“I think language education can play a critical role in the world, since language leads to better understanding other people: If you know a language, you can better understand the person’s true heart.” – Meejeong Song, USA
Anyone who has ever studied a foreign language would attest that small class sizes and the ability to interact with peers in a fun, judgment-free setting are keys to success. For Meejeong Song, class size may not be controllable (her M.A. thesis explored this very topic), but creating the right environment is.
Song herself attended English classes in Korea at a time when grammar was the primary objective. But her teacher took a more conversational – and fun – approach. Experiencing the joy of learning a language inspired Song to make teaching language her career. “Depending on the methodology and approach,” Song says, “language education can make a great difference. The better it is, the more fun it can be and motivate students to gain higher learning goals.”
In addition to being proficient in Korean and English, Song made a commitment to learn Japanese when she was already teaching full-time. In the process, she gained a valuable perspective on language education – that of a student. The experience not only made her a better teacher, it also helped her appreciate Japanese culture and people, an appreciation that came in handy when she traveled there last year.
As our world gets smaller and more interconnected, language fluency has never been more important. With educators like Meejeong Song leading the charge, we know that today’s students will be well prepared to succeed in tomorrow’s world. Here’s today’s Daily Edventure…
What inspired you to become an educator?
I think my English teacher in middle school inspired me the most to be a language educator. English education in the 80s in Korea was grammar-oriented, which means no fun and no function, but my English teacher was different. She focused more on conversational English, which made us enjoy learning a language.
My English teacher had to leave school after a couple of years, but her way of teaching inscribed deep in my heart and actually led me to seek out a pen pal that I could practice English with in my real life. I applied and was assigned a pen pal from Russia who also wanted to practice English. Our letter exchange was a great pleasure and it broadened my view toward the world. I was “A Frog in a Well” (Korean proverb meaning a person who cannot see the big picture), but transformed into an open-minded person to another culture and people. Language can make our lives mature and rich in relation to different people. That’s why I wanted to be a language educator.
What was a defining moment in your career when you felt proudest to be an educator?
It is probably common sense among educators that we gain energy and rewards from our students. Seeing students make great improvements was the most rewarding moment, especially from a student who was struggling at the beginning. That means my teaching methodology was functioning well and it was worth investing extra time with the students for their improvement. Getting appreciation letters/cards from former students — even years after graduation — is another good moment to feel proud that I had a good impact on their lives to grow in society.
Another moment that I felt proud of was when I completed three years of learning Japanese on and off over the course of seven years. As a full-time language instructor, attending classes five hours a week and doing all the assignments was quite challenging, but I never gave up. While learning Japanese, I could see language education from a student’s perspective and it actually helped me a lot in making my teaching more learner-centered. Also, my point of view toward Japanese people and culture had greatly changed. I traveled to Japan last year and could communicate with Japanese people without any problem. It was an awesome moment that I felt made learning Japanese worthwhile. So, I want my students to have the same awesome moment when they can communicate well with native Korean speakers from my instruction.
Why do you feel passionate about innovation and technology in the classroom?
I believe language learning should be fun. Technology helps make learning activities more fun and effective. Relevant pictures and short video clips are often inserted in my PowerPoint slides, since visual resources are effective in conveying a clearer concept in a shorter moment.
Students also do web-based listening, speaking, and reading exercises in and outside the classroom, which enhance their overall language skills. Also, students tend to be more engaged and actively participate while doing web-based projects. Depending on their proficiency level, my students do group projects on Korean culture and society. They choose their own topics, research them, post their work on the project web site and give presentations. These projects are content-based and promote students’ intrinsic motivation. Lastly, students do an e-portfolio using blogs to revise their work and reflect on their learning. I cannot think of a classroom without technology, since technology enriches learning process.
Whether it’s a day-to-day challenge or larger problem, what’s the biggest obstacle you or your country or region has had to overcome, or will have to overcome, to ensure a quality education for students?
In terms of a language teacher, keeping a low number of students in the class is essential: the lower the number, the higher the chance to practice language in class. Also, putting more time for material development and professional development are challenging, due to teaching commitment.
In terms of students, getting a good grade is important, but finding a true value from learning and building a good friendship are more important. As a way to increase students’ motivation and bonding, I coordinate events at the end of each semester: K-Pop Noraebang (Karaoke) Contest and Korean Language Program Showcase. While participating and volunteering in the event, students not only become more interested in learning higher levels, but also gain friendship and bonding. Language can be a bridge between students with different backgrounds. Within this group, students can share a common interest and build a life-long friendship. I think educators should constantly inspire students to be motivated learners and to have a good relationship with others.
In terms of education innovation, what are you most excited about for the future? What is your biggest hope for today’s students?
In the global society, people can easily commute to and communicate with the other end of the world, thanks to the rapid development of technology. I think language education can play a critical role in the world, since language leads to better understanding other people: If you know a language, you can better understand the person’s true heart. I hope there are more multilingual and multicultural people who make the world more open-minded and understanding toward differences. A frog in a well should come out of the well and be harmonized with the whole world.
Meejeong Song, Senior Lecturer, Department of Asian Studies, Cornell University
Ithaca, New York, USA
* Birthplace: Seoul, South Korea
* Favorite childhood memory: Playing the piano, keeping a diary, reading books, having a pen pal. * Favorite books: Little Women, Le Petit Prince, Norwegian Wood, The Lord of the Rings
* Favorite Microsoft product, tool, technology: MS Office, Skype
* What is the best advice you have ever received? “No pain no gain” is my driving force to do my best on my work and life.