The Korean language is a member of the Altaic language family along with Japanese, Turkish, Manchu, and Mongolian. All of these languages have similar features: vowels are divided into two groups (either bright/positive aspects or large/dark negative aspects), and agglutination or combining several elements to make one meaning (i.e. to walk is said walk go).
Basic differences of Korean versus English:

  1. The Korean language does not have gender specific pronouns.
  2. The Korean language uses honorifics, which are markings for nouns/verbs to show the speaker’s formal/informal relationship to the listener.
  3. The Korean language has four levels of speech-polite formal, informal for daily talking, plain for speaking amongst friends, and an intimate style to indicate close friends or kids.
  4. The Korean language does not have definite or indefinite articles (like the or a).
  5. There are no specific plural consonant endings to show plural nouns from singular nouns, instead a plural interpretation is assumed by the context of the sentence.
  6. The Korean language has two words for I, we, and you. There is a collection of words for the third person pronouns (he/she/it/they), but there is no use of you in the second person pronoun. Most often speakers address others by their social roles, i.e. teacher.
  7. In Korean, adjectives function like verbs by taking on past tenses, conjunctives, and honorifics to change their meaning.
  8. Repeated consonants also emphasize the intensity of the noun, i.e. pain (word may end in s) versus very painful (word may end in two s’s).
  9. In the Korean language there are no modal verbs such as can, may, shall, or will.
  10. Korean demonstratives have three distinctions-this (near speaker), that (near hearer), and that (away from both speaker/hearer).
  11. English double negative questions confuse Koreans who respond to yes and no questions based on whether or not the question is true or false.
  12. The Korean language uses a different word order than English, subject-object-verb.

Additionally, the Korean writing system is one of the earliest phonetic writing systems invented in Asia. Each letter represents a sound or set of sounds and consonant sounds based on the shape of the human mouth. The writing system is comprised of forty symbols with ten basic vowels, fourteen simple consonants, twenty-one vowels, and nineteen consonants.

The Korean Student in the English Classroom

Korean students are generally quiet, avoid eye contact, and remain silent instead of initiating conversations with a superior, such as a teacher. In order to address an elder, a child will chose respectful words and may call the instructor “teacher” rather than calling them by their name. Using a superior’s name while speaking to them face to face is seen as extremely disrespectful. Korean children also avoid telling a teacher that they do not know an answer when called upon or do not understand class material. They have been brought up to believe that it is their own responsibility to learn the information and if they are misunderstanding that they are at fault or incompetent to learn the knowledge presented to them. Besides, admitting to struggling with the material in Korean could directly insult the teacher and embarrass the student in front of the class.

The Korean Parent
Parents believe that education is the best predictor of their children’s future success. With decreasing jobs, and an increase in the industry and technology fields it is necessary for the beliefs of Korean parents that children have a proper education to enter into a competitive workforce. Education is seen as a future advancement to a higher social status, and many parents are very willing to provide payment to tutors to help their children be successful in their academics.

Korean parents typically support school, understand the necessity of parent involvement, and praise their children for achieving high academic marks. Grades between families are often shared and can be seen as a reflection of the family’s reputation. Korean students are encouraged to succeed as they are achieving goals for not only themselves but for their families as well. This puts an enormous amount of pressure on the student as they try to succeed academically.

Korean Skills Useful in Learning to Read the English Language
Certain elementary skills will be able to be transferred by Korean students to reading and understanding English. Although Korean and English are hardly similar languages (differences between shapes/sounds of letters and grammar/spelling), if Korean students are cognitively adept to read one language they will be able to read a second.
Transferable Skills:

  • The ability to analyze a word into distinct individual sounds.
  • Understanding that letters represent sounds in a word.
  • Understanding that letter names offer clues about the sounds of the letter/words.
  • The knowledge to punctuate and capitalize sentences (This is the same in Korean and English)
  • Both the Korean and English language has similar relationships between synonyms, homonyms, antonyms, metaphors, and paraphrasing.

Beginning Language Development in English
Language learners can gain a better understanding of the language by being introduced to English as soon as they enter the school system. The environment for these students is a positive, instructional atmosphere providing Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills (BICS) in English, normal cognitive/academic subjects with emotional/social development included.

School situations offering communicative-based ESL, focusing on language use, and sheltered English instruction, modeling speaking in the second language, is most effective to help students learn Basic English skills. Both of these programs provide learners with lots of input and interaction between students.

Reading Levels for Korean Students
Korean children begin to read and write in the first grade; learning Chinese characters in the seventh grade. Korean schools do not emphasis writing composition typically because of the large class sizes (about fifty students) and the Korean children are not encouraged to express their own opinions in their writing. Traditionally, students imitate works from classical writing instead of creating their own. Instead of focusing on the originality of work, Korean schooling rewards students’ behavior and respect in the classroom and their ability to answer questions correctly.

Formal English education begins in the first year of junior high school (seventh grade). Emphasis is placed on grammar, reading comprehension, direct interpretation, and analyzing sentence structure in preparation for college entrance exams. Typically, composition and conversation are not a significant part of the English education.

Introducing Reading to the Korean Student
Before introducing English, students must be able to have a basic auditory understanding: blending sounds, matching words with the same sound, and breaking down compound words into smaller segments. They must be able to identify letter shapes, letter names and sounds. It is also important that they can understand the position of the vowels in sentence structure that is differs from the Korean language. Practicing sounding out and connecting meaning to the words can increase oral competence in English.

Involving Parents, Educators, and Community
Parents should be encouraged to support their child’s language development in either language-Korean or English. Even if the primary language of the Korean family is Korean, Korean children learn basic language skills helpful in either language and will enhance their own English development through social/school interactions.

Parents and Educators can benefit from understanding both cultures, increasing a positive orientation between the two. Simple cultural differences and mannerisms: avoiding eye contact, pressure to succeed for family reputation, can be understood by each and maintained at the same time Korean students learn American social behaviors. It is also important to encourage a bicultural approach that incorporates both cultures’ values instead of having the idea that one culture will need to substitute their values for another.

Educators can establish personal contact and private contracts (keeping sensitive discussions confidential about their children) that can develop trust and a connection between the parents and the school system. This contact could be useful in encouraging parent/child involvement, understanding the importance of American school extra curricular activities (which parents see is separate from school teachings), and educating parents on American schools procedures. Education courses could also be organized to teach: language development programs, develop home activities to involve parents, and provide opportunities for parents to study English or learn cultural pressures that they and their children may encounter in the United States. Schools could provide: informational phone line in other languages about upcoming school events or organize cultural activities to interest parent involvement. These could range from Korean culture day, Asian Heritage Week, or other ethnic groups dominant in the school system.

The community could provide resources to enhance parent/child activities and offer Korean language schools for educators to learn about the Korean culture and community.

California State Department of Education Office of Bilingual Bicultural Education. (1983). A Handbook For Teaching Korean Speaking Students. Los Angeles: Evaluation, Dissemination and Assessment Center.

California Department of Education Bilingual Education Office. (1992).Handbook for Teaching Korean-American Students. Sacramento: California Department of Education.

The University of Michigan’s Korean Language Program:
Offers links to Korean studies programs worldwide and links specific to Korean culture and language. The site even has a list of Korean search engines.

North Korea & South Korea: An Annotated Directory of Internet Resources:
A well organized reference page for online resources about Korea.

Korean American Historical Society:
This website is dedicated to documenting Korean American history.

Korean History Project: Where the Past is Always the Present:
Educational organization which relates Korean history on the web in an innovative fashion.

Korea Web Weekly:
This is an “independent, non-partisan, FREE web on all things Korean including her history, culture, economy, politics and military.”

Korean Governement Homepage:
Provides information on Korean government, economy, culture, and current issues.

Websites Worth Surfing
Korea for Kids:
This website has downloadable activities for students and resources for teachers.

The Korea Society Home Page:
Includes a number of lesson plans for teachers including: Teaching More About Korea: Lessons for students in grades K-12, Korea: Lessons for Elementary School, Social studies lessons for elementary and high school students, Korean Voices: Growing Up During a Time of Crisis, Lessons in literature for middle school students, Lessons in geography, history and economics.

Additional Reading
Fenkl, H. I. & Lew, W. K. (2001). Kori: The Beacon Anthology of Korean American Fiction. Boston. MA: Beacon Press

Hyun, P. (1995). In The New World: The Making Of A Korean American,.University of Hawaii Press, 1995.

Lee, P. M. (1990). Quiet Odyssey: A Pioneer Korean Woman in America.Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1990.

The Korea Society. (2002). Getting to Know Korea: Resource Book for K–12 Educators. Can be read online at http://www.koreasociety.org/