Imagine this same girl, except 12 years older. Image via Aclipse

For the past two months, I’ve been a teacher’s assistant for two university English classes. These classes are not your typical mandatory English classes; they are designed for English translation majors–students who are devoting their lives to the English language. These students will be translators, interpreters and teachers. Particularly, these students should be the most enthusiastic about English.

But they’re not. Every time I walk into the classroom, it feels like I’m entering Azkaban and their souls have been devoured by dementors. They’re usually either sleeping at their desks, texting on their phones, or staring into space with mong (blank) expressions. Since I teach for the last 30 minutes of their class, they’ve already endured two and half hours with their professor, and I understand, they’re exhausted.

One class focuses on dubbing. The students study a script from an animation each week, like Toy Story and The Incredibles, and it seems pretty fun, even though they look like they want to die every time I enter the room. I usually spend the first half of class answering questions they have about expressions in the script, which amuses me, since most of the language is intended for children. For example, they’ll ask me, “What does ‘howdy’ mean?” “Reach for the stars,” and “That was incredibly wicked!”

On the other hand, the Korean to English interpretation class material is dry as a fucking bone. Each week, these students are required to memorize a speech written by a CEO of a company. Not only are these speeches incredibly boring, but they lack any sort of debate. There’s nothing that encourages the students to think or question ideas.

For example here’s an excerpt from the speech preaching the FTA (Free Trade Agreement) between the United States and Korea:


Fourth, your businesses can hear the steady sound of red-tape unraveling as the conditions you have to meet to bring your products and services onto the Korean market are simplified.

For example, since 1 July there is no longer a need for double certification for most safety standards for EU cars imported into Korea – a sector currently representing 8% of our exports.

The same is true for electromagnetic compatibility and electrical safety standards for EU industrial machines – which can now be self-certified in Europe. This is a big cost reduction for a sector that represents over 30% of current exports.


Yawn. This is a small section of one speech, but even as a native English speaker, I don’t think I could memorize four pages of this shit. Nor would I want to try.

Studying a speech translated into English alongside the original Korean version is good practice, but personally, I don’t see the value in memorizing a speech that their professor translated. How does this help their translation skills? I know–this difference is probably a result of my Western upbringing, where a more hands-on approach is favored over memorization. Memorization may appeal to some students, but wouldn’t these students be so much more engaged if they just read the professor’s articles and then practiced translating articles on their own? Perhaps even articles that may be of interest to them? I also don’t like how there’s no dialogue about the content within the speeches. This speech should be studied alongside another article about why the FTA agreement hurts the livelihoods of Korean farmers, contributes to poorer health, and adds to global warming, among other issues.

Also, it doesn’t help that their professor, a middle-aged Korean man, scattered bits of sexism throughout the textbook that he wrote for his classes. In the first paragraph of chapter one, he wrote, “From my experience as a translation teacher, many students, especially female ones, feel uncomfortable dealing with text about such ‘hard’ issues as those full of military and political connotations.” Obviously the female students are better suited to translate articles about nail art and Disney princesses. As you can imagine, that put a sour taste in my mouth from day 1.

Because their assignments are so uninspiring, you’d think the students would be engaged and enthusiastic about my conversation classes, but they usually aren’t. Maybe I’m choosing material that they’re not interested in, or maybe, because my class doesn’t affect their overall grade, they just don’t give a shit. One day, the weather was gorgeous, and I decided to split the class into three groups and play a fun conversation game. Half of them still weren’t enthused. Because of this, I’ve faced some challenges when planning my lessons.

First of all, 30 minutes is not nearly enough time to introduce a topic, ask motivational questions, show a related video or article, and then have time for discussion (in pairs). Introducing and explaining the vocabulary words that I’ve plucked out of each video should take at least ten minutes on its own.

I try to choose content that inspires a good discussion, and introduces ideas that aren’t so cut and dry, like the business-y speeches they’re forced to memorize. I’ve shown TedTalks about image and the perception of beauty, videos comparing US and Korean schools, clips from the documentary Food Inc., which they seemed to enjoy until Youtube removed the version with English subtitles, and the TedTalk below by a North Korean defector.

I’ve started to learn that just because I find something fascinating, there’s a good chance that the students won’t. (Although, at the beginning of the semester, I did ask the students if they’d like to suggest any topics for discussion, and nobody gave me any ideas.) All the students groaned when I mentioned that I would be showing Hyeonseo Lee’s courageous speech about defecting to South Korea. “I’m so sick of talking about North Korea!” one student exclaimed. My previous co-teacher once claimed that, “South Koreans don’t have time to think about North Korea,” which may very well be true. (But South Korea’s apathetic attitude towards North Korea is for another conversation.) Luckily, a couple students did strike up a conversation with me after class about how her speech moved them.



Additionally, many students don’t seem to be comfortable voicing their opinion in class, which can lead to discussions like this:

Students reading the quote I wrote on the board from Food Inc.: “The idea that you would need to write a book just to tell people where their food comes from is just a sign of how far removed we’ve become. It seems to me that we’re entitled to know about our food–‘Who owns it? How are they making it? Can I have a look in the kitchen?'”

Student: Yes, I agree.

Me: Then how would you change your habits to become aware of where your food comes from?

Student: Uhh, I can’t change them. It’s just the way it is.

I’m not sure if the students are exhausted, apathetic, or the English vocabulary is too hard for them to digest, but I’m constantly playing devil’s advocate in order to force them to go beyond, “It’s complicated,” and “It’s just the way it is.”

Sometimes I wonder if these students are passionate about English. When I was in university, I loved going to class. I chose to study Art Education, fine arts and art history because I fucking love art. I also chose my liberal arts classes based on subjects that I was truly interested in–Pre-Colombian art, astronomy, creative writing and the history of philosophy, to name a few.

On our first day of class, I asked the students why they chose to study English. Nobody wanted to explain why they chose to devote their future to this language. Maybe they were shy or nervous. Or maybe some of these students didn’t choose to study English. Maybe their parents chose their major, or maybe they chose English based on their acceptance into this university, where each student is granted a full scholarship, including tuition and accommodation. (There’s only a few majors to choose from, and I’m sure Buddhist Studies does not appeal to many.)

Despite these minor frustrations, I really enjoy teaching these classes. I can see myself as an English professor in the future, developing curriculum incorporating modern literature, film, and music, inspiring students and introducing them to new ideas. These brief interactions with students, disguised as a class, have enabled me to get my feet wet. It’s been an experiment.

In an educational system that, more often than not, sucks the life out of language learning, I hope that these students will someday discover the beauty of “real” English. I hope they lose themselves in the art of literature and poetry. I hope they find humor and uncover bits of culture in the nuances of everyday speaking. I hope that one day, they’ll read a quote or listen to a song’s lyrics that strike a chord in the same way it would in their own language. If I can’t be the one to make English come to life, I hope they’ll encounter a teacher or friend who can. Who knows, maybe they already have.


Have you taught short, casual conversation classes before? What content and teaching methods worked for you and your students?


-Text and photography by Sarah Shaw @ All rights reserved.