Speaking 한국어 to one student helped me to engage with many more

New Zealand Graduating Teacher Standard 6.d

Graduating Teachers promote a learning culture which engages diverse learners effectively.

I speak Korean. I don’t speak the language particularly well, but alongside living in the country for four years I also attended night classes at Seoul National University. As a result of my study I can read and write 한글, the Korean alphabet Hanguel, and can also hold up a basic conversation. Since I moved back to New Zealand a few years ago, my Korean has largely laid dormant, except when I was ordering food at Korean restaurants and very occasionally at my previous job.

However at my current placement I get to speak Korean every day. There are a number of teachers visiting my current school to study about the New Zealand education system (which has a very different pedagogy from the Korean one). I love surprising the visitors when I start speaking to them in Korean as I’m usually the first non-Korean they’ve met who will natter away in 우리 말 (our language).*

If you had walked into the classroom yesterday, when the student-led conferences were taking place, you would have heard languages from across the globe being spoken not only by the students and their families but also by my Associate Teacher and I. Obviously my speaking the family language changed the tenor of the relationship between myself and the parent and student but what was surprising was that this relationship also changed the relationship of the other children.

The students were curious as to why I could speak ‘student A’s language.’  They didn’t say it, but the learners undoubtedly noticed that while ‘student A’ is Korean I am not. My current placement is a really multi-cultural school so the pupils are well accustomed to the idea that some children speak different languages at home than they do at school. But I’m guessing that the kids know that immigration is the reason behind people speaking more than one language as the rates of second language learning in  New Zealand, especially of non-European languages, is quite poor. So it is hardly surprising that the idea that a Pakeha teacher who obviously grew up speaking English could also speak an Asian language would be something that piqued the children’s curiosity.

I explained that I had to study very hard to learn Korean but I really enjoyed it and hopefully one day I will speak Korean as well as ‘student A’ speaks English. Hopefully as a result of this encounter the students who grew up speaking English in their households might be open to the possibility of learning another language in the future. But more importantly the students saw a teacher learning which is perhaps the most powerful lesson of all, you never stop learning.

*Koreans typically express possession in the plural, ‘our mother,’ ‘our language,’ ‘our country.’

7 thoughts on “Speaking 한국어 to one student helped me to engage with many more

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  1. And a teacher acknowledging a student’s expertise. That’s a very powerful technique too, especially when it is as genuine as the way that you expressed your hope that one day you might speak Korean as well as your student speaks English.


    1. Thanks for stopping by Anna. I always find myself in awe of the number of multilingual people in Europe. It makes me feel very lazy as I didn’t bother to learn another language until I had to!


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