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Linguistics graduate accentuates the positive

Graduating ASU student Joonwon Lee poses for a selfie in front of fall foliage.

Graduating ASU doctoral student Joonwon Lee gives some sage advice on persevering: "No one knows how your academic journey will go. However, without trying, you will not have a chance to see how your academic journey ends."

December 02, 2022

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2022 graduates.

While traveling around the U.K, South Korean-born Joonwon Lee admits to having a hard time understanding English accents, especially in Scotland. When he arrived at Arizona State University to begin his doctoral studies in 2018, he encountered even more difficulties understanding international students’ English accents. Having been a student in English education, he was embarrassed and frustrated.

But Lee persevered and turned his frustration into inspiration. During his studies and research, he learned about learning transferLearning transfer is the process by which people apply something they have learned in a new context. and thought that it would be a key concept in developing Korean English-as-a-Foreign-Language — or EFL — learners’ listening comprehension. His dissertation, “Listen to the World: Developing Korean High School EFL Learners’ Listening Comprehension of Various Accents through Learning Transfer,” which he successfully defended on October 28, is about how to improve Korean English learners’ listening comprehension of various accents of English. He is graduating from ASU this fall with a PhD in linguistics and applied linguistics.

“I have a strong belief that Korean EFL learners should be exposed to various English accents in order for them to succeed in the globalized world,” said Lee.

For the past seven years, Lee has also worked as an assistant managing editor for the Journal of Asia TEFL. While working for the journal, he could see the trends in the field. He also recognized the qualities of an acceptable publishable paper. This experience helped him to get his own work published in journals. And best of all, “communicating with researchers all over the world, I could cultivate myself as a researcher in the field.” He highly recommends graduate students work in academic journals or conferences to gain beneficial professional experience.

Here, Lee talks about his ASU grad school experience and his goals for the future.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field?

Answer: In university, I majored in English education and was supposed to be an English teacher. However, when I was a senior, I was not sure whether I could handle teenagers and teach them English well. Also, I decided to study English education to help English teachers teach their students more efficiently instead of being an English teacher myself. Therefore, I decided to study more in graduate school.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: Classes at ASU surprised me with a lot of reading assignments. In fact, when I was studying for my master’s degree in Korea, I did not have many chances to read research articles. However, professors at ASU gave students a lot of reading assignments which helped me to develop the ability to think about topics by myself and also to think about how to deal with the topics in case I would investigate the topic.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: About 17 years ago, my mom participated in a teacher-training program in Korea and the program included an abroad practicum session. Through the program, my mom spent a month at ASU and she still has good memories of that time in Arizona. So, she recommended that I apply to ASU and I decided to go to ASU as soon as I got admission, which was one of the best decisions I have made.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: (Associate Professor of English) Mark James is the professor who led me to be interested in the topic of learning transfer. Although I had studied English education in Korea, I was not sure how to help Korean EFL learners to develop their English ability required in the globalized world. However, taking classes from Professor James, I recognized the concept of learning transfer and that it would be an effective way to help Korean EFL learners and teachers to improve their English ability for authentic situations.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Just do it! You might not be sure whether you have been doing appropriately and whether you will be able to do well. Of course, no one knows how your academic journey will go. However, without trying, you will not have a chance to see how your academic journey ends. So, just do it!

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: I spent much time studying in Noble Library. I am a person who needs caffeine a lot while studying, so Noble Library, which has Starbucks on the first floor, was the best place for me to study. Also, the library was not far from my apartment.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I want to get a teaching position in a university. As mentioned, I decided to go to graduate school because I wanted to help Korean English teachers to improve themselves in teaching Korean EFL learners. Therefore, I am searching for a job in university in Korea.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: If I received $40 million to solve one problem, I would spend the money to deal with English teaching all over the world. In the globalized world, English is being used as an international language — that makes it possible for people from different language backgrounds to communicate with each other. However, it is not the case that all the people in the world can have appropriate chances to learn English. Therefore, I would like to spend the money to provide equal and fair chances for people in the world to learn English.

Written by Sheila Luna

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