Dr. Hyejeong Ahn works as a lecturer at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Her teaching experience spans from teaching English for academic purposes, English as an International Language to intercultural communication skills in professional and academic contexts. Her research interests relate to the field of educational linguistics with a clear focus on teaching English as an International Language (EIL) and World Englishes. Dr. Hyejeong Ahn has published her work on the evaluation of teachers’ awareness of and attitudes towards the inherently evolving pluricentric nature of English. She has argued for developing teacher training courses which inform the current socio and linguistic landscape of English and a reassessment of the notion of English competency for the era of globalization.
Interviewer: Ju Seong Lee (John)
You were born and raised in Korea but you also spent a great deal of time in Australia for your graduate work. You are currently working in Singapore. What a dynamic career (and life) trajectory! Could you tell us a little bit about your professional background and how it was informed by the different contexts you have lived in?
Yes, I have so far lived and worked in three different countries. I spent my “rough” teenage years in South Korea, a very competitive society. Then, I kind of wanted to escape from the fierce competition for a while and decided to travel around Australia. I instantly fell in love with the country and resided there for almost 15 years. Finally, I moved to Singapore with the added adventure of a new life with my husband.
I graduated with a bachelor of Education from the University of South Australia and started working as a primary school teacher in Adelaide, Australia. I had many challenges to overcome in finding an initial teaching job as a newly graduated non-Australian teacher. I worked at a local school in Adelaide for two years and also at an International school in South Korea for about two years. When I was working in Australia, I felt somehow discriminated against possibly because of my foreign accent, my name or appearance, even though students and staff benefited from my diverse background. When I worked at an International School in South Korea, I felt once again appreciated as well as discriminated against by Korean search committees as they might have been looking for “native” English speaking teachers for their school, at the same time they realized the perks that they may get in employing a Korean Australian teacher.
After working two years at an International School in South Korea, I decided to move back to Australia to complete my Masters degree in TESOL, where I found a passion for English language teaching. Studying the TESOL degree and working as non-native teacher motivated me to pursue a PhD in the area of English as an International Language within the sociolinguistic of World Englishes. After completing my PhD, I was very lucky to gain a job in Singapore.
In my new auto-ethnography chapter (forthcoming) entitled, “Help me”: The English language and voice from a Korean Australian living in Singapore, I talk about the challenges and prejudice that I had to overcome while working in three different countries where “native speakerism” is pervasively and deeply embedded in education, particularly in English language teaching. I give a heartfelt explanation of how I went through the process of constructing and continuously reconstructing my multiple identities which were interwoven with my perception of what an ideal English speaker is and myself as an English language specialist working in Singaporean educational context.
In all of three countries, to different extents, I was both advantaged and disadvantaged by being a non-native speaker of English and I will talk more about this in the answer to the following question.
In two of your recent studies (Ahn, 2013; 2014), you mentioned that a form of Standard English such as American English still appeared to play a significant role in norm orientation among Korean EFL learners. In your opinion, what factors may have informed this phenomenon?
Well, my studies suggest that not many English teachers in South Korea are aware of other varieties of English, and they repeatedly stated that they had only had the opportunity of engaging with American English (AmE). All other varieties of English were considered somehow “wrong” or “deviated”, except for so called “Queen’s English”.
Most of my participants in the studies (high school English teachers) mentioned that they thought all “native” English teachers were associated with America and even Korean English teachers that they had met were either second generation Korean Americans or Koreans who had studied in America. They also reported that Korean people with good “American” English skills, tended to graduate from one of the top universities in Korea and had highly paid and socially well-respected jobs, wearing immaculate suits and dresses.
This probably has led most Korean English teachers to regard AmE as a default variety of English to teach and to learn, although they were never specific about which variety of AmE that they were thinking of. I guess it has been uncritically assumed amongst Korean English teachers that teaching and learning English in Korea means teaching and learning AmE.
More recently, you discussed the important role that English teachers play in influencing the students’ attitudinal changes toward other varieties of Englishes (Ahn, 2015). In reality, however, TESOL practitioners struggle with teaching EIL in their classrooms due to language ideologies, Inner Circle-preferred teaching models, American English-oriented pedagogies, high-stakes English tests, and a lack of opportunities to understand the experiences of diverse EIL users. What pedagogical suggestions do you have for teachers who are interested in implementing EIL?
Needless to say, it is absolutely necessary for teachers of the English language to receive sufficient and systematic professional development training to raise their awareness of varieties of English and the socio-linguistic reality of English speaking context in today’s era. They need to be clearly informed about the skills their students need if the goal of learning English is to become a proficient speaker of the language in international contexts.
It is important to develop a knowledge of the lexico-grammar of a particular variety of English but it is also as critical to have the ability to communicate with millions of bilingual English speakers whose first language is not necessarily English. What I am trying to say here is that having the knowledge of the lexico-grammar of AmE and its cultural values as “teaching a language and its culture should be taught simultaneously” will not be sufficient information for Korean students to become proficient speakers of English as an International Language. Teachers of English in South Korea need to be aware of this, hence, teacher training courses must be comprehensively informed and designed according to rapidly changing student needs.
Regarding the issue of the pervasiveness of language ideologies, I believe it is largely to do with the goals of English teaching. In the case of South Korea, the goal of English education has long been closely associated with “preparing for several English tests” that only include the Inner Circle varieties, particularly AmE, therefore, it may have been appropriate for them to teach the variety that helps students to achieve the high scores for these tests.
However, if the goal of English teaching is to prepare students to communicate proficiently with millions of English speakers, who are most likely bilingual speakers of English they should, as mentioned above, be knowledgeable about what skill sets they need to teach their students and focus on the developing an awareness of the current linguistic landscape of English speaking situations.
The negative attitudes towards Outer and Expanding Circle varieties English have been deeply rooted in South Korea, therefore, it needs a steady and systemic approach to change the attitudes of students and teachers of the English language. In order to do so, as the first step, teachers need to be clearly aware of the changing dynamics of English language speaking contexts such as who their speaking partners are likely to be, what topics they are going to discuss, and what kind of greetings they are going to exchange etc.
Many of my English teacher participants in my studies shared embarrassing experiences of not being able to communicate with taxi drivers or shop keepers in India or Singapore, for example, while their husbands or wives who often went overseas on business trips were much better and more proficient at this type of communication . I think sharing these kinds of “real and authentic experiences” would help teachers to understand the need for exposure to varieties of English and knowledge of the features of the English these speakers are using.
Your book (Ahn, 2017) “Attitudes to World Englishes: Implications for teaching English in South Korea” was just released. What are the main messages you are trying to convey to stakeholders such as program administrators and policymakers?
I was hoping to create an awareness in a majority of English teachers and students in South Korea of the following three points: 1) being able to speak AmE well and communicate well with AmE speakers does not mean that you are a proficient speaker of English as an International Language, 2) the importance of raising awareness of varieties of English speakers and English speaking contexts and, 3) the necessity for the re-examination of the hidden discursive practices embedded in the English education policy in South Korea.
Could you tell us what it is like working in Singapore? What advice would you give to TESOL professionals who are interested in working in Singapore and wish to succeed as instructors and researchers there?
First of all, Singapore is a great country to work in. In particular, for TESOL professionals from so called “Western Countries”, Singapore is a “soft-landing”. Singapore has a lot to offer many TESOL professionals as it is a melting pot of Asia surrounded by varieties of cultures and languages. It is truly a multilingual country.
Social respect for teachers is also great and I also enjoy the pay and low taxes too. I can confidently say that Singapore is one of the best places to work in Asia. Also, one of the greatest perks of living in Singapore is that you can easily travel to many countries in South East Asia. Traveling overseas from Singapore is very easy and affordable.
I have also found Singapore to be very safe. Whenever I happen to finish work late, I have never felt threatened about walking home alone. The streets are well lit and people here tend to watch out for each other’s wellbeing.
Almost all Singaporean students speak English fluently as they grow up speaking English and the working language of schools in Singapore is English but they do need to be taught the features of academic writing. This is where the demand is. If you are interested in teaching English in Singapore, I would say, look for EAP related TESOL positions.
Ahn, H. (2013). English policy in South Korea: A role in attaining global competitiveness or a vehicle of social mobility? Journal of English as an International Language, 8(1), 1-20.
Ahn, H. (2014). Teachers’ attitudes towards Korean English in South Korea. World Englishes, 33(2), 195-222.
Ahn, H. (2015). Awareness of and attitudes to Asian Englishes: A study of English teachers in South Korea. Asian Englishes, 17(2), 132-151.
Ahn, H. (2017). Attitudes to World Englishes: Implications for teaching English in South Korea. New York, NY: Routledge.