Second Language Learning, Teaching, and Growing: My EFL Story

by Sohyeon Lee

It’s quite a journey to become a student again after two decades in the teaching field. You see, I dedicated ‘twenty years’ of my life to teaching English in a Korean EFL context: While nurturing a desire to delve into academia, the life of a working mom and the demands of teaching left little room for pursuing my dreams. As I delved deeper into refining my teaching practices, however, I felt a void in my heart, a sense that something vital was missing.

During those two decades, I observed how private English tutoring institutes, known as “hagwons,” often prioritized profit over genuine educational goals. While they employed effective L2 English teaching methods, they inadvertently spoiled both students and parents. For example, students who had acquired near-native pronunciation and speaking skills at English-speaking kindergartens often wouldn’t take public school English classes seriously and look down on Korean English teachers who have strong Korean accents. Students who take additional tutoring sessions after school for at least three hours every day would refuse to learn in classrooms as they have already learned all the materials in their hagwons. Besides, the gap between different proficiency levels, between those who haven’t been to hagwons and those who have been exposed to hagwons for many years, has increased even bigger. Unfortunately, these are just a few challenges that public school English teachers face, and the social phenomenon, known as “classroom collapse (“Gyosil Bung-gwae” in Korean) has led many Korean English teachers to avoid working in areas like Gangnam, infamous for its high-pressure education culture.

Going back to my own EFL learning and teaching story, my journey into the world of teaching began when I went abroad to the United States at the age of 16 and took an ESL English course for one year as I realized the stark differences in teaching methods. In 20th-century Korea, the period I learned English as a foreign language through public school education, grammar translation and audiolingual methods dominated classrooms, leaving little room for innovative approaches. To initiate positive change, I sought better teaching methods to make English learning more meaningful and communicative. Nonetheless, it didn’t take long for me to recognize that the missing link in our EFL teaching field was teaching students how to express themselves effectively in the target language, via speaking and writing, and assess their language skills through valid and reliable assessments. Although it’s astonishing that even in modern EFL contexts, grammar rule memorization and multiple-choice tests remain prevalent, I am also very aware that changing the curriculum and evaluation system is a complex challenge from my twenty years of experience in teaching fields. Nonetheless, I was determined to address this issue and find a feasible solution.

In pursuit of my goal, I secured a position at Seoul Global High School (SGHS), where I had more freedom in curriculum design and assessments. Teaching students how to write essays and deliver public presentations in English underscored the importance of teaching speaking and writing in an EFL context, despite the significant time and effort it demanded. Students were actively involved in their classroom tasks as they were learning not the usage, such as prescriptive grammar rules, but the use of the target language. Students also appreciated my effort praising how writing English essays and writing scripts for their presentations improved their critical thinking skills and how meaningful the process was.

Then, one day, I encountered an angry parent. “My daughter is reading Demian all day long! She is not studying at all!” The annoyed parent cried out during the parent-teacher conference on the phone. School opening was constantly being delayed because of the COVID-19 outbreak and I knew parents were even more worried seeing their children wasting their precious time at home not being properly educated at school. I tried to relieve the parent by saying that I always encourage my students to read for pleasure and that her daughter would improve both cognitive and affective skills while reading for fun. Nevertheless, she stopped me and uttered bluntly, “But it is not going to help my daughter get good grades for the university entrance exam.” I was devastated. At that moment, I had an epiphany realizing that it is not a particular student, parent, teacher, or even an education district’s problem that we are dealing with for L2 English education in Korea. It was a systemized swamp that dragged parents with complicated but often neither fair nor justifiable evaluation criteria that would have a big impact on their children’s future.  

After two meaningful years at SGHS, I embarked on an academic journey for my master’s degree course in the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa with countless questions in mind. How can Korean English teachers in general demonstrate the validity and reliability of their grading in essay writing and speaking skills to skeptical parents? How can Korean English teachers effectively teach L2 English productive skills when they may lack confidence due to their own past educational methods?

The first year of my MA journey was no cakewalk. Returning to student life after two decades proved challenging: learning statistics and coding in quant courses for language assessment, reading never-ending articles in tiny letters, and dealing with academic English writing felt like a formidable hurdle. Yet, every step I made was valuable, meaningful, and rewarding as I discovered that being a graduate student is a challenge even for native English speakers and even slow and not-so-perfect progress is still progress that I made. I’ve also found that my proficiency in Korean writing can be a valuable asset for English writing, and my experiences as an English teacher in an EFL context would provide me with different perspectives and insights for my own research field. 

Continuing this path, I found myself teaching intermediate English writing to international students at the University of Hawaii at Manoa from the semester of Fall 2023 through the graduate assistantship – a role I never imagined as an international student myself. Despite concerns about perfect native-like language proficiency, it’s heartening to discover my unique strengths and earn the appreciation of my students. Besides, I also realized how much I enjoy teaching and interacting with L2 English learners sharing my own experiences and tips for L2 English learning.

So, here I am, a Korean ‘ahjumma’ (a Korean word for a middle-aged woman), navigating the intricate dance of academia, teaching, and life. It’s a challenging journey, but it’s precisely these challenges that have reaffirmed my commitment to my initial dream of delving into academia and improving language education in EFL contexts. Just like an old but classic cliché, life isn’t meant to be easy all the time, and therein lies its beauty. In the world of teaching and learning, it’s these very challenges that shape us into educators who can provide more meaningful language learning experiences for students and convince parents in EFL contexts. As I continue this journey, I am reminded that every obstacle encountered is an opportunity for growth, and each challenge surmounted brings me one step closer to realizing the dreams I held dear from the beginning.