Category Archives: Living

Linguistic rebellion and coming of age

Yesterday my friend @JosetteLB asked if people would be interested in blogging together, a sort of blog challenge to share stories of linguistic rebellion.

Earlier today another friend @kevchanwow joined the challenge. 

Another voice recently added: @JohnPfrodresher.

Click their names to read their stories!

We are all interested in hearing your stories, too.

I’m not sure how I feel about sharing these stories. Perhaps you will think differently of me after reading. Perhaps I’m not the person you thought I was. 


I speak standard American English. I’ve spoken it all my life. It has never occurred to me to rebel against it. Who I am and how I think is in part a product of this, and through the stories in this post I hope to show how I see the connection between linguistic intolerance, linguistic policy and linguistic rebellion.

When I was a child of 7 or 8, one of our neighbors across the street was an older Mexican couple. They were very nice people. But I wouldn’t talk to them. They had accents that were hard to understand. And, unforgivably, they called me “Anna” – the Spanish pronunciation of my name. What I did not understand at the time was that this was my first experience with linguistic intolerance – in this case, my own.

The Mexican family was not the only target, nor was I the only guilty party. Flash forward a few years, towards the end of elementary school. Most of the kids who lived in my neighborhood were black. We grew up together, climbed trees together, ran races together, played kickball together, did each other’s hair, had sleepovers.

I remember one day, being up in a tree near Jackie’s house, and talking to her about junior high. She was going at the end of the summer. I had to wait a year. And she told me that we probably couldn’t be friends in junior high. Because our lives would grow apart.

When I got to junior high, I realized what she meant. Looking back, I can see the linguistic rebellion clearly – my friends were under pressure to be “black enough.” Those who weren’t were ostracized for “talking like white people.” I remember my best friend Noelle, coming home crying because people called her an “oreo.” She had to explain to me that students used the word to mean “black on the outside and white on the inside.” She was upset because she was not fitting in with her linguistic community.

In this community linguistic rebellion went two ways: first of all was a large rebellion against the school’s policy of standard English. I didn’t understand at the time, but now I think what happened was this: the majority of students were rebelling against being forced to learn a new dialect to become acceptable to a minority – their teachers and the adults in their lives. They rebelled by ensuring their dialect was the one used within their community. In order to be part of that community, kids had to learn to speak like them. It quickly became the majority dialect in the school. The second form of rebellion, then, were kids like Noelle and a few others who rebelled away from the social dialect towards the standard they had grown up with.

20 years later I have a lot of respect for both of these groups of people, who as young men and women could look in the face of oppressive linguistic policy and choose to fight it by insisting on choosing which dialect they wanted to use. Especially while people like me – their friends – stood silently by, unaffected.

23 years later I have sympathy for the Mexican couple across the road, who were probably quite fluent in English but stymied by intolerance of their dialect. The situation for their linguistic community has only gotten worse in America.

In the end, now that we are adults, the standard language won out. I have grown up, moved overseas, and begun to be appalled by dialect suppression and linguistic oppression where I see it in the world and am deeply ashamed of my intolerant and oblivious young self.

the wrong way around

I quit the best job in Korea.

The University Job is the dream of every hagwon (private academy) teacher. University teachers teach 14 hours a week; hagwon teachers do 30. University teachers have a minimum of 2 months of paid vacation a year; hagwon teachers get 10 days – if their directors allow them to take it – and sometimes have to find (and pay) their own replacements. University students behave because they are adults and because their grades depend on it; hagwon teachers behave because they work for for-profit organizations and their jobs depend on the parents’ and students’ happiness. Hagwon students don’t behave.

I worked in hagwons for eight years before moving to a university. There are a lot of reasons hagwons get a bad rap, and I know some of this from personal experience.

They’re a bit of a grab bag. The hagwon system is not very well regulated. There are stories of directors who hold their teachers’ passports and university degrees (and sometimes “lose” them). Some directors cut corners on teachers’ pay or include weekends in “vacation” time. Sometimes directors charge teachers pension and insurance, but never actually pay into those things. Some directors fire teachers for spurious reasons in the 11th month of their contract to avoid paying yearly severance pay. The list of grievances seems endless. To be fair, there’s often an equally long list of grievances on the hagwon directors’ parts as well.

There’s no job security. Hagwons have a notoriously high turnover rate. It’s rare to find a hagwon whose teachers stay more than a year or two. There seems to be a revolving door for Korean English teachers as well. The market is also quite competitive and smaller hagwons often fail to stay in the black. When the school sinks, everyone walks away penniless. Being penniless in a foreign country is not fun.

Hagwons are part of the problem. 1) They’re for profit, which means that they sometimes lose their focus on learning. 2) They perpetuate the native speaker fallacy. 3) They contribute to the number of hours students spend studying rather than playing, relaxing, reading, or enjoying their free time. 4) They widen the gap between rich and poor.

Then again, if you get a “good” hagwon, a lot of that isn’t true. 

At a good hagwon, the present and future needs of the student are put first. Learning does not get lost in the drive to make money. Teachers are not mistreated and their time is respected. The directors know something about education and choose their teachers carefully. They are aware that they are part of the problematic education system and do what they can to mitigate it. In fact, they are in a position to do a lot of good.

And this is why I left my cushy university job to return to a hagwon.

Hagwons have small class sizes (usually maximum of 12). The students usually come to classes between two and five days a week and between one and three hours a day. In public schools or university classes, foreign teachers only see the students once or twice a week for under an hour, 30 students to a class with mixed abilities, and hundreds of students altogether.

Working in a hagwon means I have a chance to get to know each one of my students. I can learn about them and listen to them and find out the best ways to help them learn. While there is student turnover, many students stay for several years at the same hagwon. That’s a lot of chances to form a real connection and make a real difference. In this way the extra teaching time without long vacations is a good thing for teachers and learners.

Hagwon students are more likely to be intrinsically motivated. Some of them are there because their parents make them go, but many of them have dreams that they need English to achieve. I know I said above that “hagwon students don’t behave.” Classroom management is a lot easier with the support of the directors. Classroom management is also easier when I have a connection with my students. If students aren’t behaving there’s probably a reason.

Hagwons provide a place to be a little more radical experimental than a public school or university classroom where the teachers have to justify everything they do and are bound to specific textbooks. The ability to try new things and teach the students rather than the material, combined with the igniferous tendency of trends in Korea means that willingness to make small risks can lead to big changes across the country in the informal education system (okay, perhaps I’m dreaming…).

Note 1: I’ve over-generalized a lot in this post. Feel free to ask questions or provide additions or corrections in the comments.

Note 2: This post is not meant to demean university teaching positions (or public school positions). It is simply meant to share why I left “the best job in Korea” to return to a position that is well-known for being rather humble.

July 11th, 2002


I still find it pretty amazing how life can change in just an instant. And usually that instant doesn’t provide much opportunity for reflection. For me, one phone call changed my life so quickly that before I could blink, it was July 11th, 2002 and I was standing stunned in an airport in South Korea.

It was graduation day. While I was getting dressed for my graduation ceremony, it suddenly occurred to me that I’d be graduating into a competitive world without a job or any money. I asked myself: “What do you want to do most in life?”

I want to travel. I want adventure. I want to get out of this culture of fear that has permeated New York all year. I never again want to see a person dressed in an American flag while her Muslim neighbors are being beaten up and shunned.

So I went to the computer and typed in “work and travel”. The result was page after page after page of recruiting companies looking for people to teach in South Korea. I clicked one at random. I had a diploma (or would, in a couple hours). I fit the minimal qualifications. They offered to pay the airfare and provide a room for me. I filled out the application form, sent it, and promptly forgot about it as I slipped into my light-blue robe and went off to my graduation. Later that afternoon, I had a phone interview and was immediately offered a job. “Can you leave next month?” “You bet I can.”

I was young and not so savvy. I looked up Korea on a map before I left. I won’t even tell you what I imagined, but just to give you a laugh I will tell you that I packed a box of matches and several packages of  ramen noodles. And a pot. Standing stunned in Daegu International Airport, waiting for my new life to start.

Ten years to the day have now passed and I’ve had plenty of time to reflect. Ten years ago I made a choice to leave behind the things I was expected to do and pursue the things that made me happy. I promised myself that when I stopped being happy, I would go home. I would find something else to do. As each July 11th came around, my boss asked me to sign a new contract and I didn’t have a reason not to. I was happy with the travel and the adventure, but even happier with the job. I like teaching.

Never in my life had it occurred to me that I might want to be a teacher. Growing up, I was too shy to talk. Coming out of my shell in high school and university (usually because I had no choice) left me drained. But there is something about the open hearts and honest love of children that is energizing and enriching. Those kids taught me more than I taught them. I learned about teaching because I loved the students. I owed it to them to do my very best. In the process, I became a teacher.

Now, I am checking in with myself once again. “Am I still happy?” My life has changed a lot again this past year. I’ve become focused on learning. I started a Master’s in Applied Linguistics. I became interested in reflective teaching. I began learning about non-violent communication. I edited textbooks. I started writing, which turned into blogging, which I had never intended.

Some days are dark. Sometimes I think I’m asking the wrong question (“Am I still me?” might be more appropriate on some doubtful days!). Other times I remember that “go home” doesn’t have the same meaning anymore, if it means anything at all. Sometimes the sacrifice feels heavier than the rewards.

For the most part, though, my days are full of light, laughter, love and friendship. While I’ve learned that I don’t know anything at all, I’ve also learned that a painful but necessary part of the quest is to unlearn – not to forget, but to let go of beliefs and be open to other ways of doing things. To admit that experience is not equal to expertise. That’s where I am now and that’s okay.

I will end by asking the final question: what’s next? One of the reasons I’m still here is that I’ve never had an answer to this question. I don’t know if I’m ready to answer it today either.


Laughing Diary

I had never heard of a laughing diary until a few weeks ago. I read about it somewhere and I really wish I could remember where, so that you can read about it, too. I’ll post a link if I can find it again. Ah, it was not a link, but a tweeted idea from @ShellTerrell.

The idea of a laughing diary is that you keep a record of everything that makes you laugh for one week. Then you post it and share it with your friends. I have never seen one, but I find the concept intriguing. My favorite kinds of laughs are the ones I share with others.


This coming week is full of deadlines and obligations that must be met, and I cannot imagine having anything to laugh at. However, life is full of surprises. I look forward to laughing with you at all the joys of life, great and small.


Check back in a week for the results!


What holds my students back from giving English class their best? What prevents me from being the best I can be in my work and in my life?

Today I typed the word “fear” into a Google search prompt. Once I sifted through the scary memes and haunting images, I found some interesting things.


Here are some of the articles and images that came up, along with the links that hosted them:

This links to 53 quotes about fear, which are worth a read. The “Reality of Fear” introduction really spoke to me. It reads:

  • You’re not scared of the dark. You’re scared of what’s in it.
  • You’re not afraid of heights. You’re afraid of falling.
  • You’re not afraid of the people around you. You’re just afraid of rejection.
  • You’re not afraid to love. You’re just afraid of not being loved back.

What is fear? Perhaps more importantly, what am I really afraid of? And if I can’t figure out what I’m afraid of, how can I move forward?

This wise woman had the same idea as me: here she collects posters and sayings on fear. My favorite: “Replace fear of the unknown with curiosity.”

This quote on fear comes from Frank Herbert’s book Duneand always seems to come to mind when fear threatens to overwhelm. I am greater than my fears. Here’s the whole quote:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

This is an incredible blog about overcoming fears. It goes through identifying fear, the consequences of fear, types of fear, evolution of fear, and onwards to conquering fears and “developing a mindset of courage.” The comprehensive post is a must-read for everyone.

There’s a verse about fear and love in the Bible as well. And “scooby dooby doo!” – my fear role model. Scooby runs away, sure, but he always gets back in the Mystery Machine for the next adventure. It’s okay to be afraid, but fear should not drive your life.


I pulled this one up for the poster, but actually the whole blog is good. “Fear has stopped me from moving. From growing. It gave me the feeling that being stuck to where I was the safest thing to do.”

Language students come to us with so many fears. 

What if I am wrong

What if I look stupid

What if my pronunciation is bad

What if no one understands me

What if all the other students are better than me

What if everyone laughs at me

What if I forget the vocabulary word

What if I make a mistake

What if I fail

What if I use the wrong word and say something terrible

What if I can’t pass the test

What if I succeed and then forget my mother tongue

What if…

Anyone who has tried to learn a language has had similar fears. Even as adults, we have trouble putting our fears aside to do the things we need to do. Yet somehow we must ask our students to do the same. 

How do we reduce the level of fear students feel around learning English? I think this is part of a teacher’s job – making the unknown known.

Provide opportunities for practice

Provide a safe classroom environment

Provide that gentle push (Or strong shove. Off a cliff. Into the ocean.) that encourages (forces) students to try new things and explore the language

Teach learning skills as well as content

Raise awareness of cultural differences and expectations

Encourage curiosity

Show that the rewards are worth the effort

Exposure Exposure Exposure

I learned a lot about fear today. I have lived in Korea for nearly ten years. I don’t speak Korean. I read it, write it, and am quite good at listening to it, but I don’t speak it. I have had many teachers who have given me that gentle push and given up when I’ve pushed back. I’m a difficult student. But my own learning challenges have helped to make me aware of the fears and anxieties my students face and come up with strategies that might help them overcome. The way to success is through the fear, which cannot be blocked out forever.

And personally? Like many people, I fear the unknown. I fear change and as a result, I embrace my fears as dear friends, fearing who I will be without them.

EFL Teacher Milestones

Some may wish to skip this post…


Having just read this article from the Guardian, titled “Is 35 really the best age to be?” posted on Twitter by fellow EFL teacher and blogger @pterolaur . After a twittersation about the topic, we decided a new list was needed for EFL teachers. I highly recommend @pterolaur’s beautiful and insightful post. Here is my take on the topic. EFL teachers live a fairly transient life. By the time we are 35, we can’t be expected to own homes. Being married with children is not so common for us (but not unthinkable). Lifestyles are different. I have been in Korea for more than nine years now and I am not 35. But I think there are some reasonable accomplishments “lifers” can make by that age.


By 35 I will:


1. Have earned a Master’s Degree. In something. Probably obtained online.


2. Have been able to choose where I work, not just taken what’s leftover.


3. Have enjoyed meaningful relationships with special people. And kept in touch with some of them across the continents.


4. Have continued my professional development and encouraged other teachers in their professional development. Moved complaints about work from the pub at 3am to the reflective table.


5. Have developed a lifelong love for teaching and learning. And stopped visualizing what I’d like to do to the administration. And avoided becoming administration.


6. Have learned the language of the country I am living in. To a respectable level that is not so embarrassing. Like intermediate.


7. Have published a well-read blog full of things I care about. That I update every week. And reply to comments. (Don’t laugh. There might be comments some day!)


8. Have saved enough money to take a few months of vacation. Or retire in Cuba. Eventually.


9. Have traveled the world. Or at least the countries surrounding the one I live in.


10. Have contributed to the learning and self-confidence of my students. Which will hopefully extend further into their lives.


What do you think? What would you add?




I am a compulsive clicker. Seriously, this is getting out of hand. I click links on Facebook, Twitter, my uni website, everywhere. Every morning I start my day with at least five tabs open. It takes an hour to catch up with those alone. Sometimes I go looking for interesting pictures or posters and spend hours saving the good ones. Today someone posted a psychology website about procrastination. I clicked it. It turned out to be a collection of blogs about causes of and prevention of procrastination. Naturally I had to click all of them and many linked to other things as well. It was death by irony! I only stopped reading when I realized I had been at it for more than four hours. I closed all the tabs and I am going to bed. I’ll get some real work done tomorrow!




The situation caused me to think: we are constantly surrounded by technology, noise, and distraction. How do we find balance in our lives? Today I did a search on ‘Silence’. I found that the internet has mixed opinions on the subject. Some people believe silence to be a good thing. ‘Silence is golden’, it comes from within. The motivational posters about silence didn’t say much. On the other hand, some people believe silence is a bad thing. Silence is the absence of dialogue about the things we should be talking about: child abuse, rape, prostitution, suicide, bullying.


I think the real dichotomy is linguistic. A person can be silent (at peace, thoughtful, listening). Or a person can be silenced (from the outside). I have experienced both types of silence. The latter begins in frustration and ends in defeat. But the former can be a beautiful thing. The tone of the bell that begins a minute of silence is the most peaceful sound in the world to me. The opportunity to be silent and listen to the world wakens feelings of love and tenderness.


What I need is an opportunity to unplug every day – to embrace the silence and listen, away from the mental noise of my internet connections and my own racing mind.


Update: Someone tweeted this wonderful piece by @bonstewart on how our social networking can float us away.


Who are you, Master?”

Don’t you know my name yet? That’s the only answer.”

J.R.R. Tolkien

Father. Mother. Doctor. Teacher. Student. Immigrant. Artist. Fireman. Secretary. Construction Worker. Manager. CEO. President. Christian. Muslim. Buddhist. Pagan. Expert. Professor. Boxer. Football Player. Foreigner.

Language is full of labels. The labels can differ from culture to culture and language to language, but the function is the same: to identify ourselves. Labels are deeply connected with identity. Some people use labels to create their identity and find strength in them.


The labels we use

What happens when a dancer breaks her ankle? She may never dance again, but she can still live a very happy, productive life. That is, if she can ever get past the identity crisis. How about the CEO who wakes up to find that suddenly, he doesn’t like his job anymore? It is very hard to make a change when what you do is who you are. That is what labels do for us. I work at an English Village. But for the past three months, I haven’t had any students. Am I still a teacher? Who am I?


When we say that someone is an xyz kind of person, what are we really saying about them? A short time ago, I heard a man say, “I am not a natural teacher.” I didn’t understand the statement at all. I don’t know what a “natural teacher” means. The label that he used for himself did not tell me anything about him.


What do you do for a living?

That’s the thing about labels. They tell just one facet of a person. They are changeable. They can change by the moment. Labels do not reflect the needs or feelings behind them. In essence, they tell us nothing about the person.


To assent to a label is to carry a burden. The labels we carry on ourselves are heavy. We don’t need them. We can choose to define ourselves by our experiences and actions instead.


What I do for a living

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