The recruitment criteria for teaching EFL in Korea are simple. Have a degree. Have a criminal record without any brutal murders. Obtain a letter of shameless praise from an old manager or university professor. Wake up at 5am for a Skype interview. Speak English.
I speak English. I speak the most English English there is. I am English. It’s the only language I know. I will teach more people to speak just like me. I’m perfect.
Well, kind of.
“Pa(r)ss me the rubber. My autumn holiday needs changing.”
Anyone who uses British English will learn very quickly that sentences like these will simply not do in Korea. You’ll be met with a sea of blank faces, possibly yawns, and definitely no rubber.
Why? Because American English has taken over. From the accent to the words, Koreans are taught American English from 8 years old. The choice therefore is 1) change or 2) not get the fall vacation you wanted.
In this article, I have identified 3 struggles of speaking British English in Korea, assuming that hearing a “pavement” being referred to as a “sidewalk” continues to make you shudder. Teaching American English is harder than I thought.
1) Nobody Understands Me
I’m from Southern England. For anyone somehow unfamiliar with that accent, imagine James Bond and Hugh Grant had a lovechild and called him Mark-Francis. It’s not so much that we’re posh, it’s just that we have a tendency to overemphasise everything and add mysterious Rs into simple words like “bath”, “grass” and “banana”. Not only Brits: South Africans, Australians and New Zealanders, you too have been cursed with our vocal imperialism.
Why cursed? Because to teach English in Korea, you must use an American accent. The textbooks are voiced by Americans, the multimedia all comes from American sources, and the majority of Guest English Teachers (GETs) are American.
For the first 3 months of this job I muttered through gritted teeth having to correct my “bana(r)na” to “banana” and “a(r)nswer” to “answer” in order for the kids to understand.
“What’s the a(r)nswer, kids?” I’d gleefully ask. Nothing.
“What’s the ANSWER?” I’d glumly repeat, American style. Hands shoot up.
Another key difference in dialect is our pronunciation of the T in the middle of words. For example, “water” to me is “wa(r)-ter” (there’s that mysterious R again). Americans pronounce it more like “wa-der”. Change or get left behind, my British English friends. Change or get left behind.
No one’s to blame for this. Koreans have been taught to listen for the American accent. Not their fault, American English is easier to understand. There are far more American GETs, and American popular culture reigns hegemonically. It just makes it far more difficult for British English speakers.
2) My Accent Has Changed
This point leads out of the first. Because I’m forced to speak American English in school, I bring it home. I drop the T regularly. “Better” is “bedder”. “Saturday” is “Sadurday”. And, of course, “water” is “wader”. No second thought.
That’s okay when you need to speak to a Korean at a restaurant or “language exchange,” but when your British girlfriend picks up on it, it makes you sad. Or it would, if she didn’t then do the exact same thing in her very next sentence. It’s a plague!
And it’s a lose-lose. Your accent has changed just enough that your friends and family will mock you about it when you return home, but not enough that one drunk American at the party wont think it’s funny to impersonate you. Get over it, Mike.
Last year I read an article on BBC News that said Americanisms would completely absorb the English language by 2120. Pish posh. No sir. That will not happen. Not on my watch.
11 months later, I’m convinced it’s going to happen by 2020.
I never say “film” anymore, always “movie”. “Vacation”, not “holiday”. “Grade”, not “year”. I even caught my girlfriend saying “eggplant” instead of “aubergine”. I put the relationship on hold for half an hour subsequently.
Like with your accent, the effect of teaching American English at schools and having American friends, is that you start to say them too. You have to use the vocabulary that your students have been taught and soon you start using that vocabulary as if it’s normal.
And it’s not just to the students. Your co teachers have also been taught American English and so even to competent English speakers you must use “elevator” instead of “lift”, “gas” instead of “petrol”, and “cookie “instead of “biscuit”. I’ll stop. I could go on forever here.
Thankfully, although students are taught “soccer”, I have never wavered. It will always be “football”.
The perils of teaching American English
If this has come off as at all anti-American, I apologise. That’s not really my intention.
Truthfully, I’m jealous. I wish British English were dominant. I’d love to see Koreans and Americans ask me if I want a “cuppa” and hear them say that they need the “loo”. What a world.
Instead, you’ll quickly find out when teaching in Korea the power of American English. I have changed. You will change.
Bloody hell, we’re all buggered.