Volunteers Help Bridge the Language Gap for Defectors

The TNKR Global Education Center is a private, nonprofit facility committed to helping North Korean defectors learn English. One-on-one lessons by native English-speaking volunteers help defectors gain a competitive edge and equal opportunities in South Korean society with its emphasis on English proficiency.

Statistical data show that the language gap between the two Koreas has grown by nearly 40 percent since the national division in the mid-1940s. It has been widened further by a deluge in South Korea of online slang words and odd abbreviations. Many foreign words South Koreans use without a thought are very unfamiliar and bewildering to the defectors. In a 2014 survey by the Unification Ministry, 40 percent of respondents indicated that the plethora of unfamiliar foreign words in everyday use was one of the biggest difficulties defectors who settled in South Korea were experiencing. For example, a defector living in Seoul went to a laundry store displaying a sign, “Computer Cleaning” (meaning “computeraided cleaning”), to have his computer fixed.

Unique Operating System
“English competency,” a hefty burden, has been added to the defectors’ list of difficulties. They want to advance in their studies and jobs by learning English. But most of them do not dare to even think of it because just surviving in their new home is a challenge. The TNKR Global Education Center helps them get over those hurdles through a highly personalized teaching system that many South Korean families would willingly pay premium fees for if they could. TNKR is the abbreviation of “Teach North Korean Refugees”; it’s a private, nonprofit organization that runs a facility (located at 180-8 Dokmak-ro, Mapo District, Seoul) that teaches North Korean defectors English for free. It was founded in March 2013 and is directed jointly by Casey Lartigue, an American, and Lee Eun-koo, a South Korean.
TNKR has a unique program and system of operating as a language teaching organization. They do not teach students themselves, but connect defectors who want to learn English with native English-speaking volunteers who want to teach English. Unlike private cram schools that teach students in classrooms under a preset curriculum, TNKR arranges for students to learn English with teachers one-on-one. Where, when, how, and what to teach depend on the students’ wishes. If they want other teaching styles, students can ask for a change of teachers.
Many students are so enthusiastic that they sign up with several teachers at once. It is very helpful for students to learn from multiple teachers because some are good at teaching spoken English, others at teaching grammar, and still others at giving inspiration to defectors, Lartigue said.
Students can choose teachers at regular matching sessions that are aimed at building mutual trust and increasing efficiency in studying. About 50 such sessions had been held until late 2016. Those on a waiting list come for in-house tutoring sessions at the TNKR office before they are connected to teachers.

Casey Lartigue (standing) and Lee Eun-koo (seated to his right), co-founders and directors of the TNKR Global Education Center for teaching English to North Korean defectors in South Korea, meet with volunteer teachers.

Some 250 defectors have learned or are currently learning English at TNKR. About 55 percent of them are undergraduate or graduate students who want to catch up in school or study abroad.
Some 30 percent are office workers, housewives, and job seekers. According to Lartigue, those defectors who want to learn English to find better jobs and adapt to a new life in South Korea more easily are knocking on the TNKR office’s door. Some 470 volunteers have taught or are teaching here.
The day I visited the TNKR office, I heard that as many as 80 defectors were on the waiting list for matching sessions. Priority is given to orphans, formerly trafficked persons, and those under 25 years old. Those who have learned or are learning English at the center agree that the English education they have undergone here is very helpful to them in finding jobs and adapting to South Korean society.
“It seems that students are satisfied with the English education here because it’s a customer-focused program that gives students a choice,” said Lee. She keeps a journal of feedback received from students.
Though still early in its history, the track record of TNKR’s allvolunteer teaching program can be expected to be studded with many inspirational stories of students as well as teachers. The name Park Yeon-mi comes up as Lartigue speaks of their most unforgettable student. Park did not speak English well when he first met her in December 2012 before TNKR opened. Park then joined the TNKR program in late 2013. Beginning as a student of a re-matching program in January 2014, she studied hard for nearly 40 hours a week, learning from as many as 18 teachers, one-on-one for eight months. She had great enthusiasm for learning English and TNKR gave her a chance, Lartigue said.
Once a promotional ambassador for TNKR, Park is now studying at Columbia University in the United States.
Yang Che-rie, a student in her 30s, said, “Thank God, I now have the courage to express myself in English during classes at school. I’m really grateful to the TNKR for helping us defectors adapt to South Korean society by undergoing substantive English education in a new environment and having a chance to build a human network.”

Some 250 defectors have learned or are currently learning English at the TNKR Global Education Center. About 55 percent of them are undergraduate or graduate students who want to catch up in school or study abroad. And 30 percent are office workers, housewives, and job seekers.

Students’ Enthusiasm
Eom Yeong-nam, an editor and publisher in his 30s who learned English from teachers from Australia, Canada, the United States, and New Zealand, said, “I think I now have a useful tool: English proficiency. I hope more defectors will gain self-confidence at TNKR.”
Volunteers come from several countries and are working in various kinds of jobs. Americans top the list, followed by those from other English-speaking countries like Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Their jobs in Korea range from university professor, schoolteacher, and cram school lecturer to graduate student and freelance writer. As TNKR volunteers they commit to perform the following duties as a minimum: they should teach for at least three months, more than twice a month, and more than 90 minutes per class.

Students learn English in one-on-one sessions with native English-speaking volunteer teachers under the TNKR (Teach North Korean Refugees) program, a teaching approach that would be the envy of most families keen on English education of their children.

Volunteers have various reasons why they are taking part in the TNKR program. The teachers fall into roughly three categories: those who want to understand North Korea and North Koreans; those who want to add their experience of teaching defectors to their résumé of volunteer work; and those who simply enjoy teaching. Others are teaching English here to experience something new and still others want to teach adults for a change, as a break from teaching English to children.
Matthew McGawin, an American teacher in his 20s, proudly said that most students spoke accurately after their pronunciation and grammar were corrected. He pledged to teach better whenever he saw his students’ English improve.
Ryan Gardener is a British teacher who has taught English to six defectors. He notes that the strongest point of the TNKR program is its system that allows defectors to choose native English speakers from various countries to learn many things as well as the language. Furthermore, he said one of the important things is to let students learn English in different settings each time.
The TNKR program consists of two parts to help students improve their English. Track 1, the first step, helps students become familiar with the English language through actual use while learning basic English skills, grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation, and finding ways to study by themselves. In the process of communicating with native speakers, students will naturally learn how to overcome their fear of speaking English with foreigners. Currently, most students have reached this stage.
Track 2 is the step at which students cultivate their ability to express themselves formally in English, including public speaking. It is a special program designed to improve their ability to do busi ness or give public speeches in English. At this stage, they learn how to write and give a speech or a presentation. English speech contests are also held regularly to help defectors overcome both stage fright and the fear of speaking in English in front of other people. The center tries to hold such contests twice a year, in February and August, if possible.
Other languages are also taught at the center. For example, it teaches Latin, which is often used in legal terms, to those students who want to become lawyers.

Private Donations
After earning an MA in pedagogy from Harvard University, Lartigue taught English at Yonsei and Hanyang universities in the 1990s. When he revisited Korea in 2010, he learned about the dire reality in North Korea and began taking a deep interest in North Korean defectors. He was greatly shocked by the news about China’s repatriation of about 30 defectors to North Korea in March 2012. He helped recruit volunteers to join protests in front of the Chinese Embassy in Seoul. There, he met the legislator Park Sunyoung of the minor opposition Liberty Forward Party who had staged a hunger strike in front of the Chinese Embassy. He told her he wanted to get involved in helping North Korean refugees.
At the time, Rep. Park brought up the idea of establishing Mulmangcho (Forget-Me-Not) School, an alternative school for young defectors. Lartigue joined her program as a volunteer board member for international cooperation to help recruit English-speaking volunteer teachers for the school.
It was at Mulmangcho School that Casey Lartigue and Lee Eun-koo found each other in search of a practical way to help North Korean defectors. They readily agreed to work together towards their shared goal by using Lartigue’s network of English teachers and Lee’s network of defectors. The idea that took shape was to lay a stepping stone path for defectors by helping them acquire English language skills, an essential asset in South Korea’s job market as well as in society as a whole. For Lartigue, it was the natural thing to do: Each and every defector he had met asked him to teach them English and he knew that it would be difficult for them to find jobs in Korea unless they had a certain level of English proficiency.
Lee obtained an MA in North Korean studies from the University of North Korean Studies and another MA in international relations from the University of Sheffield in England. She had worked as a researcher for about 10 years at the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights and at the Education Support Center for Young North Korean Defectors of the Korean Educational Development Institute, a government- funded education think tank. Concurrently working for Volunteering Korea, a civic group, she is a co-director of the TNKR program.
The program started only with a handful of students and volunteers, without even an office or a website. It is now widely known among defectors. These days, students who want to learn English can have lively communications with aspirant volunteer teachers via Facebook (https://www., Twitter (@ TeachNKRefugees), or through the TNKR website (www.
The biggest difficulty is the effort’s limited finances. Over the past four years, TNKR has had to move to various places around Seoul, including Itaewon, because it was financially strapped. It has now rented a shabby house in a back alley which fits within the budget. This is, in fact, its first independent office since the TNKR program started.
Office expenses are borne by donations alone. Many teachers buy books for their students on their own or give donations. Impressed by such dedicated outpouring of free volunteer services, some students, too, donate what little money they have. Lartigue and Lee are also contributing their own money. Their eyes sparkling, they both said that they can never give up, no matter how hard their job may be, because they know how eager the defectors are to keep learning.

Kim Hak-soon Journalist; Visiting Professor, School of Media and Communication, Korea University
Ahn Hong-beom Photographer
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