EdM Student Minhye Son Thwarts Language-based Discrimination in her Work

Pictured: Minhye Son, photo by Pakpoom Sudwan

Pictured: Minhye Son, photo by Pakpoom Sudwan

by Noriko Kato

When EdM student Minhye Son first came to the United States, she was still learning English. Far from her home and culture in Busan, South Korea, Mrs. Son encountered a disquieting occurrence endured by many English language learners. Her experience rippled through the rest of her academic and professional life.

In 2003, Mrs. Son attended Laney College in Oakland, California upon first arriving to the U.S. During her first semester in an introductory English language course she and other Asian students were allegedly discriminated against throughout the semester.

Mrs. Son remembered her teacher saying, “Yellow fish belongs to yellow pond. Why don’t you go back to your country?” It was this combined with the poor grades she and her Asian peers received which fueled her desire to teach tolerance in a world full of intolerant people.

After attending Queens College in New York for her ESL (English as a Second Language) certification, Mrs. Son came to Teachers College to obtain an extension in bilingual education. “My former professor… who is also an alumni highly recommended this program.”

Mrs. Son herself is fluent in English and Korean, and has basic understanding of Japanese and Chinese. “Being a multilingual doesn’t mean that you just speak several languages, but having the ability to represent different cultures, and celebrating all the diversity, growing your tolerance, and understanding for others,” she said.

While completing her MA in the Bilingual Bicultural Education program, Mrs. Son student taught at a dual-language Korean school in Queens for one year. “This is pretty rare and really progressive because that school has very strong rules for not only teaching but the means of teaching was three days in English and three days in Korean,” she said.

“The language policy is so great there. It was addictive,” she said. While appreciating the students were acquiring English language skills while also building on a second language, Mrs. Son said, “It’s not subtracting what they already had.”

As an MA student, the classes she participated in taught her to view multilingualism as a value not as a problem. “That is the most important thing I got from the program,” she says.

Mrs. Son returned to Korea where she taught ESL in a college and several private schools for two years. She soon moved on to become the educational administrator for the Korean department of the Asia Pacific Economic Corporation, more commonly known as APEC. As the administrator, she served as the international contact point for the minister of education in each APEC country.

After realizing dual language was not the ideal form of language teaching in Korea and longing for a role that would fulfill her deeper interests garnered in California, she decided to return to Teachers College, this time for her EdM in the AL/TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) program.

According to Mrs. Son, it made more sense to apply to TESOL, considering the homogenous nature of Korea’s population.

Now newly wedded and ready to start a family with her husband, a Mathematics teacher in Korea, Mrs. Son returns to New York with a new, more seasoned frame of mind. “My main research area covers language and identity, language policy and linguistic human rights. This is one thing I feel really strongly about,” she says.

On remembering her first experience in California, Mrs. Son says, “I have personally observed intolerance and discrimination and a lot of hatred. There are a lot of social issues that are driven from language variations, accents, backgrounds, cultural differences. I think it all goes back to education and language. It’s so important in our lives. The fact that you don’t speak English doesn’t mean that person isn’t capable of anything.”

After completing her EdM in the next two years, Mrs. Son hopes to pursue her EdD and work as a researcher. “My ultimate goal is to become an advocate for English language learners not only in Korea but everywhere in the world. I want to help people who are treated differently because of their language. That’s why my concentration here is language use,” she says.

Last fall, Mrs. Son took Sociolinguistics and Education, a course which covered language and gender, identity, language variations, language policy, endangered languages, among other topics. Mrs. Son describes the course as, “One of the most important classes because it broadened my view on the issues that are involving ‘language’ that we speak and hear everyday.” She plans to use what she learned as a foundation for her future studies when pursuing her Ed.D at Teachers College.

“Michelle [Minhye] brought so much to the course, contributing her own personal experiences as an English language learner, English as a Foreign Language teacher, English as a Second Language teacher, and as a bilingual-bicultural individual,” said Dr. Linda Wine, Applied Linguistics and TESOL professor and instructor of the course.

“In short, Michelle’s passion, her humor, and her collegiality are a boon to the TC community. I feel very fortunate to have had her as a student and look forward to getting to know her and her work better over the coming years,” said Dr. Wine.

With an MA from the Bilingual Bicultural Education program and soon an EdM from the TESOL program, Mrs. Son channels her passion of thwarting language-based discrimination into her work.

While she has not quite reached her goal yet, she advocates for English learners in a more personal manner. After noticing her husband struggling with an unfamiliar language and lifestyle, Mrs. Son gathered volunteers to participate in an English language exchange group. In fall semester 2014, the group of mostly foreign couples could be found every day on the second floor of the Gottesman Library, trading stories back and forth in both English and their first languages.

Tightly clutching her values on education and tolerance close and with her family by her side, there’s no telling what Minhye Son will accomplish next.

Update: Since this profile was written, Minhye Son was elected was elected as a Co-Chair for 2014-2015 TESOL/AL Roundtable. She will start as an as an adjunct lecturer at the Long Island University (LIU), Brooklyn campus for this summer, teaching ‘Foundations of Bilingualism.’

Photo gallery pictures by Noriko Kato




Nori Kato is a Staff Writer and Office Assistant for the Department of Arts and Humanities. She is also an M.A. student in the International Educational Development program at Teachers College.