Writing Foreign Characters and Non-Native Speakers

Finally taking a time-out from life to post. Yay!

I love writing culturally and linguistically diverse characters. As a linguist, I can’t help but consider how such characters would interact. For example, an English-speaker gets pulled into another world; what are the chances of people there also speaking English? Uh, zilch, unless they originally come from an English-speaking country in our world. So then I have to come up with a logical explanation for why my character can communicate with them, because my linguist brain kind of draws the line there for suspension of disbelief.

Seriously. Portals to another world? Sure, taken for granted. Language discontinuity? Stop right there.

One thing I see a lot with bilingual characters is a tendency to defect to their native language for words they don’t know. TV and literature alike are rampant with lines like “Look at that humongous gato!” This in and of itself is fine, but the way I most often see it handled makes me think the writer has never encountered an actual English Language Learner (ELL).

Take the above example. There are a few things that strike me as highly unlikely:

1. The speaker knows the word “humongous,” but not “cat.”

2. The word he/she defaulted on was a noun. Statistically speaking (from experience as an EFL teacher), nouns are easier to remember than most other word types. I’d say the hierarchy of difficulty actually looks something like conjugated verbs -> adverbs and adjectives -> nouns -> interjections.

3. Using gato is fine if the speaker knows the other person will understand, but if not, they would probably try to find another English word to explain. Think about it: If I don’t know the word in your language, why should you know it in mine?

So in a realistic scenario, the person is more likely to say “Look! Big gato!” or “Mira — the big cat!” or even “Look at the big — uh, there!” (with gestures).

If you don’t functionally speak your character’s native language, be sure to do your research. Check Youtube for actual clips of people with that native language trying to speak English. And don’t assume that all ELLs are going to make the same kinds of mistakes. My former Korean and Japanese ELL students, for example, always had the hardest time using “almost.” They would all give me sentences like:

“Almost Japanese people love karaoke.”

“Almost my coworkers go home after eight.”

Literally EVERY. SINGLE. STUDENT. It didn’t matter what their age, what level their English, or what kind of school they had gone to. Even my co-teachers in Korea, otherwise fluent, did this. They were told that “almost” was the same as “most” and it took hours of conditioning to make them drop the habit. My Saudi Arabian students, on the other hand, didn’t really have this problem.

They also have trouble choosing between “a” and “the” because Japanese and Korean don’t have articles. But you can bet Spanish and Italian speakers have got that down.

These few minor considerations can really give your characters an extra dimension of realism, even if your readers/viewers don’t consciously register why.

On the flipside, here’s an example of how badly things can go wrong if you take the easy way out.

Can you think of any instances, literary or otherwise, where a character had an awkward or unlikely line as a non-native speaker?


A Cultural Ambassador Story

Today, students in two separate classes stole entire bags of potato chips from me. In another class, some Trolli gummy hamburgers that I’d bought specially (and for a pretty penny) in Itaewon also disappeared before I’d even opened the snack bag. I was so angry and disappointed, I almost cried.

After class, a quiet/shy first grade girl came to my desk. She comes by often, but until now had always been dragged by her more talkative and outgoing friend. This time she came alone. “Teacher,” she said, “I heard you have American snacks. Can I try?”

I gave her a Combo from a pack that I’d bought in Itaewon. The saltiness was such a shock that her face transfigured, and for a moment I thought she was going to spit it out. When we’d finished laughing, she asked for another one — to give to a friend and get a reaction from her, as well. I gave her the saltiest one in the bag.

It was a short exchange and easily could have been buried under a landslide of other experiences I’ve had in Korea. But it was so, so important, because it’s the perfect example of why I came to this country: to make kids actually want to speak English and try new things.

This story is quite possibly the best reminder of something I’ve been telling myself through all the trials and tribulations my students put me through:

It’s worth it. It’s worth it even on the bad days.

Communicative Language Teaching

It has been a long, long time since I posted about teaching — though with good reason. I’ve been on vacation for the past two and a half months! But now the long winter is coming to an end, and I’m planning my classes for next Monday. Determined to promote communicative English better than I was able to last semester, I pulled out my old textbook and am currently reminding myself of the correct methodology.

All tips following in this post are extracted from Rod Ellis’s book, “Task-based Language Learning and Teaching,” which I highly recommend to all aspiring language teachers.


The Basics

CLT (Communicative Language Teaching) and TBLT (Task-based Language Teaching) have both been around for a while and seem to have a semi-decent foothold in the west, but unfortunately don’t exist in most Asian classrooms. Here, the focus is on Grammar-translation and rote memorization — methods useful for learning isolated vocabulary and grammatical theory, but not much else.

Well, except for scoring high on those standardized tests that are apparently more important than life itself.

The main idea behind CLT is that students learn through interaction with other people, rather than lists and flash cards. This means real language, with context.

TBLT takes this a step further with the theory that new grammar and vocabulary should be integrated within tasks that mimic real life. This way, the student can navigate real-world situations in the target language. TBLT also makes it easier for students to notice the gaps in their knowledge, recognize the usefulness of the target grammar, and be motivated to acquire what they need to fill in those gaps.


TBLT’s Three Phases

Pre-Task Phase: The preparation phase. This can consist of many different activities, including explanation or demonstration of the task, planning time, class dictionary searches, topic discussion, brainstorming, vocabulary worksheets, etc. Grammar does not necessarily need to be addressed here, as it can be explained in the Post-Task or left out altogether.

During-Task Phase: The meat of the lesson. This is an assignment, whether oral or written, that requires students to perform a task they are likely to encounter in the real world. The assignment should result in an achievement (Outcome) of some kind, including physical Outcomes (completed worksheets/writings/maps/food/art projects), new non-linguistic skills (learning something via English instructions), or solving a puzzle (murder mysteries, Taboo). Successful navigation of a scenario (a doctor’s visit or job interview) can also be considered a valid task Outcome.

It is important that students believe the goal of the activity to be the Outcome, even though it’s actually to produce relevant language at the appropriate level. As long as students believe this, they will complete the task successfully. But if they believe the goal is to use language, “there is a danger that the learners will subvert the aim of the task by displaying rather than using language” (Ellis, 8).

Yes, I just threw bookquote at you. Because you want your students solving the problem, not showing off their awesome language skills. (“Let’s see, how can I work the word ‘logarithm’ into a scenario about asking directions to the cafe?”) TBLT is focus on meaning — the point is not flawless grammar and nuanced vocabulary, at least not at this stage…

Post-Task Phase: This is the present/review/reflect/clarify phase. Students should be made to repeat the task (present their answers or reenact their discourse) before the rest of the class. Language production is usually more accurate the second time, as they no longer need to strive for meaning and can now focus on form. Teacher feedback is very important here, as it is the optimal point for either oral or written encouragement and suggestion. You can choose to address common errors or points of confusion from the During-Task Phase, or explain the rules of the lesson’s target grammar — which students should have already noticed patterns for while completing the task. But, as stated above, explicit grammar instruction is not a necessary component of the lesson. Students should also have the chance to reflect on their own performance of the task.



This is all just the very basic components of TBLT, and I’m sure a lot of it sounds confusing if you’ve never studied this methodology before. But once you’ve written a few lesson plans following this three-part structure, it really does become second nature and you start to notice the difference in your classroom.

One great thing about TBLT is the flexibility of it. Some teachers prefer to cut away everything but the task itself, never explicitly explaining form. Others merely supplement other methodologies with short task tie-ins, which is called Task-supported Language Teaching. It’s really up to you how you use it, but I highly recommend adding it to your classroom routine in some way.

For more information and sample lesson plans, check out this page.

For a personal essay on how a self-implemented communicative approach can help you become fluent in a foreign language, check out my friend’s awesome blog post here.

If you want me to just stop advertising links and answer all your questions, leave a comment below.


Ellis, 252

A small offering


When Korean high schoolers get asked to design jack-o-lanterns and witches and to draw a classmate in a princess costume.

In writing-related news, the revisions to Ciphers are 20 pages away from finished. I am currently looking for five qualified betas who can read the manuscript in one week or less. I’m sending out my query letter to the first agent on November 7.

Teaching, Week 1

I have now taught two classes at Geumseong High School, and while they have not been epic failures, they definitely both came with twists.

My first lesson plan revolved around two things: the students asking me questions, and me teaching them about naming conventions as a segue into choosing English names. I had a little handout and a painstakingly compiled list of names for this activity, in which they were to explain the meaning of their Korean name and then choose an English name based on the meaning that best suited them.



As I had to introduce myself, I had the first class ask questions first. No one wanted to volunteer. Fortunately I’d foreseen this and brought some paper squares, which I passed out. “Ask me anything,” I said.

Now, this is a high school containing 80% boys with gender-segregated classes. I knew what was coming, and had left myself open to it on purpose because I had to show them that it wouldn’t get a rise out of me.

The only reason this may have failed was because one boy asked something so utterly ridiculous that I had to laugh — probably leaving every dirty-minded boy in the class to think I was laughing at their “What is your ____ size?” instead the more innocent question that it was.

I liked my second class during this activity, though; I didn’t receive a single inappropriate question. The trade-off? They weren’t really paying attention to my answers. Oh well.

Other very popular questions: “How tall are you?” “Which Korean singers do you like?” and “Do you have a boyfriend?”



Again, this activity went a bit more smoothly in my second class, but by then I’d already had to change the premise a lot. Most of the boys had no idea that their names mean something (Korean names are chosen for meaning and are often meant to be auspicious), effectively ruining that “getting to know you” part of my lesson…

Class one: “Teacher, my name, no mean anything.”

Me: “I think it does. Do you know the Chinese characters?”

Class one: “No, teacher! No Chinese. No mean.”

Me: “Alright, well, just choose an English name.”

Some fifteen minutes passed while they worked in “groups” but actually don’t move from their seats. I walked around, helping out where I could, waking up students who looked like they haven’t slept in three days. When I noticed we were out of time, I told them to pass their papers up.



Other answers filled in, no English name.

So much for giving them name tags next week.

Take 2: Instead of even trying to compare English and Korean names, I went straight to the point: You’re choosing a name with a meaning that suits you. Fill out the paper, turn it in when you’re done.

This time I made my non-workers squirm. “You can’t find a name you like?”




“You don’t like English names?”

“Yeah…” (Meaning no, he doesn’t.)

“Should I pick a name for you?”

“No! Is okay!”

This worked on all but one, who somehow slipped away in the commotion of the period ending.



Oh my god. Each class really does have different dynamics. Where my Monday class was sleep-deprived (likely because it’s an afternoon class) and somewhat perverse, my first Wednesday class had a ton of energy and was never quiet — literally, not for ten full seconds. Thanks to yesterday’s typhoon, I haven’t taught my four Tuesday classes yet, but one of them is supposed to be a fair amount of trouble, while another is full of jokesters on jet fuel.

So, I did feel sorry for my Tuesday classes, since we’ll be meeting about 3/4 as much as any other classes this semester due to holidays… but I got over that soon. XD While I know I’m going to love my students, I am, unfortunately, still mildly introverted. So I think that in order to show these kids my best side, it might actually be beneficial not to meet too often, especially with four classes in one day sapping my energy. I’d rather make the most of the little time that we will have together than begrudge it every week.

That being said, discipline is my weakest point as a teacher, as evidenced both today and on Monday. Writing class rules is one thing, but there’s always going to be a situation I can’t prepare for, or that I just don’t know the proper way to handle. Sometimes I just want to laugh with my students instead of punish someone for trying to be funny. It’s a tough balance find, and the line between “fun teacher” and “mean teacher” tends to slide around in the minds of students.

Well, maybe with my next class I’ll get a better feel for it; they’re supposed to be very high-energy.


Update: I feel the need to reiterate this — BOY does each class have its own dynamic! My last class today was great. Lots of energy, but all I had to do was count down from five and I had their full attention for whatever I wanted to say. They are supposed to be a low-level class in comparison to the rest of the school, but they were absolutely wonderful at following directions. Only two or three look like they might require some more strict discipline. But their main thing will be having to overcome their shyness of speaking.


For the last week I’ve been trying to compile a post, adding a little here and there… only to look at it the next day and find it totally outdated already. In deference to this, I’m just going to skip most of everything that happened (for now) and talk about Naju!



I found out where my placement would be a few weeks ago, but I only learned about my home-stay on Monday night. That gave me only one full day, Tuesday, before my ceremonial departure on Wednesday afternoon. I didn’t know what I would do if I got a huge family — I’d gone broke shopping for gifts in Seoul, and only had enough items for three people. I also hadn’t been able to turn up any gifts for boys. If I got a host brother, I’d be screwed.

Fortunately, there are three people in my family: my host father, Jino, my host mother, Jinheui (sounds kind of like Jenny), and a six-year-old host sister whose English name is Olivia (real name, I believe, is Kio). Olivia is still a bit young for the gift I bought, but I think she can find some use for it. : ) All of them are very kind and interesting people, and really good at English. Jino works in city hall by day, plays on a sports team by night, and built the family home by himself. Jenny is an archeologist who studies the local ruins in addition to doing all the household chores and much of the child-rearing. She’s also a really good cook. Olivia is an amazing little girl who loves, and is very good at, origami. She seems really happy to have me around after two years with only host brothers, and I feel like we already have a strong connection.


Geumseong High School:

Visiting my school for the first time yesterday, I found myself in the care of two male co-teachers, the first of whom picked me up with my principal on Wednesday but is in a different office, and the second of whom has the desk next to mine. I also made friends with one of the substitute teachers, Keumna, who is fluent in English and is studying Linguistics in order to pass an exam and become a certified English teacher.

I think the most outstanding memory I’ll ever have of my first day at this school is the students’ reaction to me. The student body consists of mostly boys, with only two out of eighteen classes being girls’ classes. Walking into the building yesterday morning, a fair number of the boys that were around stopped to stare; some of them even tried a few variations of hello.

But then I went to the cafeteria for lunch with Keumna. The boys were already waiting in a line that stretched outside. As each boy in the rear of the line noticed me, their conversations just shut down and a falling domino effect of “woah!” swept across them. Until I hit the cafeteria entrance, anyway. At that point the dominos were devoured by a deafening storm of the same exclamation. There wasn’t a single pair of eyes looking away from me.

“Ah,” I thought, “no wonder the school requested a female ETA this year.”



I was able to sit in and observe my second co-teacher in one of his classes, but all it did was confirm the lack of communicative learning in the typical Korean classroom. The fifty-minute lesson was essentially:

Lecture, IN KOREAN, on what three parts of speech can modify English nouns.

Turn to this page, answer these questions in Korean.

Check with your partner.

You two, come up and present in Korean.

Now write me a summary, in Korean, of this English text.

Check with your partner.

You two, come up and present in Korean.

And that was it: pure Grammar Translation, like studying Latin back in the 1930’s. I heard literally about a dozen English words the entire class, and the students themselves barely said a word, even to each other. A total of four boys got called on to speak before the class, and both times one of the pair just hung back while their partner did all the work. This, unfortunately, is the typical Korean English class, yet even my Korean co-teacher doesn’t like the methodology.

Seeing this, I’m more determined than ever to utilize TBLT to its greatest effect. I want to use the Noticing Hypothesis, Krashen’s N+1, even Robinson’s terrifying framework for task complexity.

But mostly, I want my students to know what’s it’s like to have fun with English.


Naju City:

My friend Jason and I went exploring today and discovered that Naju may be rural, but it’s also pretty awesome. They have the standard Lotteria and Paris Baguette, and the downtown area has two personalities: quaint and posh. The first part kind of reminds me of Goesan, with a true small-town feel, lots of wood structures, lost of restaurants and uneven pavement and a distinct lack of walkways. But it also has a charm about it. This is where the mom-and-pop restaurants are, as well as the bookstore, the Korean equivalent of a dollar store, and the bus terminal. The posh side is perfectly geometrical, paved with granite cobblestones and filled with high-end clothing shops with large front windows and a distinct lack of city grime.

Just between these two areas is a convenience store that sells real espresso for only a thousand won. The money I spend there will probably single-handedly fund the next upgrade on their espresso machine.


Future Plans:

Tomorrow I’ll be heading to Gwangju, the neighboring city, with the rest of the Naju Nine (of which there are five) to meet some of our fellow ETA’s there. We have no idea what we’re going to do, but today Jason coined the term YOLiKO — You Only Live in Korea Once — and now I feel that we must live by that!

Jino offered to take me hiking on Geumseong Mountain this Sunday. It’s become my favorite landmark when I’m out and about, so I’m really looking forward to seeing what the view is like from the top. Hopefully there’s a good place to get photos of the city.

My school kind of asked me to write a textbook for my class. I’m not entirely sure how legit it has to be or how long I have to do it, but I would assume “fairly legit” and “uncomfortably soon,” considering I teach my first class on Monday. At least I’ll be able to say that I’m a published author…

In the long term, I’m still hoping to keep up with my Korean through either self-study or a class, and to find an archery school in Gwangju that will take me as a student. I already know I’ll be doing a ton of traveling this year — no worries about that. And I set myself a completion deadline for the second draft of Ciphers. December 1 is the day I must have it query-ready. Just in time for the holiday rush!

%d bloggers like this: