Why Learning (and Teaching) English as a Second Language Isn't as Easy as You Think

by Lindsay Shapka in , ,

1 bow
verb 1 to submit or yield to something or somebody. 2 (also + down) to bend the head, body or knee in respect, submission, or greeting.

Teaching Notes: Explain to the class that when they greet their teacher or someone older than them they ‘bow’ to say hello or to show respect.

2 bow
noun 1 a weapon for shooting arrows, consisting of a strip of wood, fiberglass, or other flexible material held bent by a strong cord connecting the two ends. 2  a knot that can be pulled undone, tied with two loops and two free ends, used for shoelaces etc. 3 an implement for playing a violin, etc consisting of a resilient wooden rod with horsehairs stretched from end to end.

Teaching Notes: Do the action of holding a ‘bow’ to shoot an arrow, draw a picture if necessary, and mention Legolas from Lord of the Rings. Point to someone’s tied shoelaces and explain that anything that looks like that is a ‘bow’, be it on a dress, in your hair or on a gift. Mimic the action of playing a violin and explain that the long skinny piece you use to play the strings is the ‘bow’.

A school yard in Ansan, South Korea

Despite the fact that my sole purpose for going to South Korea was to teach, I hadn’t really ever thought of myself as being a real teacher. I had my Bachelor of Arts in English and so was more qualified than some (you just needed a degree, any degree, to teach English in South Korea at the time), but I had never been professionally trained in the teaching trade. Taking over a high-level vocabulary course in my first month, I realized that teaching English was going to be a lot more real than I had ever imagined.

Never needing to speak anything but English, I didn’t have an appreciation of how challenging learning it as a second language could be until I spent half of a vocabulary class filling up three chalk boards with notes. My blocky writing and sketchy pictures were scrawled across the three walls in an attempt to explain the multiple definitions, uses, and examples of a single three-letter word.

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3 bow
verb 1a to bend or curve, or cause to bend into a curve b (also + down) to weigh down or oppress.

Teaching Notes: Explain that where I live, we get a lot of snow in the winter and it sits on the roofs of our houses. If the snow is too wet, it gets heavy and if the roof is not strong, it will start to sink and bend in the middle. This is called a ’bow’ in the roof. Draw a picture of a ‘bowed’ roof to further illustrate this definition.

4 bow  
noun 1 the forward part of a ship

Teaching Notes: Draw a picture of a ship and point to the front. Clarify that all sides of the ship have names, but they do not need to know the names at this time.

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One of the biggest challenges that came with teaching vocabulary was having to carefully pick and choose the words that I used in my explanations to ensure that my students would understand them. I didn’t want to have to spend valuable time explaining the meaning of a word that I was using to explain the meaning of a word. I had also been warned not to use idioms when teaching my Korean students because they would not understand me. 

I often found myself holding my breath after writing an especially long or difficult definition, hoping that instead of looks of confusion, I would turn from the whiteboard and see their eyes light up and their heads nodding, uttering, “Ahhhhh…ok, ok” in understanding.