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For ESL Teachers in Korea: Marge’s Guide to Common Errors Made by Korean ESL Students

This is proof positive that I’ve been at my job too long.  While the kids took a test yesterday and today, I made a list of all the mistakes that they keep making over and over again.  If you aren’t an ESL teacher, particularly an ESL teacher in Korea, you might as well stop reading now, because this list is going to put you to sleep.  Actually, it might put you to sleep anyway.  Unless you enjoy rehashing the funny to mildly infuriating mistakes that Koreans learning English seem to make time and again.

1. Writing in “a” before an adjective
I get it.  Articles (a/an/the) are incredibly difficult for Koreans to learn, because Korean doesn’t have any.  They either don’t use them often enough, or they get “article happy” and put them everywhere.  Sentences such as the following one are prime examples of how Korean students have a tough time learning where to use articles appropriately.  “Teacher, you are a beautiful today.”  I am a beautiful what?  A beautiful woman?  I beautiful beacon of educational light?  Help me out here, guys.

2. Inability to pronounce words ending in -tch/-ch/-sh
I suspect this one has to do with the way the Korean language is written.  Generally speaking, the Korean alphabet, Hangeul, is quite easy and practical.  It has certain limitations, though, and it doesn’t cope well with a consonant and “h” smashed together.  Most students like to say “Englishy” instead of “English.”  That’s because if Koreans write English phonetically in Hangeul, it ends with “쉬” which sounds like “shee.”  I think it has more to do with how they visualize English in their mother tongue than it has to do with not being able to pronounce it.  They don’t have a problem when I remind them how to do it.

3. Overuse of “do”
Again, I suspect the reason for this has to do with the mother language.  Most Korean verbs end with “하다” which is the Korean for “do.”  For example, the Korean verb for “think” is “생각하다.”  It literally means “think do.”  Not all verbs are like this, but most of them are.  That’s why Koreans are always saying “ham-nee-da” at the end of sentences.  As a result of the Korean overuse of “do,” they tend to translate that directly into English.  I try to break them of this habit, but it’s hard.

4. Capitalization
Holy moly, this makes me insane.  I honestly don’t think that most Korean teachers know when to capitalize and when not to.  Again, Korean doesn’t have capital letters, as such, so the kids have to get used to seeing it.  In my opinion, the best way to conquer this issue is to beat it into them early on.  I let my little ones get away without capitalizing for the first book, and then I start after them.  Korean kids are super-competitive on tests and things, so if you start docking them points for missed capitalization, they will learn.  All it takes is one failed test because of it, and they will rarely forget after that.

I guess this particular peeve has more to do with how we teach them than the students themselves.  They can’t learn it if it isn’t enforced, and capitalization of proper names and first letters of sentences is crucial to good punctuation.  I really wish that the Korean teachers would start in on them about this.  Even my boss, who is an excellent grammarian, fails on this one.  He doesn’t care, and the kids don’t capitalize on his tests, but they know better in my class.  This is probably one instance where simple memorization can be the greatest aid – and Koreans are good at nothing if not memorizing gobs of information.

5. There/they’re/their
I think I went over this in my second post about things that make me angry.  One is an adverb, one is a contraction of a subject pronoun and a verb, and the other is a possessive pronoun.  I keep teaching these over and over again, but kids seem to have a hard time actually thinking about what they’re writing.  I ask them if a possessive pronoun would be appropriate where they’ve put it.  They look at me like I’m nuts until I write it out in Korean, and then they laugh.  I probably shouldn’t beat them down too much on this one because honestly, most Americans don’t know either, and that is a sad commentary on the use of the English language today.  I will weep for my country if the Koreans start writing English better than we do.

6. F/P, B/V, J/Z, and R/L sounds
I think most everyone knows that native Asians have a hard time with the “R” and “L” sounds.  I don’t know about China and Japan, so I won’t speak for them, but I’m almost tempted to say that this stereotype was born in Korea.  Korea has one character for R and L.  Both of the sounds exist in Korean, but I never know when to use which sound.  It’s something you just have to know, and I’d be willing to bet that it varies from region to region.

The misuse of R and L in Korean has everything to do with where their tongues are in their mouths.  English “R” is not aspirated.  The tongue tends to stay mostly flat when making this sound.  The “L” sound is formed by touching the tongue to the teeth.  The Korean sounds do neither of these.  The tongue tends to move up and down, and it is really hard for students to stop moving their tongue around for “R.”

The “F” sound doesn’t exist in Korean, so instead of the kids calling you “fat,” you’re more likely to hear “pat.”  Everything with an F sound is translated as a “P” or “H” sound.  Instead of “Fanta,” they say “Hu-an-ta.”  The same is true of “V” and “B” – V is most often written as a B in Korean.  F and V are related, as they are both formed with the teeth.  A good trick to use on your students involves making them touch their finger to their front teeth.  Try to have them say “F” and “V” sounds without their lips touching their teeth.  They won’t be able to do it if their lips keep touching their fingers.  It’s a good way to train them into the proper mouth position.

There is also no “Z” sound in Korean, so “zoo” becomes “Jew.”  I never have figured out a good way to help them over this one except practice.  The younger you get them, the better.  The little ones catch right on, in my experience, but the older ones who haven’t been made to practice have a massively tough time getting the sound out.

7. Reading numbers and years
I think this tends to be tough for any language learner.  Koreans tend to mix up the “-teen” and “-ty” sounds, so I honestly never know if they mean 13 or 30.  I often have to have them tell me the number in Korean before I know for certain, and that leads to an impromptu number lesson, which they hate.

Also, Koreans don’t count quite like we do.  English numbers are shockingly easy to read, once you practice a little bit, but Korean isn’t.  Anything above 10,000 (만) tends to be fairly annoying, as they start multiplying to get the higher numbers.  All higher numbers seem to be based on 10,000, particularly if you’re talking about money.  They have a hard time reading English and have to go back through and divide it down.  Still, once they get onto it, most of them seem to agree that English is actually a bit easier.

8.Changing subject pronouns for object pronouns
This one drives me nuts.  “Teacher, me go house.”  In spoken Korean, they don’t tend to indicate whether or not it’s a subject or an object.  Korean does have subject and object markers, called particles (는,은,를,을,etc.) and they use them, but mostly they use them for writing.  As a result, I and me are essentially interchangeable in spoken Korean, which obviously isn’t the case in English.  It’s very, very difficult to break them of this habit.  They also like to use subject pronouns in place of possessive pronouns.  You can figure it out, but it can get old after a while.

9. “To house” vs. “home”
Korean kids don’t get the concept of “home,” an adverb which is so handy that it encompasses “to.”  I’m going home.  Korean students say, “I go to the home,” “I go to the house,” or “I’m going my house.”  They’re all almost right, but they almost never hit on the exact combination and correct usage of “home.”  I keep reminding them, and every day, they screw it up.

10. The “th” sound
Most foreigners learning English have a tough time with this one.  I honestly can’t think of another language off the cuff that even has this sound.  All European languages that I’ve learned and know a thing about don’t have it.  I don’t know of an East Asian language that has it.  I’m sure there is another language out there that does have it, but I couldn’t tell you what it is.  Germans and French tend to say “ze” instead of “th.”  Koreans say “d.”  “Teechur, I go to duh how-suh.”  They have a lot of fun practicing it, because it requires you to stick your tongue out and practically spit on everyone.  I have a kid with an underbite so bad that she can’t close her mouth, though, and it is tragic trying to listen to her say this sound.

Are you bored out of your skull yet?  Why did you keep reading, non-English teacher?  I don’t really know why I wrote this, except to maybe help new ESL teachers who are fresh off the boat figure out some of the things that students tend to have the most difficulty saying and writing.  Sometimes, it honestly feels like a losing scenario, since most foreign teachers get discouraged after such a time, and most Korean teachers are often guilty of the same speaking and writing problems.  Still, I think it helps to know what the basic issues are and some possible remedies.  I’d love to hear of any teacher that has figured out a great way to teach the “Z” sound, because that one is still evading me.