Acquisition Of English By A Korean Speaker Cultural Studies Essay

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Jenny is a thirty year old Korean female born in Jeju, South Korea and is married to a native speaker of English. Jenny started dating her husband in April 2006, and she relocated to America in November 2009. She received her undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering from Korea Aviation University in 2000. She is currently in graduate school working on her Master of Science in Math at the University of Southern Mississippi, and she works as a Math tutor on campus at the Math Zone and the Math tutor center. Because of her low GRE and TOEFL scores, Jenny was placed on academic probation for her first semester. She finished the first semester with 4.0 and was admitted as a regular student for the spring semester of 2011. Jenny has aspirations to complete her PhD in Math. Jenny is not currently studying English in a structured manner, but is still in the process of acquiring the language. Jenny claims to have had some communication problems in her classes, but she advises that doesn't feel as if she has had any major communication problems.

Today, it is common for Korean children to begin their study of English at a very early age, even kindergarten, but Jenny, having been born in 1981, began her study of English when she was twelve years old. Jenny also advised that she has studied both Hanja, which are the Chinese characters that have been borrowed by the Korean language, and Japanese. She studied Japanese for one semester during her freshman year at university, and she studied Hanja for three years in middle school. She also attended Hanja lessons at an after school program for three years. Her English instruction began with English lessons at her local middle school three times a week. She also began to attend an after school English program at the age of twelve, and she attended this academy for six years. Jenny has received instruction from both native and nonnative speaking English teachers, but only spent a couple of months in classes with a native speaking teacher. Jenny feels that her English has improved dramatically since coming to America. She links this improvement to being forced to speak English with other native speakers. She also claimed that having to listen intently in class has led to the acquisition of a number of different vocabulary words. Jenny (Personal Communication, February 1, 2011) said, "The more that I hang out with English speakers, the more I can understand".

Error Analysis of the Over-Usage of Ø (Zero Article)

The English article system, consisting of a(n), the, and Ø (zero article) has been determined to be one of the most difficult aspects of the English language to learn and to teach (Liu & Gleason, 2002, p. 2). It has also been shown that Koreans and other speakers of languages without article systems routinely struggle with correct article usage (Han, Chodorow, & Leacock, 2006, pp. 115-116). By careful observation of Jenny's speech, it is apparent that she struggles with article usage. Jenny continues to make article mistakes with the over-usage of a(n) and the, but she more often uses the zero article. Jenny's overuse of the zero article would be consistent with Master's (1997) research that found that advanced learners whose native languages lack articles suffer from the overuse of the zero article and the underuse of the (p. 227). Jenny acknowledged her article mistakes by saying, "I don't think about using the wrong article. I know that I don't use them right all the time, especially, when someone corrects my writing" (personal communication, March 1, 2011). Jenny's use of the zero article is not limited to situations where the definite article should be used; she also uses the zero article in noun phrases that require the indefinite article. Jenny doesn't always make mistakes with her choice of articles, and her correct usage of articles could lead to the conclusion that her errors may actually be only mistakes. Gass and Selinker (1994) advise that mistakes are noticed by the speaker and corrected, but errors are regular events that go unnoticed (p. 102). Although Jenny makes corrections in her article usage at times, her frequent use of the wrong article would categorize it as an error, not a mistake. Examples of these errors are listed here:

(During Personal Communication, March 1, 2011)

1) Jason: What did you do today?

Jenny: I woke up 7:50…That's usually I get up…and I took shower.

Then I got to school about about 9:00 and I went to library.

2) Jason: Why didn't you eat it?

Jenny: I didn't have time to finish. Cause I had to go to Math….Go back to Math… .Math Zone.

(During Personal Communication, March 6, 2011)

3) Jenny: But I think now if I was dating Japanese guy or something like that

Jenny: And I feel so blessed because I am a Korean because we never had earthquake, but maybe we did, but it was slight or only lit …littleer…. little one

4) Jenny: In my whole life I had native speaker just a few hours.

Because the use of articles requires the speaker to distinguish between definiteness and indefiniteness, they are considered difficult to use correctly. Master (1997) claimed that L1 interference, the article system's difficultness, and the amount of times that the zero article is used by native speakers are all factors that lead non-native speakers to have troubles with the overuse of the zero article (p. 227). Yule (1998) states, "…the difference between unstressed a(n) and Ø the zero article may not be very noticeable at all" (p.25). Jenny's problems with articles likely stems from a combination of all four of the aforementioned reasons. Another possible source for her article errors could be her early English learning environment. Because Jenny learned English in an EFL environment that consisted of L1 instruction using the grammar translation method, she has had very low exposure to realistic contextualized input. Since one of the deciding factors in the choice of articles is context, Jenny's lack of contextual input may be a factor in her continued usage of the Ø (zero article).

Although article errors are easily noticed by native speakers, these errors rarely lead to communication breakdowns. This could leave some learners thinking that they already know the article system (Master, 1997, p. 216). Jenny stated that she realized that her use of articles is not perfect, but she may not realize how often she makes these types of errors. Even though these forms are very difficult to teach, it would be helpful for Jenny to have explicit instruction on the correct use of articles. She could also benefit from seeing the different ways in which articles are used in context. Also, corrective feedback from an instructor may be beneficial to Jenny. It would be prudent for Jenny to receive error correction based on her speaking and her writing. By seeing her errors, Jenny may be able to acquire the appropriate rules for the use of articles, especially the correct usage of the zero article.

Contrastive Analysis of Phonology

Although Jenny has been speaking English for almost 20 years, she still has a very non-native like accent. Even if her speech is grammatically correct, she would not be mistaken for a native speaker. Like many Asian learners of English, Jenny struggles with the /l/ and /r/ phonemes, and she also has difficulties with the distinction between the voiced fricative /v/ and the voiced stop /b/.

Ha, Johnson and Kuehn (2009) compared the phonemic structures of Korean and English and found that there are 7 vowel and 12 consonant phonemes in English that are not found in Korean (p. 171). By using the strong version of the Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis (CAH), it should be possible to make predictions of the phonemes that Jenny will have problems acquiring due to these phonemes not existing in Korean. Since it has been shown that consonants, /b, d, g, f, v, θ, ð, z, ʃ, ʒ, dʒ, and r/, are not found in Korean (Ha et al., 2009), Jenny should have trouble acquiring these sounds. Through careful observation and analysis of Jenny's pronunciation, it was found that she does have trouble with the pronunciation of many of the consonants that are not found in the Korean phonemic system. Even though Jenny struggles with the pronunciation of many of these consonants, she achieves native-like production in the use of /d/, /ʃ/, and /ʒ/. Her native like pronunciation of these phonemes shows the limitations of the strong version of the CAH, but it could be possible that Jenny struggled with the acquisition of these phonemes but now has achieved accurate pronunciation. The strong version of this hypothesis has been shown to be faulty; therefore, a precise hierarchy of difficulty would be challenging to accurately predict because of the many other factors that affect language learning besides the contrasts in the two languages. The strong version of this theory has been shown to be ineffective, and Ronald Wardhaugh (1970) claims, "This version can work only for one who is prepared to be quite naïve in linguistic matters" (p. 129).

Through the use of the weak form of the CAH or what is now referred to as cross-linguistic influence, it can be seen that many of Jenny's pronunciation errors stem from interference from her native language. The weak form of the CAH begins with the errors the learner makes and these errors are investigated to see if they were caused by interference Wardhaugh (1970) advises, "It starts with the evidence provided by linguistics interference and uses such evidence to explain the similarities and differences between systems" (p. 126) .

Jenny routinely has difficulties distinguishing between and using a number of English phonemes. The most glaring examples are her use of /b/ instead of /v/, /b/ for /p/, and the constant problem with /l/ and /r/. These problems could be because the phonemes /b/ and /v/ do not exist in Korean. It is interesting to note that the Korean government revised its English Romanization system in 2000, but conflicting Romanization is the norm. It is possible to see the Korean /p/ represented by both an English 'b' and 'p'; often, there is no consensus even in the same document. Borden, Gerber, and Milsark (1983) state, "There is no retroflexed [r] in Korean, only an apical flap occurring intervocalically (Jung 1962). Thus, in Korean, /r/ and /l/ are in complementary distribution and may be viewed as identical in their representation in underlying structure (p. 501). Most Koreans seem to be aware that they struggle with the /l/ and /r/ distinction in English, and many teachers and students of English blame the struggles on the fact that the Korean orthography system does not distinguish between the two sounds. Jenny doesn't seem to have problems distinguishing the differences in the two sounds, but she often fails to produce the correct form when speaking naturally. Jenny was given a list of minimal pairs (see Appendix A) that included both the /l/ and /r/ phonemes. Jenny was requested to read the words aloud as accurately as possible. A recording was made and then later analyzed. Jenny was also observed using many of the words that were included in the list from appendix A in natural communication. There was quite a difference in her pronunciation. Her pronunciation was less accurate in natural communication as opposed to reading from the list. This was expected as students often have more time to monitor their language when performing directed tasks as opposed to speaking naturally.

Although attaining native like pronunciation has been shown to be very difficult, it would be helpful for Jenny to receive several different kinds of instructions to assist her with her pronunciation. Borden et al. (1983) advise that error correction by the teacher is important, but that by having the speaker listen to recordings of their speech can lead to "self-monitoring" (p. 522). Therefore, it would be helpful for Jenny to hear her mistakes so that she can successfully acquire the correct pronunciation of these difficult phonemes.

Communication Strategies

Although an exact definition of communication strategies is still being debated (Dörnyei & Scott, 1997, p. 174), Gass and Selinker (1994) define communication strategies as "an approach used by learners when they need to express a concept or an idea in the second language, but do not have or cannot access the linguistic resources to do so" (p. 515). Jenny has not acquired near-native like fluency in English; therefore she often uses communication strategies to function in English on a daily basis. After several observations of Jenny in natural communication, her use of communication strategies was observed and noted. Jenny makes use of many of the strategies that Dörnyei & Scott (1997) have categorized and defined in their research (pp. 188-194). Jenny regularly uses the strategies of circumlocution, restructuring, and retrieval to assist in communication, but if the scope of this case study was not limited, Jenny could probably be observed using many of the other strategies that Dörnyei & Scott (1997) listed.

Circumlocution has been described as "exemplifying, illustrating or describing the properties of the target object or action" (Dörnyei & Scott, 1997, p. 188). Jenny was observed using circumlocution in the following speech acts:

(From Personal Communication March 1, 2011)

Jason: What did you do at home tonight?

Jenny: I had a beer and did some internet looking. (laughs) .. for a couple of hours

(From Personal Communication March 14, 2011)

Jason: Ok, hmm. Would you say that there are still a lot of people that feel angry towards Japan?

Jenny: Hmmm yes. The generation who had experience with ………When the Japanese were in Korea

Jason: Colonization, the Japanese colonization?

Jenny: Yes, the colonization.

(From Personal Communication March 17, 2011)

Jason: Where did you and Lisa go?

Jenny: We..ahh…went to that place where you can buy a car.

Jason: A car dealer?

Jenny: Right, a car dealer..

Jenny uses circumlocution as a strategy to convey an idea, object, or action that is not in her lexicon. She has become adept at using this strategy to cut down on communication breakdowns and uses this strategy often.

Jenny often restructures her output to compensate for a lack of lexical or grammatical knowledge. Her restructuring often leaves incomplete ideas in her conversational patterns. It was observed that Jenny will often pause and wait for a native speaker to assist her when she reaches a point in the conversation where she does have the linguistic skills to continue. If assistance is not given, then Jenny will restructure her sentence, and then move on. Examples of Jenny's restructuring are provided here:

(From Personal Communication March 14, 2011)

Jason: What about your parents? Are they angry towards Japan?

Jenny: Hmm They are not, we are….., I don't think we talked about it lot. But they're ok about Japan.

(From Personal Communication March 6, 2011)

Jason: Can you tell me how often you studied?

Jenny: I remember I had to go to....It was after school program. I mean hagwon. I remember twice or three times a week. I went to hagwon. Then give me a homework every time.

So I had to……..I once you are in the classroom and you learn something about you learn something and they assign you homework. and I it kind of took one hour to finish it.

Retrieval has been defined as "an attempt to retrieve a lexical item saying a series of incomplete or wrong forms or structures before reaching the optimal form" (Dörnyei & Scott, 1997, p. 189). Jenny often uses this strategy to formulate the correct structure. When Jenny is not under time constraints, she uses the strategy often. It could be possible that her retrieval strategy stems from the monitoring that she is doing of her language. Her use of retrieval can be observed in the excerpts seen here:

(From Personal Communication, March 6, 2011)

Jason: Ok. Jenny, when did you start studying English?

Jenny: Right, before I sss g go went to middle school

(From Personal Communication, March 14, 2011)

Jenny: And I feel so blessed because I am a Korean because we never had earthquake, but maybe we did, but it was slight or only lit …littleer….little one.

Jenny: I really like Japanese culture and really want to visit there one day. I hope they can rec…recovers.. recover from the earthquake.

Through the use of communication strategies, Jenny attempts to circumvent gaps in her communicative competence. After questioning her, she is aware that she often uses these strategies to facilitate communication. It might be helpful for Jenny to receive explicit instruction in other strategies that she can employ to help her communicate. By learning more about the strategies that she uses, Jenny will be able to notice her lexical gaps and try to remedy the problems through acquisition. As her communicative competence increases she will have to rely less on strategies to help her communicate.

Culture Shock and Acculturation

Jenny arrived in America in November of 2009 with her husband. Although she had visited America once before, it was only for a brief vacation. She went through a state of extreme culture shock for a few months. The culture shock that she has been through has negatively affected her acquisition of the English language. Schumann (1986) states that culture shock can produce "a powerful syndrome of rejection which diverts energy and attention from second language learning" (p. 383). Jenny's stage of culture shock began around one to three months after she had moved to Mississippi, and at this stage she made few native speaking friends and begin to spend more time with her Korean friends. This stage of culture shock is consistent with Brown's (2007) description of stage two of cultural acquisition. Brown (2007) believes that persons going through stage two get assistance from peers who share a native country, and this can be a time of sadness and anger (pp. 194-195). During this time period, Jenny spoke very little English outside of her home. Jenny admits that she spent around five to six months feeling like she really didn't fit in. She stated that during this time she was supposed to be studying for the TOEFL and GRE exams, but was not motivated to study. Jenny's rejection of American culture and trouble with acquiring the language are consistent with studies (Schumann, 1986, p. 383) that have shown that during culture shock students may have trouble acquiring the language. Jenny is not sure how long this stage lasted, but until she started attending USM, she claims that she did not have any friends that spoke English natively.

According to Brown's (2007, p. 195) stages of cultural shock, Jenny appears to be progressing from stage three to stage four. Jenny stated, "I feel more at ease in America. I know kind of how American people think" (Personal Communication March 7, 2011). Jenny thoughts on American culture and people place her in Brown's (2007) third or fourth stage, but she admitted that she still sometimes has problems with certain aspects of American culture and understanding why Americans do things a certain way. These types of feelings are more indicative of Brown's (2007) stage three.

Schumann (1975) advised that culture shock is likely to only last for a short period of time, but he cites a study by Larsen and Smalley that claims that cultural stress can also affect the learner (p. 212). Schmann (1975) claims that culture stress, which usually stems from minor problems, may last from months to years and that this stress usually involves "questions of identity" (p. 212). From interviews with Jenny, it was learned that she did have questions of identity at times, but once she began to integrate into an American university and make more English speaking friends, she no longer feels the strong effects of cultural stress. Jenny stated, "After I stopped hanging out with my Korean friends so much and became friends with other native speakers of English, I didn't think about being in a foreign country or miss Korea that much."(Personal Communication, March 7, 2011). Although there are no sufficient pretests or posttest to prove it, Jenny believes that her English skills began to significantly improve once she felt more at ease in America.

Although Jenny has made great strides in overcoming both culture shock and culture stress, she still needs to monitor her feelings. It would also be helpful for Jenny to learn more about the effects of both culture shock and culture stress so that she can better handle these affective concerns if they trouble her in the future.


Motivation has been claimed by Dörnyei (1998) to be "responsible for determining human behavior by energizing it and giving it direction…." (p.117). Research (Dörnyei, 1998; Oxford & Shearin, 1994) has also shown that motivation can have an impact on the amount of language a learner acquires, and Jenny's motivation to learn English has played an important role in her language learning journey. Because English is a tested subject on the high school placement exams in Korea, it was important for Jenny to learn English at an early age. She stated, "We needed to know lots of grammar before we took our placement tests" (Personal Communication, March 7, 2011). Jenny also claimed that she had no thoughts of ever moving to America when she was younger. Although she worked hard to learn the language, she never thought that she would be studying at an American university. She now aspires to be a professor at a university in America, but readily admits that she must improve her English language skills before she is capable of being a full-time professor.

Jenny's goal of being a professor in an American university can lead to higher motivation and performance in her English studies. Locke and Kristof claimed that goals that are precise and hard to reach can cause a goal setter to achieve their goals more often (as cited by Dörnyei, 1998, p. 120). Jenny also must deal with exams and tests that test her ability to use the English language. Dörnyei (1998) refers to these tests and exams as "subgoals" and claims that these can work to motivate the learner and allow the learner to notice the progress that they have made (p. 121). As Jenny continues with her graduate studies, she will be tested often, and these tests or "subgoals" can lead to further motivation for Jenny to achieve her goals.

Jenny states, "My main motivation for learning English is because I am living in a country that speaks English, and I want to be involved. I don't want to be a stranger here" (Personal Communication April 1, 2011). Research by Gardner and Lambert classified motivation into two types: integrative and instrumental (as cited in Schumann, 1986, p.383). Jenny would be classified as having integrative motivation, which Schumann (1986) defined as someone "who wants to learn the second language in order to meet with, talk to, find out about and, perhaps, become like speakers of a target language whom he both values and admires" (p. 383). Since the learner attempts to become part of the targeted language's discourse community, integrative motivation has been thought to the stronger type of motivation (Schumann, 1986, p. 383)

Jenny's desire to "not be a stranger" and her goal of becoming a professor will be strong motivational tools for her to use in the acquisition of the language. As she becomes more involved with other American students and professor, her desire to fully speak and understand the language should grow. Also, as she makes progress in her mathematical studies her desire to be a professor should lead to her concentrating more on language acquisition so that she can attain a position in an American university. It would be helpful for Jenny to reflect often on her language goals. Since motivation plays a large part in language learning, goal reflection could lead to higher motivation which could lead to a higher level of communicative competence.


Because of the limited scope of this case study, there were many issues that were not researched. It would be interesting to investigate the difference in Jenny's acquisition as compared to other Korean students who arrived in America at the same time. It would also be interesting to compare Jenny's acquisition of the English language to students who scored in the same range on the TOEFL test. Many students whose TOEFL scores were in the same range as Jenny's would be placed in intensive English language programs. Has Jenny's enrollment in regular academic classes allowed her to acquire more of the language than students who spent this time in intensive language classes?

Although there are many questions left answered, this case study has provided an overview off several issues that have affected the acquisition of the English language by a Korean native speaker. It has been shown that…………………………………………This case study has also provided a few recommendations for Jenny to further her acquisition of the English language, but there are many issues that affect language learning; therefore, further analysis and observation is required before a complete list of remedial instructional activities can be recommended.