Howard plays host to Koreans

Foreign students living with families here, learning English, hoping for edge back home

Koreans find gracious hosts in Howard

July 21, 2006|By JOHN-JOHN WILLIAMS IV | JOHN-JOHN WILLIAMS IV,SUN REPORTER

The first set of wake-up alarms in Eun Shin's West Friendship home sounds

about 6:30 a.m. Minutes later, additional snooze alarms follow until the whole house is awake.

It is not until after a relatively silent breakfast of bagels, fruit, and bacon, that Shin's houseguests - two 14-year-old girls from South Korea - begin to loosen up while waiting to leave for their daily English class, giggling and Hula-Hooping with Shin's 13-year-old daughter Sarah.

This is just the type of interaction the Korean Embassy and the Washington Youth Foundation envisioned when they picked Howard County as the site for the new summer cultural exchange program that places Korean middle school students with Korean-American families for three weeks of classroom learning and field trips.

Shin, who like many Koreans began to study English as a grammar school pupil, said there is nothing like firsthand experience when it comes to mastering the language.

"You need to experience it yourself," said the mother of three children, ages 8 through 13, who has lived in the United States for the past 15 years. "I think it is good for them."

In Korea, where mastery of English can determine a promotion, the type of college a person attends or the chances of international travel, families jump to give their children an advantage over the competition.

So when the opportunity arose for students in the Iksan school system - in the southern portion of South Korea - to go to the United States, more than 50 Korean parents applied.

Each Iksan student accepted into the program was required to pay $2,500; the Iksan Board of Education paid the other half of the costs. Participants also were required to pass an English proficiency test.

The combination of a growing Korean population, a top-rated school system and a suburban atmosphere made Howard County the prime location for the program.

Howard County's reputation in Korea has grown through Web sites that promote the county, articles in Korean newspapers and word-of-mouth endorsements, said Hyung-chul Choi, education director for the Korean Embassy . Howard County beat out Fairfax County, Va., despite having a smaller Korean population.

"Some of the [Iksan] parents prefer to have their children stay away from too many Korean students," he said. "They don't think that [their children] will learn too much about American culture."

Korean parents living in Howard County with children of middle school or high school age were asked to serve as hosts for the 24 students.

"We want [Iksan students] to communicate and learn with them by staying together," Choi said. "The Korean students are not good at English. Even though the young [Howard County] kids do not speak the Korean language, the adults can help."

Hosting the students has also been beneficial for her own children, according to Shin.

"Even though I teach them, they don't know that much about Korean," Shin said. "When [my children] say something wrong, they correct them."

Her daughter Sarah agreed: "I haven't spoken this much Korean since I visited Korea two years ago."

Five days a week, the visiting students attend Patapsco Middle School in Ellicott City for a three-hour English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL, class. They work on reading, writing, listening, and pronunciation. Korean is not spoken in the class.

When they heard about the program, Pat Previdi and Linda Morales, two ESOL teachers in Howard County, immediately volunteered to teach the Iksan students.

Previdi said she wanted the opportunity to teach a classroom of students who are in the process of learning English as a foreign language.

"It's really interesting to see our community through the eyes of someone else," she said.

Morales said she has enjoyed the interaction with students, especially through dialogue journals, which require both the teachers and students to communicate through written entries.

"We get interesting responses," Morales said. "They never cease to surprise us."

Eun Jeong Choi, Shin's niece and one of the houseguests, said she has benefited from her short stay in America and doesn't miss being at home one bit.

"It's very open-minded here," she said. "I get to see different types of races and ethnicity."

The Iksan students have not been the only ones learning a few lessons in the ESOL class.

Byoung-yang Lee, one of four teachers from the Iksan school system who came along for the program, said he plans to incorporate some of the American teaching styles he has observed.

"It's a very active class," said Lee, who added that Korean classes are usually more lecture-driven. "If our government sent more English teachers to take part in ESOL it would be more beneficial to us."

The program offers more than classroom instruction. Each afternoon, the students take trips to regional sites such as the National Air and Space Museum and the National Mall in Washington and the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Today, the students will visit New York City.

For many of the students, the field trips are an opportunity to visit sites that they have only read about in books or heard about in conversations.

Seong-ho Yoon, a 13-year-old who visited an Amish village in Pennsylvania with his host family last weekend, also likes the differences in culture.

"There are many kinds of people here," he said. "I think it's good. They can help each other."

Eun Jeong Choi will have plenty of stories to tell friends when she returns home. She has enjoyed her experience so much that she hopes to return to the United States - she wants to attend Harvard Law School. Her best friend and housemate in the program, Go Eun Choi, also plans to return.

"I want to attend Johns Hopkins," she said.

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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