Lost in Translation: Memories from My ESL Days

A few years ago, I spent a year teaching ESL (English as a second language) in the beautiful city of Gyeongju, South Korea.

ESL teacher in Korea using chopsticks to eat cake
Among the many things I learned in Korea was the important skill of eating cake with chopsticks!

My students ranged in age from three years old all the way to fourteen.  Sometimes they made me want to bang my head (or theirs) against the wall, but mostly, I loved those kids.  That year abroad proved to be the most rewording year of my life, a time in which I learned far more than I taught.  I can honestly say, I have never been the same since.

One of my favorite things to do as an ESL teacher was to record the many creative things that my students would say as they were learning the finer points of English.  Sometimes it was a matter of the kids using a word incorrectly, while other times they were using the wrong word.  Sometimes, I just happened to think that the way they chose to phrase something was cute/funny/endearing.  Often, I found myself amazed (and proud) at how students would work so hard to tell me something, using the limited English words that they knew, and actually manage to get their point across (though perhaps in a more amusing manner than they intended).  Because I’ve really been thinking a lot about Korea lately, I thought I’d share some of my favorite “kiddie quotes”:

ESL teacher with Korean students
Me with three of my "kindies": Liz, Erin, and Lynn.

“Ste-panie, we are the same today. You are big me and I am little me!” (Charming words from Anne, one of my most enchanting students. We had on similar outfits that day.)

“Teacher, Teacher!  You have no pants today!” (Cleo, a very adorable and sweet little fourth grader, was surprised that I wore a skirt, after I had worn jeans for a few weeks in a row.)

(Amy, a precocious three-year-old munchkin, was giving me a running commentary on the picture she was drawing during a lesson on members of the family.)  “S-tep-anie, woman is mommy. Mommy has one baby. Is a BIG baby! Baby noisy and mommy and daddy is very sleepy! Baby is very very very very bad baby. Mommy is I’m crazy today!”

Me: “Which is more beautiful, a butterfly or a frog?”
Evan: “Me!”

Me: “Which is more exciting, a roller-coaster or a taxi?”
Chris: “A taxi is more exciting.” [This is definitely true in Korea!]

Me: “Tell me something that is red.”
Ryan: “Teacher, knife and ouch! And finger is red.”

Me: “How are you, Ben?”
Ben: “I’m very head bing-bing crazy today!”

After playing a review game, wise nine-year-old Angie made the following observation: “When Rosie wins a game, there is a lot of noise!” [VERY true!]

Me: “How are you today, Lenny?”
Lenny: “Oh, I am not good. I am die and very hot, and I am happy.”

Anne: “Step-anie, what is monumental?”
Me: “It’s something that is huge–“
Jamie: (interrupting) “Angie is monumental!”
Me: “No, no…” [It went downhill from there.]

Me: “What do you like to eat?”
Jinny: “I like strawberries, and chocolate, and rice.”
Me” “What do you like to eat, Ryan?
Ryan: “I like to eat EVERYBODY!” [He meant everything]

Me: “What is the boy wearing?”
Tom: “He’s wearing blue panties.”
Me: “PANTS, Tom!”

Eddie (a very smart little kindergartner): “Teacher! Teacher! I have many nose water!” [His nose was running.]

Liz (one of the sweetest kindergartners): “Teacher, me grandma is SEXY!” [It took a minute to figure out, but she actually meant to say “sixty.”]

(One of my politest kindergartners, Erin, informed me one morning that she had a dream about me the previous night in which I turned into a monster and ate her.)
Me (feeling concerned):  “Erin, do you think I am a scary teacher?”
Erin:  “Oh, no, Teacher.  You are very nice teacher, but very, very, very scary monster.”

(In a third grade class, I let the students play the board game Life one day.  We did it in teams, with boys vs. girls.  After the boys’ car landed on the “Get Married” space, I gave them a little pink “female” peg for their car. They stuck it next to the “male” peg at first, but then a minute later stuck “her” in the very back of the car.)
Me: “Boys, why is your wife in the backseat?”
Ray: “Because we fight and she hit us.”

(During that same game, the boys’ car landed on the space where you have to pay $5,000 per child for school. As they had four children, they were not pleased about the expense. Toby “solved” the problem by flipping over their car.)
Toby: “Step-anie-Teacher, very sad. Car crash, my kids die. No school!”

(In a fifth grade class, the kids loved the game Apples to Apples.  One time, for the “happy” card, Leon put in the “smoke” card.)
Me: “Why is smoke happy, Leon?”
Leon: “Teacher, when my dad smoke, he is happy.”

(In that same game, for the “tasty” card, Evan put in the “Big Bird” card.)
Me: “Ummm, Evan, Big Bird is on a USA TV show. We don’t eat Big Bird.”
Evan: “Teacher! In USA Thanksgiving eat big bird!”
Me: (laughing) “That’s a turkey!”
Evan: “Turkey is a big bird!”

Me: “So what do you think is scary?”
Lucy (a shy little second grader): “Teacher, elephant is scary. You sleeping and elephant sit and ouch!”

Patrick: “Teacher, what is ‘special talent’?
Me: “A talent is something you are good at, like maybe dancing, or singing, or playing soccer.  The question here is asking what you can do best.”
Angie: “Jamie’s special talent is making Stephanie-Teacher say ‘Jamie, sit down!'”   [So true!]

Me: “Oh, Amber, are you sad today?”
Amber (normally an energetic, spunky kindergartner): “Yes Teacher, I am very sad. I need a hug.”
Me: (after pulling her into my lap and giving her a huge, tight hug) “Is that better?”
Amber: “Oh Teacher, you make very happy hugs. Teacher, I love you.”
Me: “I love you, too.”

Korean middle school student in English class
The last class of the day (with my beloved middle schoolers), on my last day of being "S-tep-anie-teacher". As you can see, I was fighting hard not to cry.

(In one of my most sobering lessons ever, I walked into the classroom to find one of my third grade classes very eager to tell me about something. It took a minute to get them to speak one at a time.)
Me: “So what’s going on today?”
Steve: “Teacher, marker please. I show you.”
(He drew a long, squiggly blob on the whiteboard.)
Steve: “Teacher, this is Korea. July 25, this happen.”
(He drew a line cutting the blob in half, demonstrating the division between North and South Korea.)
Toby: “North Korea and South Korea fighting. Many people die. USA help South Korea.”
Me: “I know, my uncle fought in the war.”
(The students all gazed at me with respect – normally they were my giggliest class, but on this day, they were serious.)
Steve: (very soberly) “Thank you, Teacher.”
Carol: “Teacher, me grandpa fight. He get shot.”
Toby: “My family house here” (pointing to a spot in the North) “and they go here.” (pointing to where Gyeongju would be on the “map”)
Steve: “My grandpa fight too. His leg – ptoo!”
Me: “He lost his leg?”
Steve: “Yes.”
Susan: “Teacher, my grandpa fight. My grandpa brother die.”
Me: (Struggling not to bawl like a baby and knowing that if we kept talking about war, I would) “Well, okay, let’s get started now. Take out your ‘Let’s Go’ books and open to page…”
(Note: There were eight students in that class. Seven of them told me about their grandfathers fighting in the war. The kids weren’t sad when they told me about it; their attitudes ranged between matter-of-fact and serious. I used to think the US should never have fought in the Korean War, but a year over there completely changed my perspective.  These were no longer a mass group referred to as “Koreans”; to me, these were now individuals, with faces and personalities.  I cried myself to sleep one night just picturing what life would have been like for those wonderful students and coworkers of mine, had the US not fought in that “pointless” war.   I have to wonder if someday one of my children will teach in Iraq or Afghanistan, and come back with a similar mindset.  It’s certainly a point to ponder)