Elaine Chuong (left) exploring Hanok Village in Jeonju together with fellow TaLK scholars she met during orientation.
January 28, 2020

Career direction inspired by teaching experience in South Korea

Two years ago in the small town of Sunchang in South Korea, linguistics student Elaine Chuong unexpectedly found exactly what she was looking for in a career.

During her six months teaching English to elementary school students as part of the Teach and Learn in Korea (TaLK) program, she realized she could apply her linguistics background to the classroom. Combined with her newfound passion for teaching, Chuong knew she wanted to become an English as a second language (ESL) teacher.

Chuong took a leap of faith when she joined the TaLK program in 2018. Feeling unmotivated and looking for a break from her studies, she jumped at the opportunity to work and travel abroad.

It proved to be a life changing decision—not only did she find her career direction, she also attained a lot of personal growth. 

“You are not only learning about another culture and gaining work experience, you are also learning about yourself,” says Chuong. “There were many moments that I felt alone but I became more independent and a stronger person because of the experience.” 

Chuong’s TaLK experience pushed her to become a better student. Since returning to Simon Fraser University (SFU), Chuong quit her part-time job and began to focus more on her studies.

"My experience helped me find my motivation again and my grades have improved since then," says Chuong. "I could apply my TaLK experience to what I was learning and I have found my courses to be more engaging." 

Determined to establish a career in ESL education, Chuong tailored her degree by adding a minor in curriculum and instruction, and a certificate in teaching ESL linguistics. She is also supplementing her teaching experience this semester with a linguistics practicum teaching adult ESL classes at VGC International College. 

"The TaLK program gave me the opportunity to learn more about myself and illuminated a pathway for my future," says Chuong. "I got to travel to places I would have never gone on my own while also making lifelong friends and everlasting memories." 

A closer look at Elaine's TaLK experience

What happens when you arrive at South Korea? 

When I first landed in South Korea, we had a two-week orientation program in Daegu. Once you head off to the city/province you are assigned to, there is another smaller orientation program. You are also assigned a mentor teacher who generally speaks English and can assist you with questions on living in Korea. I was fortunate to have a supportive co-teacher for my after-school classes who helped me supervise the classroom and translate when needed. 

Did you have time for travel?

In the TaLK program, we only teach for 15 hours a week. So between that and lesson planning, there is a lot of flexibility for travel. You make a lot of friends at orientation and even though we were all later placed in different areas, we would travel to each other's cities during the weekends. South Korea has a good transportation system so it is easy to travel to other places. 

Helpful courses? 

  • LING 200: Introduction to English Sentence Analysis
  • LING 321: Phonology
    This course was very helpful in helping me understand the mechanics of how sounds are produced, and it informed the way I taught the children how to pronounce certain words.
  • LING 322: Syntax
  • LING 360: Introduction to Applied Linguistics 
    This course introduces the theories of second language learning and the mechanisms of language acquisition.
  • LING 362: Introduction to Teaching English as a Second Language to Adults
    Although this course is focused on teaching to adult learners, a lot of the concepts and teaching principles can actually be applied to the classrooms in general. If you are interested in teaching and want to have a good background knowledge, I highly recommend this course.

Tips/advice for other students? 

  • Apply through the SFU Co-op program! I applied for the TaLK program on my own through the Korean consulate but looking back, I wish I had applied through SFU Co-op instead. The application process can be quite complicated, and it was difficult trying to keep track of the multiple deadlines and what I needed to submit. With Co-op, you receive more support with the application process along with funding opportunities, insurance coverage, and additional support during your time in South Korea. 

  • Establish a good relationship with your mentor teacher. They are your support system and can help you with settling down in your new life (eg. accommodations, cell phone plan, cultural questions etc). 

  • When you first arrive at your apartment with your mentor teacher, be sure to ask them for the Wi-Fi password and how to turn on the heater (especially if you arrive during the winter season like me). Everything was written in Korean, and I felt absolutely lost during my first night. You might feel like you don't want to bother them but these are easily forgettable necessities! 

  • Take the opportunity to get yourself set up during orientation. I waited until I got to Sunchang to set up my bank account and I regretted not doing so during orientation as it would have been much easier that way. 

  • TaLK scholars are usually assigned to rural areas in South Korea where children do not have a lot of exposure to English so there is a language barrier. However you don't need to be fluent in Korean to connect with your students. Learn a few basic phrases, use hand gestures and simple sentences, and be creative with your lesson plans! 

  • While TaLK provides a good opportunity for travel, I think it is important to remember that you are there to teach and that the children depend on you. Reflect back after each class and don't be afraid to experiment with your lesson plans to see what worked and what didn't. 

  • Bring treats and candies that are unique to US/Canada! They are useful for cultural lessons and as a reward system for the children. 


The TaLK program was established by the South Korean government to increase accessibility to quality English education in rural areas. 

As a TaLK scholar, you will have the freedom to create your own lesson plans and lead after-school English classes at a public elementary school for only 15 hours a week. 

Your flights and accommodation will be covered, you will be paid, and you will have the opportunity to explore all that South Korea has to offer. 

Applications for the August 2020 cohort opens in February.