Queen of English is a homegrown expertIn a typical packed-like-sardines classroom in 1978, E Bo-young, 12, attended her first English lesson with bright eyes. The teacher asked a question: “Anybody know what the Korean word ‘ttal’ means in English?” The class of 74 students fell dead silent, until Ms. E’s tiny yet clear voice broke the ice, murmuring, “Dauta!” The teacher corrected her pronunciation a bit to be “daughter,” while complimenting her on her courage.
Twenty-five years have passed, and Ms. E on a recent afternoon was found in the president’s room of the E Bo-young Academy in Mok-dong, southwestern Seoul. She has made it big as an English teacher despite being a full-blooded Korean whose stays in English-speaking countries never exceeded two weeks. She has a reason to spell her surname E just as in English, not like the usual Lee. The spelling, Ms. E says, came from the love of her life ― English.
Ms. E hosts a popular English educational radio program, “Morning Special,” live every morning at 8 on EBS, along with other TV shows. Her name has become a beacon of hope for many a Korean trying to polish his English. Earlier this month, Ms. E added quite a new aspect to her career by buying enough stocks in two major education business companies to become the second largest shareholder of both.
After all these years, Ms. E still articulates the word “daughter” flawlessly in her seemingly all-American tongue. Ms. E is often asked by native English speakers, “Where in the United States are you from?” She answers, “I learned English only in Korea,” drawing surprised looks. “I don’t have a single bit of regret for not having had the chance to go abroad,” she says.
Ms. E is neither particularly proud of her all-Korean identity nor bashful about it. She just matter-of-factly puts it this way: “I was too busy studying English in Korea to consider going abroad.” For Ms. E, studying English was the most natural thing to pursue, regardless of whether she happened to have the chance to live or study outside of Korea. With her typically bright, happy and contagious smile, Ms. E humbly says her reserved and introverted bookworm personality helped her to be the guru of English. “Clothes horse” was one such idiom that she acquired from keeping her nose to the grindstone.
When she used the term in her live radio program, however, her two American co-hosts did not understand what she was saying. To the co-workers asking her “What? Clothes whore? There’s no such expression in English,” Ms. E showed a dictionary containing the phrase and said, “I won over the native speakers!” That remains one of her fondest memories to date.
It took more than a knack for learning languages to make her what she is today. Ms. E says her mother, Kim Kyung-o, is the one who made everything possible. As a toddler, Ms. E woke up to her mother whispering “Good Morning!” in English. Ms. Kim, 69, the first Korean woman to be an army pilot, says, “From my voyages abroad, I learned the importance of English as the global language.” Ms. Kim also did not want her eldest daughter to be overwhelmed by a foreign language, so she let Bo-young play with it first. What the 8-month-old Ms. E first saw was the English alphabet hung up on her bedroom wall along with cartoon characters. As a toddler, Ms. E started her daily routine with “Woody Woodpecker” and “Sesame Street,” which were broadcast on the American Forces Network. It was her mother who always tuned in to the all-English channel, even though it was undecipherable to the baby girl. Watching her mother giggling with her eyes fixed on “Woody Woodpecker,” Ms. E naturally grew curious about the program. “Come to think of it, it’s highly unlikely that my mom liked such children’s programs. But she did not show any sign of boredom and became my best friend in watching the show. She was the ideal guide and mentor in my royal road to learning English.”
If her mother cracked the door wide open, it was Ms. E who made the most of the opportunity. As time went by, she started watching “Guiding Light” and “General Hospital,” listening to Donny and Marie Osmond and digging into “Reader’s Digest.” Curiosity led her to buy her first English dictionary as a 10-year-old, because she wanted to understand what the television and publications were saying. Then she jotted down the dates in which she looked up words in the dictionary, as a reminder. She discovered the pleasure in having her English dictionary become well-thumbed, which at the same time enhanced her English competency. Starting with her first official English class, Ms. E has felt the pure joy of learning what she wants to. “I loved English classes so much that I learned the whole English textbook by heart,” she says. Once Ms. E gained the reputation of being the English buff at school, her fellow students knew she was the right person to approach with questions on the subject. Then she realized her talent for teaching others, a skill her mother also had. “My friends used to tell me I’m the one who made them understand what the passive voice in English is, not the teacher,” Ms. E says.
No wonder Ms. E decided to major in English language education at college. After graduating from Ewha Womans University, she continued her studies at the Graduate School of Interpretation and Translation at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. She became an interpreter at major international events, such as the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, and decided to pursue work at EBS. Ms. E, however, met with an unexpected glass ceiling. “Since I’ve never lived in English-speaking countries, I was not given a chance to get a major program,” she recalls. She debuted as the host of a radio program for elementary school students, who were beginners in English. One day, however, the head of the station heard Ms. E performing and ordered his subordinates to promote her. Nowadays, Ms. E plays a significant role at the station.
Being an established English teacher does not mean that Ms. E’s command of the language is perfect. “Most recently, I confused ‘rein’ and ‘reign,’ in the middle of being on the air live,” Ms. E says, chuckling. On July 17, Constitution Day, Ms. E was seated in the studio of “Morning Special” despite its being a national holiday.
On that day’s show, during a listener call-in segment, Ms. E’s co-host asked the caller about holiday plans and was told “nothing.” But the co-host misinterpreted and said “okay, what’s that ‘something?’” Then Ms. E gracefully cut in, saying “I guess he said ‘nothing,’ but he just made his day ‘something’ by getting connected to the program.”
The hourlong program typically entails skimming through the day’s morning newspapers in English as well as inviting English-speaking guests for interviews. Ms. E has been on the job for eight years and she’s now the expert.
Ms. E helped “Morning Special” become a popular English-language educational radio program, a rare feat. Her secret is to be “audacious and honest,” as she puts it, with her listener-friendly attitude and elated, clear voice. “When something I don’t know comes up while on the air, I just come clean, saying I don’t know. Then the listeners send in the answers via fax. I’ve had medical doctors send in explanations of the Caesarean operation, which was a thesis worth [of material]. It’s so amazing,” Ms. E says.
Matthew Readman, “Morning Special’s” co-host, says, “She’s the best, being professional in every way possible. Always working hard, challenging and even entertaining, she’s got what it takes to be a perfect English teacher.” Ms. E, however, calls herself the program’s biggest beneficiary. “It has been only recently, like three years ago, that I have begun to feel comfortable with English,” Ms. E says. “I learned the most from teaching.”
But she does not understand the obsession with learning English in Korea. “Koreans are too obsessed about learning English. But I don’t quite get it ― especially when it comes to seeing students trying so hard to go abroad for a one-year-long language course. The true English buffs that I’ve seen in Korea are all homegrown. I’m not a native speaker and I do not have to be one,” Ms. E says. She has the same philosophy when dealing with her 12-year-old daughter, Sang-min. The only time she and her Korean-American husband speak English is when they argue, so as not to let her daughter pick up what they are saying. At the same time, Ms. E furtively expects her “dauta” to grow curious about English, just like her mother.
by Chun Su-jin