Understanding Your Student’s English

Understanding Your Student’s English


When you first get to Korea there will be a lot of things that you don’t understand. Unfortunately some of those things will be what your students are saying, in English, in an attempt to talk to you.

I always always try to at least pretend like I know what they’re saying, especially if it’s a pronunciation problem, because there is nothing worse than saying something in a language you learning and have the native speaker not understand you.

(And their Korean teachers correct them all the time anyway, so I just want my class to be the place where they’re not worried about being corrected every time they speak.)

I know how discouraging it is. It happens to me in Korean all the time.

So here are just a few of the things you might hear, and even though they’re all English words, you might have a hard time understanding.


“No question!”

When I heard this for the first time it took me a second or two to figure out what my student was trying to say. But the context gave it away in the end. I was in a grade two boys class and after doing my usual little, “How are you guys today?” bit a student raised his hand and said, “Teacher yesterday was my birthday!”

My first reaction was of course, “Oh wow! Happy Birthday!” however all the other students collectively groaned and then a bunch of them, all at once, said in English, “No question!!”

Given the situation you can probably figure out what they were going for. I then found myself teaching the very sarcastic phrase, “Nobody asked” to a room full of sassy 14-year-old boys. Here’s hoping they use it well.


“First spelling”

If you’re playing a game where they have to guess the answer you may here this. “Teacher! First spelling!” This just means they want you to give them the first letter of the word they’re trying to guess.

When one of my favorite little guys said this to me the other day I thought he was asking how to spell the word first. “First spelling? F-i-r-s-t.”

The confused look on his face immediately told me that was wrong but it wasn’t until his partner, a very high level kid, said, “Teacher he wants the first letter.”

Despite caring a lot about English spelling the kids seem to not know the word “letter.” It’s also possible that I just get this question a lot because giving them the first letter is usually my way of giving hints when we play a guessing game.


“Poop hair!”

This is as funny as it sounds. Imagine me, fresh off the plane and just a few weeks into my life in Korea. I walk into one of my little girls classes and everyone erupts into, “Teacher! Poop hair!”

What they mean is bun. I was wearing my hair in a bun that day and, “poop hair” is a literal translation from Korean (똥머리) that, while it sounds cute in Korean, sounds disgusting in English. So don’t worry they’re not saying your hair looks like actual poop.


“I’m hard”

Yes you read that correctly. And yes it’s good to prepare yourself for the first time you hear this in the classroom. Especially if you teach middle school like me. Because I can almost promise you will hear it.

This is, again, a kind of weird translation from Korean that sounds very odd, shall we say, in English.

There’s a phrase in Korean that people say all the time that kind of roughly means like, “Ah so difficult” or “so hard” or “so exhausting.” I hear it a lot thrown around the office when the other teachers are really busy or stressed.

So when they want to say that word or convert that feeling in English sometimes the “I’m” gets put in the front and that’s where the problem comes it.

Anyway, if you hear it don’t think to much of it. I’ve yet to hear it said as anything other than a translation of 힘들다.


“Eat deliciously!”

As I write this out I realize that all of them are mis-translations from Korean, and this is no exception. There is a phrase, 맛있게 드세요, that students say to teachers and teachers say to each other before we eat. In English it would be something like, “enjoy your meal” but it literally translates as “eat deliciously.”

Once I was in the convenience store by my house during summer vacation, buying something to eat for lunch, and I bumped into a few of my grade one girls. They asked me what I was buying and I told them I was getting lunch. And as they were walking out one of the girls shouted, “Teacher eat deliciously!” And as she said it I could tell she realized it was wrong, but I got the sentiment.

(Korea tip: if you say this to the other teachers when you sit down at a table to eat they’ll be really impressed.)


“Tall eyes”

This is an idiomatic expression in Korean (눈이 높다) which means to have high standards. But the literal translation is “tall eyes.” In the beginning everyone’s favorite question for me was, “teacher, do you have a boyfriend?” And after saying no a few of them would then ask if I have “tall eyes.”

The first time I heard that I had absolutely no idea what it meant so thankfully my co-teacher was there to help.



I’m sure there are tons more and once I start the new semester I’m going to be on the look out for other common mis-translations. But for now I hope these help a little or are at least interesting to everyone else!

Thanks for reading!

3 thoughts on “Understanding Your Student’s English

  1. This list is absolutely golden. Even knowing that poop is a cultural and societal cutesyfied meme of sorts in Korea (poop-shaped lollipops, etc), it’s hard to imagine the phrase “poop hair” as anything other than an insult. Maybe speakers of other languages think it sounds super weird and gross to name a hairstyle “pigtails”, who knows?

    It’s stuff like this that makes me love learning languages so much.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So true, I’ve heard almost every one of these. First spelling is new though. I always have my kids saying “Teacher freedom time!”, they basically want to do nothing all class haahah


    1. AH I’m glad it’s not just my kids!! Haha maybe I get, “first spelling” a lot because that’s how I usually give hints. “Teacher freedom time” is awesome though! At least they’re asking these things in English, so I guess we can’t mind too much lol


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