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Korean culture and ways of thinking are often at odds with efficient language learning. I sometimes refer to the prevailing Korean belief system as "Christian-Confucianist." Confucius' teachings have been at the core of Korean views of society for a very long time. When American missionaries arrived, many Koreans adopted Christianity, or at least the aspects of it that suited them.

About 50% of South Koreans now call themselves Christian, which makes South Korea the second most Christian country in Asia, after the Philippines. The result is that many Koreans tend to see things as right or wrong, black or white, good or bad, and they try to apply (often inapplicable) rules to render new things or ideas comprehensible and/or acceptable to their very-structured world view. Understanding how Koreans think is a big factor in successful language-teaching to adults; it is much less an issue with children.

It is quite difficult to obtain quality positions teaching adults unless one is "on the ground" in Korea. As there are more qualified and experienced applicants for these positions than there are jobs available, salaries and benefits do not tend to be as good as at the children's schools. Adult schools almost always require split shifts (early morning and late evening teaching) and sometimes provide no accommodation. I rarely hire for adult-teaching jobs in Korea because the conditions of the jobs that make it overseas do not meet my standards for Korea. Although I have been teaching for 13 years (eight years with young learners and five years with adults) and could easily get jobs teaching adults, if I were going to Korea to teach now, I would probably still choose a job teaching children.

Teaching Methods

ELT in Korean high schools, and in many universities, still follows the methods introduced by Japanese English teachers in the first half of the 20th century. These methods tend to view grammar as an unvarying set of rules and patterns that must be memorized. I had one adult student in Korea who was very bright and highly motivated; however, he couldn't understand any spoken or written forms unless they adhered to one of the 700+ "sentence patterns" he had memorized.

At many jobs teaching adults, teachers aren't expected to have any knowledge of grammar, which is at base how languages work. Instead, they are supposed to "teach" conversation. Realistically, conversation can't be "taught." Teaching conversation is a little like reading about how to ride a bicycle; the outcomes are similar and predictable. People have to be outgoing enough to speak with foreigners and learn about their culture in order to become fluent in any foreign language. Most Koreans are not particularly motivated by English-language cultures (or foreign cultures in general) and almost never have an opportunity for genuine social communication in English.

Korean-designed ELT syllabi for adults tend to divide language skills into categories and treat them independently of each other. Unfortunately, this view of language learning does not serve Korean students well. Take a quick look at any internationally used English-language course book and you'll see that grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, communication skills, and English-language cultures are integrated. Dividing language into unnatural categories results in learners who know a lot about a language but are unable to put the pieces together for communicative purposes. Koreans are used to learning (or not learning) languages this way and it can be difficult to convince them to change their ideas about what works in a language classroom.

Many Korean adults think their grammar is very good and that studying set phrases will improve their fluency. Rather than taking the opportunity to engage in genuine communication with a native speaker, they will instead memorize outdated idiomatic expressions and slang and check these with the native speaker. It's easy enough for the inexperienced teacher to be drawn into this sort of teaching, whereby an English lesson becomes nothing but a detailed explanation of not-so-useful idioms. This kind of lesson appeals to many Koreans but it does not result in improved fluency, and it would quickly cost a teacher his job in most countries. In fact, teaching idiomatic expressions often impedes communication. Native speakers of English do not expect a barely fluent Korean to use American slang from the 1960s, and therefore they have no idea what the Korean speaker is trying to say. A large part of successful communication is accurately predicting what's coming next in a conversation.

Adult ELT Venues

Adult language learning happens in three different contexts in Korea: universities, language schools, and corporate training centers.


Universities often ignore English-language teaching qualifications and hire those with Master Degrees in any subject. The "teaching" is often to groups of 100 or more and the quality of curricula varies widely. In many cases, once Koreans have passed their high school leaving exams and gained admission to a "top" university, serious study is over. Some university students attend less than half their classes and many students view university as a waiting period before (often unrelated) employment.

Although the jobs are relatively easy and well-paid, instructors with experience in other countries may find the teaching experience frustrating. Also, many ELT employers in other countries do not view experience teaching at universities in Korea, Japan, or Taiwan as particularly valuable, or as a substitute for ELT qualifications.

Universities do not pay recruitment firms for teachers so it is very unlikely that any recruiter will be able to offer you a university teaching job (unless you pay a fee). If a recruiter proposes something that sounds like a university teaching job, investigate as it may be a position at a language school that has an arrangement with a nearby university. The conditions of employment are likely to be similar to language schools, not universities.

Language Schools

Language schools for adults generally attract Koreans in their 20s, many of whom will be studying abroad in the near future and want to improve their fluency before they go. Many adult-oriented schools in South Korea will hire native speakers with no qualifications and no experience. Unless their curricula is structured to accommodate this (and it rarely is) neither learners nor teachers will benefit. Furthermore, inexperienced or unqualified teachers who accept such jobs will soon realize that they are not meeting their students' needs and, if they care about what they are doing, will find this very frustrating. Administration at these kinds of schools is unlikely to be of much help as they will probably have little knowledge of global English-language teaching standards and methodologies themselves. There is also a tendency to view low student re-enrolment as entirely the teacher's fault, which results in a much higher proportion of teachers being fired than in children's language schools.

Corporate Training Centers

Of these three categories of adult language learning venues, corporate training centers are the most likely to be using good curricula and to have a management structure that cares about learning outcomes. Learners are, of course, highly motivated; keeping their jobs often depends on how much their English improves. Learners in corporate environments are also better able to imagine contexts in which they will be using English and, therefore, better able to direct their own learning and express their needs to the teacher. Corporate language training jobs, while not as easy as university jobs, are the most useful of the three categories for those who are building an ELT career. Corporate employers are also the most likely to require qualifications and experience. The jobs are relatively few and are highly sought-after.


In general, children are a much more forgiving audience than adults. They have less rigid learning styles and will adapt more easily to a non-Korean mode of classroom teaching than will adults. For those with no ELT qualifications and /or no experience, a year with young learners is a good chance to become more aware of language teaching and learning and to find out what works and what doesn't work in a language classroom.

Keeping adults students happy and motivated in any country involves finding the right balance between real needs and perceived needs. If you are teaching a student in a style, and with materials, that will result in good progress but the student perceived his needs as different from what you are teaching, he will not be a motivated language learner and may well give up after a few weeks. Likewise, a happy student who is learning nothing may weigh heavy on your conscience.

A course like the CELTA (Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults) is a good start to becoming informed about ELT classroom practices and methodologies. It is a very practical one-month intensive course from Cambridge University (U.K.). It's offered regularly in literally hundreds of locations around the world and has become the global standard in initial ELT qualifications. Few language schools outside Northeast Asia will hire teachers who don't have it.

If you are inexperienced and unqualified (qualified here means more than a one-week TESOL certificate) and you really want to teach adults, please contact another recruiter or apply to schools directly.

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