardized tests. Another example of unexpected cultural pressure can be seen in the negatives consequences that come from foreign teachers asking questions due to their methodologies and lack of shared experiences (Mahoob, 2004). This is to suggest that the hierarchical status of the Confucian ideology not only puts the teacher at the head of the class, but also assigns rank amongst the students in the class based on age. Therefore, the Socratic Method or Think, Pair, Share teaching styles of Western schools can lead to uncomfortableness where learners feel fear of answering the question wrong or confusion of breaking the social norms which ultimately leads to silence or giving up (Park, 2012). The final example of cultural tension experienced by many NESTs is the lack of students’ first language (L1) along with a deficiency of understanding of Korea’s people or culture (Chun, 2015). Learning the second language is the primary goal and as noted previously adding a cultural element can make this process more exciting, but being able to utilize the L1 and having a basic level of Korean history and culture can make instruction easier and the class more enjoyable. The challenge for each individual coming to Korea is how much cultural assimilation they are willing to accept and peruse. However, it is important to note that each person will have their own experiences with varied outcomes while also noting that the help of a mentor, co-teacher, school, and the creation of a community will greatly benefit the foreign teacher (Sim, 2015).

At this point there should be a clearer understanding of the current situation of NESTs in South Korea. There appears to still be a place for them to bring their specific skill set into Korean classrooms to help their students develop a more communicative style built around a practical approach to increase confidence and build a greater working knowledge and skills that allow for conversations and cultural understanding of Western nations. However, moving forward foreign teachers are going to need to identify their own shortcomings while recognizing and adapting teaching techniques which show an appreciation and acceptance of Korean culture and its people. With this understood, it is now time to turn the attention to the native Koreans who are currently employed as English teacher.


Native English teachers in South Korea

Returning back to the 1990’s, it can be understood why native speakers were at first seen as the gold standard when it came to teaching English. After all they had been born in that country and spoken that language all their lives. However, an opposing viewpoint argued that Non-Native English Speaking Teachers were not inferior as some had suggested, but in fact could have a greater effect or benefit to the learners because of their shared experience of learning English as a Second Language (Medgyes, 1992). Thus by the late 1990’s you had researchers going against the preconceived notion that NESTs were better simply because they were born into a country speaking English by creating the term, “The Native Teacher Fallacy” (Canagrarajah, 1999, p. 77). In addition, as the decades went by you had a larger number of people in these different countries being exposed to English more often and at a younger age while governments created programs to help improve their native teachers to be better equipped to teach English. Therefore, by the end of the 2000’s you had a growing number of qualified NNESTs who could teach English making NESTs less needed (Kirkpatrick, 2010). Additionally, more recent research has suggested that there could be a superficial preference towards NESTs by students when in reality the inclination is towards NNESTs which may require a rethinking of the entire system (Qian & Jingxia, 2016). Next, let us take time to explore how native Korean English teachers have experienced both positives and negatives when instructing the youths of this nation and interacting with the government regulations. 

With regards to teaching strengths and methods for NNESTs in Korea, Confucian ideology and previous experiences are crucial to their success. To begin, if it is true that if NESTs struggle with the “passive learning style” of Korean students (Park, 2012) then it can be assumed that native Korean teachers are used to this style. Numerous scholars would point to the shared learning experience of having to learn a second language to be one of the main reasons they can so easily relate to and understand what the learner needs or why they are struggling (Medgyes, 1992; Walkinshaw & Duong, 2014; Chun, 2015). Specifically because they grew up in this culture they are easily able to understand the role of the teacher in the classroom which allows them to avoid any hurdles related to the hierarchical relationships between themselves and the students in the class. Furthermore, having completed a similar learning journey, Korean teachers are able to pull from their prior experiences to quickly recognize troublesome areas in the materials and can develop student understanding through straightforward explanations. Additionally, the use of the L1 in the classroom is a huge advantage and positive for the Korean instructor (Walkinshaw & Duong, 2014). As a native English speaking teacher who has seen first-hand the use of Korean in the classroom to: explain directions, define or translate difficult words, describe grammar points, or clarify challenging linguistic concepts, it is believed that the use of the L1 is an excellent way to save time and check for understanding while allowing students to feel more comfortable by employing their native tongue to avoid shameful or stressful situations. Last, another great strength of NNESTs is their ability to make grammar easily accessible to their learners. Again, their prior experience of learning through the Grammar-Translation Approach and heavy emphasis on studying grammar has allowed the Korean teachers to deliver detailed explanations (Chun, 2015). This skill is especially important when preparing for the high-stakes standardized tests which South Korea is known for. However, shared experience, common L1, and teaching methodology has also led to some negative feelings amongst students and educators.

From a native English speaking teacher’s understanding, the quality and qualifications of Korean pre-service English teachers does not seem to be questioned like those of their foreign teaching counterparts. Instead, much of the discourse is directly related to the changes between the 5th and 6th NCEs. One of the reasons for this is the inclusion of the Teach English through English (TEE) initiative of the 6th and 7th NCEs (Park, 2012; Choi, 2015). According to the Ministry of Education Human Resource Development report of 2006, the aim of the policy was to have the means of instruction (MOI) for teaching English to reach 80% of the class time by 2001 (Choi, 2015, p. 202). However, this has created some difficulties. First, it has created the possibility of native Korean teachers to have similar situations as foreign teachers in regards to the clash of Confucian ideologies (Park, 2012). In particular, a shift to more “active” teaching styles can result in a disruption of the Confucianhierarchy. However, it is not believed that the ability to shift from the target language to the L1 could lessen the complications faced by Korean teachers. Second, two of the biggest perceived negatives of Korean students towards NNESTs were the amount of L1 used in the classroom and the heavy emphasis on studying grammar (Chun, 2015). It is thought that part of emphasis on grammar could be related to the prior experiences of the instructors along with the heavy emphasis on the standardized tests; however the study of monolingual versus bilingual instruction seems to be a highly contested issue in Korean education. Without question part of this discourse goes back to the standards set by the Ministry of Education, but another aspect is the dichotomy between pre-service and in-service teachers. This can be related to the fact that pre-service educators are being introduced to these ideas through their theoretical instruction and have shown to be more admittable to change compared to their in-service teachers (Lee, 2016). Thus, it is important to understand how the current best practices towards education can become a large part of one’s first educational philosophy. Yet, on the other hand, there has been an experienced group of in-service teachers who have practical knowledge of how a bilingual approach which utilizes the L1 because that is how they learned and how they can reach students on a similar level (Lee, 2016). Once again this is completely relatable to the case of one native English speaking teacher who experienced first-hand the hardships of putting theory into practice. The last reason relates specifically to the success of the 6th and 7th NCEs. Using the statistics of Yi (2010), 40% of parents felt the TEE scheme had an impact on improving students’ English proficiency while only 22% of teachers thought this was true (Choi, 2013, p. 204). In addition, the 7th NCE has already been revised three times since its adoption in 2000. These constant changes and special requirements only for native Korean teachers of English has resulted in varied results with regards to earning TEE certifications and has resulted in many Korean in-service teachers feeling conflicted about their teaching methodologies and use of English in the classroom (Choi, 2013).

This section was dedicated to the understanding of the experience of a native Korean English teacher. Similar to their foreigner teacher counterparts, these Korean educators have special skills which helps them in the acquisition of English by second language learners. In particular, their shared Confucian ideologies, common L1, and similar experiences of learning a second language make these educators extremely beneficial to the youth of Korea. In fact, the increased emphasis on training native Koreans to teach English has amplified the importance of creating strong policies and producing well-trained teachers. However, the system is not perfect yet. There are still questions about the amount of L1 used in the classroom and a cultural clash in teaching pedagogy and methodology related to the change from the Grammar-Translation to Communicative Approach has resulted some native in-service Koran teachers to change or adjust. Yet, the remaining question is where does English education in South Korea go from here?


Korean English education moving forward

Based on previous research, it is clear that current trends still emphasize that there are clear strengths and weaknesses for both NESTs and NNESTs in regards to the teaching of English as a second language (Chun, 2014; Walkinshaw & Duong, 2014). However, there are suggestions being made based on both teacher and student perceptions. For example, it has been recommended that Korean teachers should develop their own communicative teaching methods and utilize more student centered and problem solving activities while foreign teachers should try to make efforts to understand the cultural ideologies and norms of Korea (Park, 2012). Also, student responses on this topic have yielded the perspectives that NESTs should learn Korean, try to understand the people and culture of Korea, create a low anxiety environment, select easy topics when creating curriculums, and show more enthusiasm and consideration for the Korean understanding while NNESTs ought to aim to become less standardized with curriculum design including focusing less on just grammar or test based skills, improve pronunciations, build a more interesting and comfortable classroom which including utilizing more innovative teaching styles, and possibly take more time to study abroad to be aware of more practical usage of English and better appreciate Western cultures (Chun, 2015). The importance of these and future findings are crucial to success or failure of English education in South Korea because it gives a clear path of how both groups of teachers could unite together to aid one another to succeed.

The reason for this is related to the reality that the assets of one group perfectly match the deficiencies of the other group. Therefore, foreign teachers absolutely need to take time to develop a better understanding of Korea's culture and its people. Cultural assimilation will not only help them in their daily lives, but should result in them having a better working knowledge and compassion for the Korean students they are teaching. For example, many foreign teachers may have experienced first-hand the cultural clash that can occur when they have viewed a particular incident or created particular lessons or activities with only a Western perspective. These sorts of scenarios results in in misunderstandings, confusion, and hurt feelings, but over time and with an increased amount of cultural awareness the frequency of these sorts of situations can be decrease and easier to deal with.

Yet, as Sim (2015) suggested each person will have their own experience and having help can make the integration much easier. Thus, some of the onus does fall to the Korean government, institutes, schools, and companies. Continuing to strengthen the qualifications needed to secure employment in this country should result in a much more competent and serious work force, but also the assigning of mentors and the creation of strong communities is imperative (Sim, 2015). Furthermore, the separation and competitiveness which comes with the labels of NESTs and NNESTs should be tried to be replaced by a unified English teachers contingent nationwide. The pros and cons of each group have been clearly identified, so moving forward there should be a united collection of educators who work side by side to develop best practices which emphasizes the positives of both styles while allowing for easy implementation for both foreign and Korean teachers. Obviously, this will be a long term goal and process but it is suggested that a coming together of the two sides for candid conversations be an important first step.



The initial aim of this project started as a simple reflection of a native English speaking teacher’s personal experiences of being a foreign teacher of English in South Korea for nearly the past decade. Yet, it has become clear that the implementation of the 6th and the 7th NCEs and the switch from the Grammar-Translation to the Communicative Approach created difficulties for both foreign and Korean teachers (Park, 2012). Identifying these challenges and understanding the positives and negatives that NESTs and NNESTs bring to the classroom (Chun, 2014; Walkinshaw & Duong, 2014) became central to this paper.

However, the additional information regarding student feedback as a method to identify possible suggestions to improve foreign and native skills and methods (Chun, 2015) helped to shift this paper from today's experiences to tomorrow's changes. It was noted the importance of cultural assimilation of Korea by foreigners and the need for collaboration and unity rather than the segregation into two separate teams who are working only for themselves to be two key ways of improving English education in Korea for the foreseeable future. Without question it will be very challenging because there are several aspects of teaching to consider including rapport attributes, delivery attributes, and curriculum approaches and choices (Barnes & Lock, 2013). Plus, we are talking about a great number of teachers, administrators, entrepreneurs, and officials who have their own individual ideas and experiences while also coming from two completely different ideological backgrounds. Therefore, it is hoped that this research makes the context of the current situation more open for both foreign and Korean teachers while giving a starting point for conversations to be had about future changes and improvements to English education in South Korea.



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