Korean in Class

As I entered my last class of the week on Friday evening two students looked over at me with a mildly guilty air from the corner of the whiteboard, capping a board marker one of them’d nicked from the trash bin after I threw it out a few months ago. I proceeded into the room as they backed from the board and resumed their studying as though they’d done nothing. I set my basket down on my desk and made my way to the whiteboard.

They’d written—


  • 1)  놀기
  • 2) 죽지 않기
  • 3) 살기
  • 4) 공부하지 않기
  • 5) SLP에 가지 않기

One, play. Two, don’t die. Three, live. Four, don’t study. Five, don’t go to SLP.

“This would be a lot more convincing,” I said, turning around and regarding the boys with a face meant to relay some of the patheticness of their attempt, “if it weren’t written in Korean…”


Earlier that day one of the “kitchen teachers” (cooks) had come knocking at the kindergarten classroom door with one of the students from another class, holding out their empty dish that was empty now save some crumbs, but which had once held over-baked breaded fish filet, in what was quite likely an insufficient amount for a class of ten. Kitchen teachers don’t speak English. She asked me if we had any more fish—I looked down at our dish which only held three more pieces which I’d already promised to the three in my class who could finish all their food first—and thought of that coupled with the fact that I’d already given up our last measly portions of mystery meat to the same class the day before. So I lifted my fingers, indicating a small amount, and made an apologetic face, replying “조금만” without much thought.

“Lily Teacher spoke KOreeeeeeeannnnNNnNnnnn!” one of my students screeched, as the kitchen teacher made her retreat with the pitiful Uranus class student, and closed the door, leaving me alone to deal with the repercussions of my thoughtless actions.


I always insist, vocally, at least, to the kids that I don’t speak any Korean, when in fact, in action, I have proved this to be at least a little untrue on several occasions, the first of which was while I was helping kindergarten prepare for a speaking test and trying to explain the idea of a “family name.”

I’d asked them in English several times what name their family members shared, but since this works a little different in Korean families (in which women retain their own family name although the children inherit theirs from their father), I gave up and asked the class, who stared at me afterwards blank faced and astonished, to tell me their Korean names.

Nobody would speak up, so I chose a student as an example.

“Ato,” I said, pointing him out, at which his face twitched into a semi-pleased smile, “your Korean name is Shin Woo-bin.”

The kids were dumbfounded, and quiet—they’d never told me their Korean names before and aren’t allowed to speak Korean in the classroom at all, and so they probably thought I was a magician for even knowing that even though their Korean names are quite obviously written on their backpacks and shoe bags and I’d have been a moron if I hadn’t noticed that—until I pulled out my board marker and wrote his name in Korean on the whiteboard.

“Teacher can write Korean!” they said, and then erupted into excited babbling. I shushed them down with appropriate difficulty, considering I was a wizard in their eyes.

I circled the “Shin” of Shin Woo-bin and tried to explain that this was Ato’s family name. Funnily enough, “shin” as a common word also bears the meaning of “god” so, Ato stood up in his chair and held his arms out, shaking regally and providing his own divine soundtrack—a high-pitched, sky-splitting, sunbeam-fetching, “ahhhhhhhhh!

I repeated this with the rest of the students, writing their Korean names on the board and circling their family names. They were awed and pleased that I knew their Korean names at all, but much more so as I scribbled their names in Korean on the board. They grew agitated with delight as I wrote 김채원 Kim Chae-won, 최정원 Choi Jung-won, 정승호 Jeong Seung-ho, 이지원 Lee Ji-won, 서동환 Seo Dong-hwan, and 문정언 Moon Jeong-eon. They asked me to repeat and repeat their names. We talked about their names for forty minutes, a whole class period.

And yet, only two of them were able to answer the question, “what is your family name?” on the speaking test, which was actually only a matter of hours later, correctly.


And I’ve been able to fool them time and time again by saying the simple words, which must carry a sort of performative, magical quality, “No, I don’t speak Korean” if they happen, during one of their bouts of outstanding and disarming randomness, to ask me if I can. They simply believe me. I keep saying no partly because I don’t want to encourage their use of Korean in the classroom, and partly out of amazement at their transformation into memory-less infants. It’s like when, having been at kindergarten for just under a year now, they ask me, “Teacher, how do you spell corn,” or some other hyperbolically simple and phonetically accurate word. Where’d your brain go? What kind of thing are you?


One of my elementary classes is made up of the nastiest combination of age and gender any elementary teacher can hope for—twelve- and thirteen-year-old boys. Rude, disrespectful, crude, loud, smelly, unpredictably moody, and seemingly fixated on taking apart everything inside their pencil cases and then either launching them across the classroom, beaning their classmates’ heads with them, or sticking them up a nostril, these boys are the biggest challenge I’ve yet faced as a teacher in all my years of experience with tricky students.

For a while, I pretended not to know when they were using crude language in Korean or when they were saying English words in a nonsensical grammatical progression for the sole purpose of replicating Korean sounds. They also constantly said words in English whose direct translation was something crude in Korean—my favorite of which is “fire-egg”—a translation of each word then stuck together resulting in a rather slangy and uncouth word for “testicle.”

They’d use these nonsense English phrases at nonsensical times. While my kindergarteners use words like “gochi” (childish slang [and a mispronunciation, besides] for penis) simply to tell me a story about how they banged theirs into something on accident while they were running around like the foolish six-year-olds they are, or they accidentally saw their classmates’ in the bathroom, these elementary hoodlums would just insert the phrase into sentences, otherwise in English and seemingly coherent, where this word and others like it could never belong. I often felt like shouting “If you keep that up I’ll cut off your gochi with my kiddy-scissors!” and brandishing these threateningly, but I have parental retribution to think about… . There is undeniably something about spending so much time weekly with these immature kids that rubs off on you, to be fair to myself.

Besides, it takes methods more crafty than that to really scare kids that age, who, although they themselves lack the precision of subtlety, and whose only weapon is seemingly obvious, childish humor and overbearing, brute volume, miraculously respond to the unexpected.

So, sometimes, when they’d be writing their speeches and they’d ask each other—with my permission, which I insisted they ask with the threat of detention if they didn’t—a great triumph of mine in the classroom, if you ask me—for the English translation of something in Korean they meant to write, I’d interject my own translation. The first time this happened, the boy whose word I’d translated stared at me open-mouthed, clearly horrified that I’d understood correctly and probably realizing that my past, mysterious insistences that “I know what that means” were actually true.

Still, I had yet to impact the rest of the class—this boy and the other hapless observer were only two of seven. So, one day, while trying to explain the word “unusual” with a limited and basic English vocabulary, I gave up despairingly and took out my board marker, standing up and writing the Korean translation on the board. At first, they were clueless, but as I wrote one block of text after another, they exclaimed in increasing tenors of surprise and alarm—oh! ohh! oooohhhhhh! ooOOOOOOOHHH!—as a whole, and I sat down with a feeling of ebullient satisfaction that I can admit I had never before thought I’d be feeling in the midst of these hooligans.

They proceeded to barrage me with interrogations—Teacher can speak Korean? Teacher sometimes speaks in Korean? Teacher knows Korean? Then can you say ___? —whose flow I staunchly interrupted by shouting, “do you think I’m an idiot? I live here… I have to live here… of course I know a bit of Korean… I have to live…”

For a while after that, they settled down, seeming to believe my ability to understand more than I’d previously let on. But, as it seems is the trend with short-memoried SLP students… they eventually picked up the habit again, at which point I made several short and to-the-point pleas to be relieved of my duties as their teacher to my boss, who did not, alas, grant me my wish. However, I now go to her every time the class is particularly pugnacious and she “takes care of it” for me. I go to her not hoping that anything will change in the boys’ behavior, but in the hopes that I annoy her enough that she finally relents and switches me out of the class. Boys of this age are uselessly, wretchedly self-renewing in their abilities to get up to trouble and find new ways to be perverse / peevish / petulant, so the only real way to take care of it is to get them a teacher who can, excuse my language, scare the shit out of them in a way I cannot ever hope to do. The tallest of them is only an inch or two shorter than me and louder by miles, after all.


After my initial frenzy of Korean-script writing on the board that family-name day in Kindergarten, I gradually opened up to my other students about my fledgeling Korean capacities. Occasionally I’d write a translation of a difficult word up on the board in Korean, and sometimes I’d even give a stab at speaking the words out loud, though mostly my pronunciation was so bad that I might as well have spoken Spanish or, as I often realized in hindsight, not at all.

One notable experience which immediately and long afterwards filled me with regret took place at lunch with Saturn class, who were busy debating about the English names of various cuts of pork. Although I happen to be the teacher least suited to engage six-year-olds (or anyone, for that matter) in a discussion about the wide and wonderful world of the meat-related, I accepted my fate and hesitantly joined the verbal fray in the case that it got heated, with hopes of preventing any number of tantrums.

They’d started it all by asking me what to call samgyeopsal in English, and I, not knowing anything exact or even what part of the pig that came from—upon a little research, I find that it’s thick-cut pork belly—said tentatively, “it’s pork,” at sound of which one student shook his head vehemently and said, “no, pork is 돼지고기.”

So I’d attempted to explain that that was just the general name for all meats that came from a pig. (By the way, I have no idea if this is true.) This seemed to be marvelously astounding to the whole class. They were all silent for a minute, perhaps pondering this piece of information, but a six-year-old’s ability to ponder is somewhat under debate, I suppose. In any case, they soon after—too soon after—began to converse, gradually picking up speed and urgency. But pig meat is not samgyeopsal. We know this as fact. They have different names, which is of course how one knows this to be true. So Teacher’s attempt to educate us has, once again, completely and utterly failed. We, the six-year-olds, must clearly be the only competent thinkers in the proximity of this classroom. How else would it be that…

So this is where I burst into the scene.

“Guys, you know, there are many types of meat that come from a pig. Bacon, ham…um…other parts…like…Canadian bacon, too… oh, and pig’s trotters…”

I was about to mention scrapple when one of the kids asked, “what’s pig’s trotters?”

I thought a moment. “족발,” I said. This was followed by a marked silence. They clearly didn’t understand what I had said.

The boy who’d asked me suddenly shot out of his seat like a rocket and fell to the floor laughing so hard he could barely breathe.

“ 족….발…!” he gasped, again and again. I gathered from this that I’d pronounced the word so incorrectly that he’d been moved to this display of heightened emotion once he finally figured out what I’d been trying to say. I coaxed him back into his seat and sat for the rest of the lunch period hunched over, holding my chin in my hands, properly humiliated.

Other occasions such as these never elicited such elaborate responses but often left me questioning my rights to be involved in the education of young minds.


However, as painful and humbling as it is to be laughed at by infants, startling in their disregard for my somewhat fragile Korean-speaking confidence, I’ve learned a lot of new words through my willingness to be incorrect in front of them.

For example, I’m often quizzed at unpredictable moments. Students seem to have an unquenchable thirst to hear me butcher their native language—either that, or to see me mildly uncomfortable with the possibility—probability, rather—of becoming embarrassed. Oh, how the tables have turned, they are probably thinking, rubbing their hands together with devilish anticipation in their imaginations…

During one of these quizzes, I correctly translated teeth, cow, welcome, bicycle, and hello as said to elders, but faltered at the rather innocuous pencil case. 

“연필…장,” I said, putting together the word for “pencil” and the suffix that seems to be attached to many compound words for the places you keep things, like wardrobe (옷장6) and shoebox (신발장7). I was immediately berated by the three seven-year-old girls who comprise the class and who were administering the quiz.

“Noo-oo-oo!” they said, seeming to be simultaneously exasperated and delighted. They laughed at me properly for a few minutes before I beseeched them for the correct answer.

“필통,” they said, after which I repeated many times until my pronunciation was, apparently, somehow, despite all odds, passable.

In the same way I learned from them the words for jacket and a few others which I promptly forgot. In any case, none of them fell on the ground laughing at me and I learned words I can actually use in conversation, in contrast to the words I learned from that vile group of prepubescent boys and the mystery words my kindergarteners mouth at me as supposed translations of random words that more often than not have nothing to do with our lessons.


At the end of the last class of the week on Friday, I added my own bullet to the list of weekend homework: half of the next unit completed thoroughly and not in ten seconds like they often scribbled it up in. As I turned to look at all of them paying more or less no attention to me, I said, with a certain feeling of inevitable doom, “well, if you’re only going to do one assignment this weekend, I think we can agree that ‘don’t die’ is the most important.”

They looked up, mildly amused, and then the bell rang and I commenced my own weekend, in which most of my homework matched up with theirs.