Funny Language Barrier Mishaps

Funny Language Barrier Mishaps

Story #1

So I have a couple of stories to tell. As a brief recap for anyone reading this that does not know, I am a high school English teacher in South Korea. I do not speak Korean. My students do not speak English. Now that we cleared that up let’s get into my stories.

Having to deal with a language barrier practically every second of every day of my life here in Korea, I knew that sooner or later I would encounter some silly experiences. For one of my lessons for my second graders (US equivalent: 11th grade), I did a lesson on music. To start things off, I wanted the whole class to try and come up with as many different music genres they could think of.

So everyone is calling things out and having a blast screaming words at me as I scribble sloppily on the board to keep up with them. “EDM!….RnB!….Rock…Dance House!….Rap!….Hip Hop! Teacher, I said Hip Hop!!”

“Okay, I heard you!”

I write faster. My hand writing gets sloppier.

And then here it comes.


Me: “What?”

“Teacher, Je-jeh!”

“Um…what is that?”

“Je-jeh! Teacher, you don’t know?”

“Spell it, please.”

“Oh teacher, no engalishee.”

Great…what the heck is a je-jeh?? So we move on and complete the rest of the lesson. In the next class, the same thing happened. “Je-jeh, teacher!” And again, I’m looking at them like this…

It took me until my third and final second grade class when they’re screaming Je-jeh!” at me for me to finally get what they were saying.


They were trying to say the word jazz and when I saw a student imitating playing a trumpet, it hit me like a ton of bricks all at once. I’m normally very mild mannered in class but I was so happy to finally understand what the heck they were saying to me, yet filled with shock as to how they got je-jeh from jazz that I whipped around from the whiteboard and said “oohh JAAAZZZ!”

Cue the laughing track because everyone, including my co-teacher (who allowed me to struggle and offered zero translation help for three classes) was even in tears from laughing. Then for the next few minutes I had students mimicking the way I said jazz.


Story #2

In my first grade classes (US equivalent: 10th grade) I am having them do group projects on festivals around the world. Once again, we are starting off with whole group brainstorming. “What are somethings you think of when you hear the word ‘festival’? Try to use adjectives.”

So students are calling things out and once again I’m scribbling away on the whiteboard. I love whole class brainstorming because one student will say something that will allow another student to think of something else that’s related, so they will call that out and so on and so forth. Brainstorming like this allows students to think and say words that they actually know.

For instance, two students might be thinking about the same festival but only one of them knows how to say it, Green Tea festival. The other student knew it was a drink but he didn’t know the English words for ‘green tea’ but he knows the word ‘beer’ so now he can scream out “beer!” because yes, people drink beer at these festivals and yes, there is actually a beer festival. And from there, someone else might shout out “friends!” because in Korea it’s common to go drinking with friends and many people attend festivals with friends. And this goes on and on.

So anyway we get on the topic of water and sand and I have a student call out the word “sharl!”

Me: “…sharl?”

“Sharl! Teacher, shaaarrlll.”

Me: Shark?

Student: Nooo Sharl!

They proceed to try to act it out with their hands.

Me: Ummm…spell it please.

Students: Oh, teacher, no engalishee.

So someone comes up to the board and starts to draw out what they mean and spell it to the best of their ability, and I get this:

Then I understand. Shell. They were trying to describe a seashell.

Me: Ohhh SHELL!

And cue the laughing track again because their pronunciation was so far off. Even my coteacher who walked in as they were drawing it out on the board fell out laughing and goes, “so cute”. So i spelled it out for them the correct way and the entire class went “ooooooohhhh”.

Then throughout the rest of the brainstorming, I have multiples kids across the room going, “ Sheehh-elll, sheeehh-elll.”

So those are some of my language mishaps. And maybe they don’t sound that funny while reading but I guess you just had to be there lol.

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