More specifically, as a non-native Korean tutor.
It’s been around two years since I started teaching Korean, but less than a year since I started doing one on one lessons. Before that, I taught at a local Korean language school, where I was put in charge of small classes of beginners and lower intermediate students. It was just something fun I did on the side, when I wasn’t working at my main job.
And then the pandemic hit, and everything came crashing down. I wasn’t making anything from my main job. After about two months of consideration, I decided to start giving online lessons, with the support of a great friend who was my first customer/student. (He’s still one of my students today!)
It’s been almost a year. There were some ups and downs, but I’m glad I did it. The experience definitely reshaped some of my approaches to language learning and enhanced my understanding of the Korean language, but most importantly, I think it changed me a little, as a person, for the better.
I’m writing this article because it was something I desperately needed when I first started this job – someone who’s tried teaching Korean as a non-native speaker that has never lived in Korea, someone that could tell me what to do, what to avoid and basically how to not suck, I guess. I did find some people in the language community that fit the bill, but while they offered helpful advice on teaching platforms and lesson formats, none of them talked about the imposter syndrome that was wreaking havoc on my poor mind.
The Imposter Syndrome Hell
I must admit first that it still plagues me to this day, though it does not have as much of a hold on me as it used to. For those who don’t know what it is, Imposter Syndrome is defined as a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their own skills or accomplishments to the point that they develop an internalised fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’.
I’ve always struggled with this, in pretty much every job I’ve ever had and everything I’ve ever tried to do, but it got really bad with Korean teaching. I felt like because I’m not a native speaker, I am worth less as a teacher, or worse, I shouldn’t be teaching the language at all. Most non-native Korean teachers that I saw online at the time were living in Korea or have at least lived in Korea for an extended period of time. This further cemented my belief that I was a fraud, who had no business teaching Korean to anyone.
Look for Role Models
I know that true validation comes from within, but seeing people who were/are in circumstances similar to yours thriving, or even just trying, really does go a long way towards relieving some of those vicious, poisonous thoughts of self-doubts. It’s not going to solve the problem, but it’s a good place to start.
I was lucky to have these examples in my life. The language school I taught at was dominated by non-native teachers, actually (though that’s probably partly due to a lack of access to native teachers). I also had the pleasure knowing two of the most well-known Korean learning content creators in my local community, 줄힐미 and 쑴, who also started teaching around the same time.
There’s also Lindie Botes, one of my favourite language content creators on Youtube. According to her website, she started teaching Korean way back when she was still in South Africa. She also made a video 2 months ago on language tutoring, which I’ll link here.
But of course, anyone who struggles with the Imposter Syndrome would know that this is far from enough. We’ll look for any excuse to tear ourselves down. We’ll tell ourselves that we aren’t like these people – they’re more talented, they’ve been learning the language longer than we have, they’re smarter, they have the TOPIK II Level 6 certification (which was actually one of the reasons why I decided to take the test), etc.
We need to do more than just seeking inspiration and comfort from others, because as important as that is, true validation, as I mentioned earlier, comes from within oneself. And for me, that meant facing my fears head-on and taking concrete actions to minimise their influence.
Be Upfront, Be Realistic
Personally, I think it helps to be honest from the get-go about what we can or cannot do. The logic underlying our fear of being exposed is that we’re afraid that we aren’t as good as people think we are, and that we’re eventually going to get called out for it.
For me, one way to sort of get around this is to be upfront about my abilities and qualifications from the start. I make it clear that I’m not a native speaker, that I’m reasonably proficient in the language (I scored Level 6 in TOPIK II), and that I’m still learning.
It’s important to maintain this honesty in class too. If I’m asked a question that I don’t know the answer to, I tell my students that I don’t know, but I’ll find out for them and let them know as soon as I can – instead of making something up. In fact, it’s probably something every educator should do, imposter syndrome or not. How else are your students supposed to trust you?
And people can surprise you. Me being me, I’d expected my students to lose faith in me after I tried to be upfront with them about my abilities. Just as well, I’d thought, maybe they would see me for the fraud that I am and leave, and then I could just go back to looking for a job like I should be doing. But they didn’t. Sure, some people left (which was fine), but believe it or not, most adults don’t actually expect others to know everything. I know, shocker.
Setting a realistic scope of work helps, too. For example, I limit my clientele to only beginners and lower intermediate learners, because I genuinely don’t think I’m the best candidate for teaching someone who are more advanced in their skills. I also try to keep my rates at a level that I think wouldn’t keep me up at night tossing and turning in guilt (I already feel like a scammer for even trying to teach), without hurting my peers. I remember going on italki to find out the average rates for informal Korean tutors and basing mine on that.
Identify Your Strengths
Yes, they exist. If you find it difficult to see them (as I did), try talking to someone else about this. Someone who knows you well, or even just someone in the community. After all, who would know the needs of your potential students better than a fellow language learner?
It is true that native-speaker teachers excel in many regions where I do not. They have an intuitive knowledge of how the language works, and probably better pronunciation. They know the culture inside out and things that I, as a foreigner, am not privy to.
But there are some things that I do better than them, too. My fluency in English and my mother tongue makes it easier for me to explain concepts to local students who speak the same languages as I do. I’m able to draw parallels and comparisons between Korean and our languages, which may help them remember certain things better.
Having Mandarin Chinese as my mother tongue also means I have an intuitive knowledge of hanja-derived words, which makes explaining vocabulary a lot easier. I can show my students how those words connect without really having to study each character beforehand, because I already know them.
There’s also my experience with learning the language myself. I may not know the language inside out the way a native speaker does, but I know the process of learning it – perhaps more deeply than most native speakers ever would. My years of studying the language has given me an intimate understanding of the challenges one may face while learning Korean, especially those who speak the same languages as I do.
Leverage on Them
The next step, naturally, is to leverage on these strengths. For me, that meant, first of all, identifying the similarities and differences between Korean and the mother tongues of my students. I made dual-language materials, and in doing so, uncovered many challenges that I didn’t know existed for the speakers of English and Mandarin Chinese, which surprised me. I then realised it was because that as a fluent speaker of both of these languages, I was able to alternate between the two the whole time I was studying Korean, depending on their proximity to the Korean language at a given moment. Whenever I learned a grammar point that was similar to something I knew in English, I would jump on that association right away, completely ignoring Mandarin; likewise, whenever I came across something that had a close equivalent in Mandarin, I would stick to that and completely give up on attempting to establish any semblance of connection between Korean and English.
This was fine as a language learning method – it was efficient. But it left a lot of gaps in my understanding of how the Korean language relate to either of these languages. There were things about the Korean language that I can explain perfectly in English but not necessarily in Mandarin, and vice versa. Discovering this allowed me to work on filling in those gaps.
I also try to put my hanja knowledge to use. For my Mandarin-speaking students, I try to introduce it as early as I can, so they can leverage on it as I did. For my non-Mandarin-speaking students, I try to introduce the concept once they’ve gained a solid foundation in the language (usually after they’ve moved on to lower intermediate materials), with an approach that focuses not on how the characters are written, but what they mean and how we can combine them to form new words.
And lastly, as a language learner myself, I try to be as sensitive as I can to the needs of my students, and the challenges they’re facing, some of which I can even sort of anticipate, having struggled with the same things in the early days of my study. I try my best to take these things into consideration when I design my lessons. I also try to share my own experiences with my students as often as I can, to remind them that I too struggled with the same things, and if I could overcome them and get to the level of proficiency I’m at today, so can they.
Manage Your Weaknesses
Yes, there are things that a native-speaker teacher is always going to outperform us on, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything about them. For example, while I think I have a decent vocabulary size for someone who’s been learning the language for as long as I have (6 years and counting), it’s nowhere near a native’s level. And that’s normal – of course someone who’s lived in Korea and spoken Korean all their life is going to know more Korean words than I do.
I try to counter that by preparing ahead. I would go through my lesson materials before the class and play a little game where I try to predict what sentences my students might attempt to make (I put a pretty heavy focus on sentence-building) or what questions they might ask, in order to identify potential gaps in my knowledge. If I think of a word that I realise I don’t know how to say (like mailman – I literally learned that just 2 months ago), I look it up.
Sometimes, despite all my preparations, I find myself surprised by their questions. In which case I tell them that I don’t know or that I’m not sure, that I’ll verify after the class and get back to the them with the answer as soon as I can.
Another one of my concerns was that there are still going to be moments where I’m not 100% sure if a sentence sounds natural or not, especially if I’ve never heard it said before. I can tell if something’s grammatically wrong, but whether or not something sounds 100% native-like – there are times where I am not completely sure.
My solution to this is to build a reliable support network. I have made some Korean friends over the years, most of whom started out as my language exchange partners. I still talk to them regularly, and I know I can go to them if I have any questions. If there’s something I don’t know the answer to, I turn to naver, and I run whatever I find on naver by my friends to make sure I’m not giving my students wrong information.
A Question of Value
What comes next is going to be more of a letter than the closing of an article. I didn’t intend for it to be one, it just turned out that way.
So, value. It’s something I struggled with a lot. I used to – I still do actually, to some extent – struggle with perceiving and accepting my own value. When you struggle to see your own value as a person, it affects pretty much every aspect of your life – your relationships, your work, etc. The toxic belief that you are worth less than ‘everybody else’, it seeps into every little detail of your life and corrupts them, like poison.
When it came to work, I constantly charged lower than what I probably deserved – whenever someone asked me about my rates, I would find out what the average rates were and shave one or two hundred ringgit off. I knew it was bad, both for me and my peers in the industry, but not doing that meant sleepless nights and panic attacks, so I did it anyway.
A good friend – the one who joined my class to support me – told me that it was a willing buyer, willing seller situation. If someone accepted the rates at which I was offering my service, that meant in their personal opinion, they found whatever I was offering worthy of that price. That they were happy to pay that price for my work, nothing more, nothing less. It’s not the be-all and end-all verdict on my inherent value as an artist, writer or teacher.
A different person might feel that I’m not worth the money I’m asking for – and that’s okay, too. People are free to think whatever they want and make their own decisions. Likewise, someone liking my work doesn’t actually elevate the quality of it – it just means they like it. It’s a good thing that they like my work, but I’m not instantly better at what I do just because someone thinks so, and likewise, just because someone decides that I’m rubbish, doesn’t mean I actually am. I remain the same person with the same skillsets through this whole thing – the only that changes is others’ perception of me.
And I know it all seems so obvious, like duh, Heather, did you really need someone to tell you that? But I did. As someone who grew up basing her entire self-worth on what others thought of her, I actually struggled a lot to even wrap my mind around the concept of having my own inherent self-worth that exists independently from the judgement of those around me. When I asked my peers or seniors for advice on what to charge, I was often met with a simple ‘whatever you are comfortable with’ and I always found that ridiculous. Comfortable with? What do you mean? How am I supposed to know how much I’m worth?
Because the truth is, without someone telling me what I’m worth, I wouldn’t know. I had come to define myself by what others labelled me.
And that’s just sad.
I’m happy to say that I’m doing a lot better now. I’ve been working on building up my self-worth, and I think my experience with teaching Korean helped a little. I tell my students straight up what I can or cannot do for them, and then I tell them my rates. If they accept it, they do so as adults who are making an informed decision based on their own needs and priorities. I’m not scamming them.
I know it’s a bit ridiculous having to convince yourself that you’re not scamming people by being, I don’t know, imperfect, but that’s how my brain works. I’m working on it, but these changes don’t happen overnight, and I know that there are others out there who struggle with the same thing. People who have to constantly deal with guilt over literally just being human, who think they cannot possibly be worthy of anything, and that anyone who tells them otherwise is just confused, misled somehow (cue more guilt) or too kind to tell the truth.
I still sometimes wonder why my students chose me. I’ve even asked one of them (whom I have grown quite close to), “Don’t you want someone better?” and she gave me the sweetest answer. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, every one of us has something to offer, whether it’s your skills, your experiences or even your passion.
No matter what your skillsets are, who you are and where you’re from, someone out there is going to see value in what you have to offer. And when that happens, I hope you’ll have the grace and courage to accept it. You don’t have to understand what others see in you. You just have to accept that they do, and keep working at it so that one day, you do, too.
Best of luck, stranger. I wish you all the best.