We Spoke English Without Speaking, Sometimes by Felicia Anderson | USA

We Spoke English Without Speaking, Sometimes


USA | Felicia Anderson


Korean street

Moving to a new country with zero language familiarity came with its own communicative challenges. The year was 2013; I’d just arrived in Seoul, South Korea to begin orientation as an English teacher. The official language of Korea is 한국어 (“Hangul”/Korean). Teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) simply means that the first learned language of my students was something other than English. Various countries recruit individuals whose first language is English to work in-country to assist with English language acquisition. The goal: eventual enhanced global workforce competitiveness. ESL centers also exist in English speaking countries to assist immigrating individuals whose first language is not English with in-country adjustment.

My assignment to teach ESL in a foreign country allowed the incorporation of my native country’s culture as well as the learning of my host country’s culture. What I didn’t expect to learn is the degree to which understanding is more voluntarily than we think. As an ESL educator, we are trained to understand the way the mind learns a second language. We are also equipped with the tools and techniques to facilitate the learning of this language. Sometimes, this preparation falls short. In those moments, we rely on the idea that some aspects of communication are nonverbal. There were instances where the unspoken visual and kinesthetic cues enhanced understanding betwixt my students and I, and the country around me.


The visual is universal. A shoe looks like a shoe, always. This means that a shoe looks like a zapato in Mexico and a zapato looks like a신발  (“shin ball”) in Korea. There were many times when I was able to use a picture to bridge communication gaps. Images served as meeting places of understanding. They allowed my students and I to begin conversations about new ways to describe objects we assuredly recognized, in a language new to us.



In the same way that a shoe visually presents as a shoe, the gesture of gripping a steering wheel/driving a car is universal. Kinesthetic learning is the use of the whole body or its parts (hands, arms, legs), to problem solve and/or create. When learning a new language, most individuals show apprehension when trying to speak with confidence. With learning styles in mind, it’s important to make use of the varied skills of your students for inclusiveness. To improve student response time and reinforce the vastness of their vocabulary, we used Taboo and Pictionary. Taboo and Pictionary are guessing games where players have to identify mystery words or phrases by receiving restricted verbal or illustrated pictorial clues, respectively. In these instances, competition and timing supersede a lack of confidence in one’s fluency.  My students were able to actualize their English or create the visuals for their peers to draw associations between the language and what they knew. And frankly, it was fun.

shops street

Dry Erase Boards

During my first year, I worked at a middle school full of adolescents who were anxiously sorting out their personalities and futures. This made for an electric day-to-day experience. However, in between classes I would sometimes receive silent visits from a student of the Special Education department. Verbally, we were only able to exchange a “Hello!” but nonverbally, her persona was gentle and curious. Still, she felt comfortable enough to fidget with my teaching equipment, I obliged. I would allow her to stay until the class bell rang, then I’d send her off to her next class. On the last day that I saw her, she came in and slowly located a dry erase board and marker. At this point we’d grown accustomed to talking in pictures. She went to the opposite side of the room and began to doodle. Her return wasn’t immediate, so I continued doing some administrative work at my desk. Eventually she came to me, dry erase board in hand. She placed the board on my desk to share her drawing, 3 hearts. After a quick smile and a brief linger, she skipped away. We understood—and that, was the greatest lesson Korea taught.


Felicia Anderson is an International Immersion Enthusiast, Educator, Visual Artist, Writer and Outreach Coordinator residing in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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