Guest Post: Korea isn’t the worst place to teach English

When this blog first started I saw it as being something like a Private Eye kind of blog for ELT. I initial wrote posts on things like London MET losing its highly trusted sponsor status or criticisms of the British Council. One of the first posts I wrote was about whether Korea was ‘the worst place to teach English.’ The title of the blog post came from a google autocomplete ‘is Korea…’. 

The post wasn’t very serious, and as I note, I’ve never set foot in Korea in my life. That said, it was, like much on here, just me thinking out loud. I posted it when I’d just started using twitter and I remember someone writing that the post was racist or discriminatory or something like that, and promptly blocking me. 

I was quite alarmed by this reaction and thought perhaps twitter wasn’t the place for me. Around that time, Michael Griffin who back then had some amazing number of followers, (like 700 or something!) retweeted the post and engaged with me about it. I think a lot of people on twitter have had the experience of being encouraged by Mike and I’m grateful to him. 

Anyway, as time went by the post (5th most viewed of all time) started to look less and less at home on this blog. So I asked Mike to write a rebuttal of it and I’m really please to add him to the roster of guest bloggers on Evidence Based EFL. 

One of the first times I read this blog (which I later came to know and love) was a provocatively titled post “Is Korea the worst place to teach English?” I should mention the post was about South Korea (the Republic of Korea) and not North Korea (the…ahem Democratic People’s of Korea). I’d guess that North Korea is among the worst places on earth to do much of anything. If you are interested in learning more about teaching in North Korea I can recommend the (in my view at least) flawed but interesting book, Without You There Is No Us  which the New York Times called “a chilling memoir.: If you are interested in reading one man’s thoughts about teaching English in Korea and why there used to be many complaints please read on. I want to be clear that this is truly just based on my own thoughts and experiences and is much more anecdata than any sort of evidence-based anything. I’d also like to offer the usual caveats about generalizations. Please feel free to imagine the words “sometimes” or “typically” into any sentences that jump out at you as a step too far towards a generalization. Also, in this post I write about the experience and situation related to “native speakers” which it should be noted is actually a very small minority of those teaching English in South Korea. I am also just focusing on the private sector (which means I’m not focusing on public schools or tertiary education).

My first full-time (I hesitate to use the word “real”) job was at a small family-run language school in South Korea (hereafter Korea) way back when. In the era I started, (before the 2002 World Cup) I considered the private education system to be something like the Wild West. Young folks from all over the world (well, actually, not from all over the world, just from the 7 countries deemed to be populated enough by “Native-speakers” of English) were seduced by the  chance of quick, stress-free, and easy riches. There were extremely low barriers to entry which might partially answer Russell’s question about why so many teachers went to Korea in the first place. Korea was in the midst of a push for globalization (and in the aftermath of a financial crisis) and English skills often made a major difference in an extremely competitive job market. Further, the testing and thus teaching (hello washback!) had previously been laser focused on grammar and reading/writing and now there was a sudden push for speaking and listening skills. The belief was that native speakers could fill this gap and thus teachers were hired by the planeload. The idea was that “free-talking” with “native speakers” would be the panacea for any and all ills related to English education.

The element of making a quick buck was also present for language schools (hagwon) and their owners. I got the sense many hagwon owners rushed into the business without much interest, knowledge, or acumen related to running a business or educating people. Korea was gripped by English Fever and it was easy for hagwon owners to make a bunch of money without caring much about what they were doing. I often thought if it was not English education it could be a coffee shop, software, plastics, or some other trend. So, we had a case of easy money with a lack of sincere competition or a desire to change. Hagwon owners were not always known as the most scrupulous people around and the boom period helped keep them afloat.

To my view, in the past, Korean students of English were not very sophisticated consumers of English education. They knew that English was important and accordingly spent time and money in various directions in order to get a leg up on the completion. So, there was a situation where inexperienced and ill-equipped hagwon owners were hiring inexperienced teachers to teach English to students who didn’t really know what they needed to learn (among those who were not forced by their parents to go to class.) That doesn’t sound like a recipe for success does it? For good measure we can add in cultural differences and language barriers to the mix. Again, those involved were not always life-long teachers or managers but rather people quite new to it. I think there was also the element of hagwon owners sort of resenting their “cash cows” who they didn’t value as professionals but rather hired just based on their native tongues and not their skills or knowledge. Many of those hired to teach were not only working full-time for the first time in their lives but were also living abroad (and with the exclusion of college, maybe living away from home for the first time.)  Since these teachers were given limited training and very little in the way of support it’s no wonder there were so many problems.

I think there were bound to be disagreements and challenges. If we squint a bit we can see these as growing pains in an industry that was growing rapidly without a chance to consider where it was going. There were certainly a lot of mismatched incentives and goals.  

Readers with a keen eye for detail will have noticed I used the past tense above. I don’t want to paint an overly rosy picture but I do believe things have changed for the better. I think much of what I wrote above is actually in the past. I don’t think things are perfect but I think they are not as bad as the past or as bad as South Korea’s lingering reputation for TEFLers. I truly believe the industry as well as the parties involved has matured.

In the 2012 post mentioned above Russell wondered why he was hearing and finding so many horror stories about teaching in Korea. My simple thought is and was that those who are generally happy and fine with things and getting on with their life don’t have the energy, time, or inclination to get on Dave’s ESL café (or wherever) and bitch about a whole country or the private education system of a nation they find themselves in. I’d also posit that perhaps the availability bias was at work and the emotionally charged and scary nature of some reported experiences in Korea made them stick out and thus be more memorable. Hopefully with the changes and development I’ve alluded above to the horror stories will become just another memory. 

Me, my wife and I

Should you say ‘me and my wife went to the party’ or ‘my wife and I went to the party?’ 

Most people who are likely to care at all about this kind of thing will tell you that ‘my wife and I’ is correct and anything else makes you sound uneducated or impolite. There are three reasons given for this:

1. The words ‘Me and my wife’ are in the subject position (at the start of the sentence) and so we should use the subject pronoun ‘I’ . 
2. Removing words from the sentence indicates that ‘my wife and I’ is correct. 
3. It is polite to put other people before ourselves. 

In this post I’m going to attempt to convince you that the pillars holding up the ‘my wife and I’ position are unsound. Most of what I will write about comes from John McWhorter‘s lexicon valley podcast (link). I would strongly recommend listening to that instead of reading this. 


Many defenders of ‘my wife and I’ will tell you that this is a ‘rule’. You always have to be a little bit weary when someone tells you that something is a grammar ‘rule‘ because they’re often talking about arbitrary prescriptions or personal taste. This is the case with ‘my wife and I’ which is one of those ‘rules’ that people need to be taught like ‘double negatives‘. I’ve talked at length in this post about how if you need to constantly explain to native speakers that their language use is wrong, then maybe it isn’t. Also, like double negatives, other languages have no issues with ‘me and my wife’ construction. As McWhorter notes, in French ‘moi femme et je’ would not be a possible construction and the correct  ‘Ma femme et moi’ clearly has the object pronoun ‘moi‘ in the subject position. 

so without further ado, let’s have a look at those arguments. 

1. The words ‘Me and my wife’ are in the subject position (at the start of the sentence) and so we should use the subject pronoun ‘I’ 

English sentences usually start with subjects. so in ‘I love you’, I is the subject. If it were the object it would change to ‘me‘ such as ‘you love me‘. The sentence ‘me and my wife went to the party’ seems to flaunt this rule because ‘me’ is in the subject position and so it should be I. 

The problem with this argument is, were it true, the sentence ‘I and my wife went to the party’ would be a perfectly proper sentence, after all, the subject is properly ‘I’. However, ‘I and my wife’ sounds a bit off to me. So is something else is going on here?

McWhorter makes the rather bold claim that ‘me’, not ‘I’ is in fact English’s subject pronoun and that I is a rather special word that is only used when there is only one subject before the verb. Therefore ‘I went to the party’ sounds OK, and ‘me and the lads went to the party’ sounds OK, but ‘I and the lads went to the party’ doesn’t sound right because there is more than one subject. I’d never heard this argument before but I’d welcome some disconfirming evidence. 

McWhorter defends his idea by noting that the sentence ‘Who did it?’ is normally answered by ‘me’. To explain why this is a problem for the ‘my wife and I’ crowd I need to explain a bit of grammar. 

Who did it?’ is what is know as a ‘subject question‘ because the question word ‘who‘ is replacing the subject word of the sentence and so the answer would be the subject of the sentence. It might be ‘John did it’ for instance. This is in contrast to an object question like ‘What did John eat’. You can’t answer this by simply swapping out the ‘what’ with the answer (*pizza did John eat’). 

The answer to ‘who did it’ should therefore be ‘I’ because it’s the subject of the sentence. However people don’t say that. They say ‘me’. So ‘me’, McWhorter argues, seems to be acting as the subject here. You could, I suppose, try to make the case that this is an abbreviated form of ‘It was me’  but this just seems like convenient hand-waving to me.  Besides, the ‘my wife and I’ crowd would surely also insist on ‘It was I‘, not ‘it was me’. 

2. Removing a word will indicate whether the sentence is correct. 

A second pillar of the argument is that If we remove ‘my wife’ from the sentence ‘me and my wife went to the party’ we end up with ‘me went to the party’ which is incorrect and therefore it must be ‘I’ not ‘me’. I have two objections to this. 

Firstly, if you remove any word from a sentence there is a good chance it won’t be correct anymore. Take ‘John and Dave are going to the party’. If we remove ‘and Dave’ we end up with ‘John are going to the party’ which is wrong. The sentence with the word removed though tells us nothing about the correctness of the original sentence. 

Secondly, a form may ‘break rules’ in certain contexts. Take for examples the sentence “I am lucky’. We note that the verb ‘am’ correctly matches the subject ‘I’. However, if we tried to stipulate that ‘I’ must always be used with ‘am’ we would run into problems. In the very specific case of a contracted negative question form ‘am’ changes to ‘are’:

I am lucky 
am I lucky? 
am I not lucky? 
aren’t I lucky? 

I defy anyone to claim that ‘are’ is the correct verb form to use with ‘I’. But in this very specific case most people would accept it as correct. And so it follows ‘me’ might act as the object pronoun most of the time, but it may also act as the subject pronoun in a very small set of circumstance such as with the sentence ‘me and John got pizza’. To see ‘me and my wife’ as problematic but none of the other instances of abnormalities in English ‘rules’ seems wholly arbitrary.  
3. It is polite to put other people before ourselves in a sentence. 
As noted earlier, supporters of ‘I’ being the subject pronoun and thus correct run into problems when encountering the sentence ‘I and my wife’. to get round this the usual suggestion is that ‘it is polite to put your other people before yourself.’ On the face of it, this is quite an odd statement. We are at this point no longer appealing to grammatical accuracy but to ‘politeness’. It is curious then that this ‘politeness’ rule doesn’t seem to work very well when we switch to third person. 

my wife and I went to the party 
His wife and he went to the party 

No doubt, the grammar aficionado would stress that ‘he and his wife’ is correct in this case because we don’t need to worry about ‘putting other people before ourselves’. In that case, and since we are considering ‘politeness’, wouldn’t ‘ladies first’ be a good rule to follow? 

Does all of this mean  that I think everyone should say ‘me and my wife went to the party?’ Not at all! The ‘rule’ is silly, but enough people know it that you risk looking bad by not following it. Rather, I would like people to stop insisting the perfectly normal subject ‘me and…’ is a ‘grammar mistake’. It’s really no more of a mistake than a split infinitive, ‘healthy food or saying ‘I’m good’ as a response to ‘how are you?’ 

It’s rare for me to quote Chomsky in agreement but I think he is right when he says: 

I would certainly think that students ought to know the standard literary language with all its conventions, its absurdities, its artificial conventions, and so on …. I don’t think people should give them any illusions about what it is. It’s not better, or more sensible. Much of it is a violation of natural law. In fact, a good deal of what’s taught is taught because it’s wrong. (Chomsky 1991)