Bridge TV is one of the best English-learning Youtube channels to have hit 100,000 subscribers in South Korea. Your online teacher is Kim Tae-hoon, 35, an alumnus of Dept. of English Linguistics, who made his name as a qualified, impeccable English educator even to native speakers. And the catch? He has never studied abroad. This young man willingly turned the camera on himself, in order to bridge the communicative competence gap of the English language.
A year and a half has passed since then, and Kim is still striving to come up with engaging, creative ways to explain the intricacies of this foreign language to learners. Currently, he is working as a freelance Korean-English conference interpreter, educator, author and MC all at once. The Argus had a pleasure of chatting with Kim about how he got into such perilous, sometimes lucrative, and ever-evolving business like Youtube, and what enigmatic life he decided to take the leap.
When I was little, my father often went abroad for business trips and came back with packs of Disney video tapes like Aladdin or Little Mermaid. I watched those movies on repeat until I memorized the songs, burning the witty lines into my brain. Back then, it was quite rare to be able to watch English animated series before it came out in the cinemas. So, I was one of the lucky few who encountered “English” through play-like activities at a young age. In those days, many learned the English alphabet in middle school, as it was not even a fixture of the elementary curriculum. In this way, I was already at an advanced level according to conventional measures and was complimented on my English almost daily. English allowed me to explore parts of myself that I did not know existed. Compliments from others gave me assurance, and it bolstered my stamina to keep on improving my language level.
Plus, I was one unusual boy that made sure everything fitted impeccably – nothing out of place. I remember myself as an elementary student standing in front of the mirror tending to myself for at least 30 minutes. I was an extrovert that needed the spotlight to shine. [Laughs] English was not an exception. Knowing English was nothing but a sign of intelligence, and I wanted to possess top-notch English skills anyone would hope to speak. During this time, my mother’s business took a dip, and my family had to struggle to make ends meet. I started dreaming of a job in the English teaching industry, which was, to me then, a financially rewarding job, with hopes of saving my family’s business from incapacity.
I have always been a hard-working person. I struggled to satisfy testing requirements so I could transfer to a different university, serve two years in the Korean Augmentation To the United States Army(KATUSA) to get over my limitations as a non-native speaker and beat the 200:1 odd and enroll in the Graduate School of Interpretation and Translation at HUFS. To live up to my own expectations, I have been repeatedly pondering over and over how to widen my exposure to broader horizons, all the while blanketed by a hazy uncertain future. I buried my head, albeit fanatically, into studying from daybreak till bedtime. I clung onto this very quote from Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy: “An education cannot be hacked; there are no shortcuts besides hacking it every single day.”
I thought shortcuts are nothing more than detours in disguise. Whenever I hear that I speak excellent English, I also hear that I am a foreigner. I always think there is this little implication that I must have studied in overseas and perhaps easily attained my skills. I answer them that I challenged myself to learn the language outside of the countries in which it is spoken, and then, they would wonder, “Where did you learn English and how?” Many exemplify greed—seeking more at the expense of others, and they never learn something this simple: Consistency and excellent habits. The effort pays off. Trust me, I tried.
One of my beloved teachers advised me, “Frankly, the Graduate School of Education only offers theories and never practical work. If you desire to have an exhaustive grasp of English, I recommend you go for interpretation and translation studies.” That was exactly how my career as a conference interpreter started out. However, I originally aspired to teach English. The profession of teaching and of interpretation was very important to me. I decided to turn up as a Korean-English interpretation educator, to have my passion for English and my love of teaching come together.
Besides, interpreters are the ones who need to speak in hushed voices, tucked away in small glass booths in the corner of conference rooms. The interpreter is no authority, and can never dress extravagantly in any way like I do in my lectures. I could not have been a full-time conference interpreter, as my extroverted nature just did not allow it. Interpreters are the polyglot wallflowers of the global economy; they do not have a front-row seat to history; they are given up to their profession till the conference ends.
The pinnacle of AI is about being fully autonomous. Recent advances in AI are promising, consistently outperforming humans at driving cars, diagnosing cancer and shooting free-throws, etc. But still, interpretation is still by far, the job for a human brain. Of course, there are a few interpreting solutions already in the market, good enough to solve a mundane, less nuanced task. Nevertheless, there will always be areas that need human backup, as the content is too critical to risk any mistakes. Even the companies that may use machine translation will inevitably assign human interpreters the proofreading job, as machines cannot replicate instincts. What is more, self-driving cars or interpreter codes could provide conveniences for the corporate customers, but VIPs will keep on employing dedicated safety drivers or interpreters of their own.
I know that we cannot predict what the next wave of innovation will bring, but the thing is, what the AI market is now working on is not about the perfect interpretation, but just the amount of improvement needed for real market value. It is not worth the price to develop AI into the level of human interpreters. Asking a computer to interpret live speech simultaneously will add several layers of complexity, and I bet the employers would just employ human professionals.
We are now living in the age of intense disruption, and that proves the peculiar facet of today’s job market: episodic careers. Opt-outs, contingent employment contracts and part-time work and even more. The days of the stable, rewarding lifetime employment at a single job are over. Then, how are we supposed to prepare, respond and evolve before the new reality comes along? Not everyone may welcome the proliferation of freelancing and gig-work, but I thought it seemed to be an attractive career option to establish. I came to the better-late-than-never conclusion that I was not wired into neatly defined careers. Freelance has provided me the luxury of stepping out of office politics and working free from interruption and distraction. Many of my jobs had commission based incentives, and I had always set the goal of leading in sales to generate income with affiliate revenue.
In my early years, I already adopted the habits to build success and learned to deploy that against the market and monetize myself. Youtube was something worth a try. Technology has been rewarding those who embraced it, while those who kept distance distanced themselves from economic reality. While working for an employer is not always transferrable, Youtube allows you to develop customers freely and commoditize attention. It is a platform to challenge the world with what you are good at and for those who dare not to accept mediocre results in linear career progression. As for me, once I become successful in my field, I kept on distracting myself to another career goal. Oftentimes, one path can be a building block for something else, so do not be happy and complacent with what you have already achieved. We all have to think about retraining ourselves in case our jobs or industries change radically and advocate for our own long-term economic health.
I basically utilize Youtube to help fix the vicious cycle in the English education system of South Korea, where most teachers simply teach to test, and ignore excellence in cross-cultural communication and language competency. Kids study to get a higher score on Korean SAT and after they get into college, they continue on for the TOEIC test, the TOFEL test, the IELTS test and what not. As a result, they experience difficulties in speaking it fluently. I believe that English should be a tool to equip our young citizens for the uncertainties and exigencies of the contemporary world. We should not confound the means with the end.
Youtube helps me communicate with learners in relatively concise ways as an educator. However, you should keep in mind that your subscribers do not sit on a desk to watch your videos, but rather they are on sofas or beds. So I need to test different scenarios as a monotonous nature may get your viewer quite tired. Regularly, I click “Reach” from the Analytics menu provided by Youtube, so that I can track the sources from which my videos are getting the views. I can also find out how long viewers watch them, and how consistent they are. My channel has exponentially grown after I produced content on evaluating the English skills of celebrities. Unexpectedly, the fans of those celebrities got mad and posted malicious comments on my channel, but that actually boosted the viewership and subscriber count for my channel. What you may think right might not fit with the audiences! Youtube is completely unpredictable!
I suffered from burnout syndrome several years ago, I was sleeping only a couple of hours per night and working crazily. Absurdly enough, I felt mentally indestructible then and so undermined my constitution. I failed to keep on my permanent life values I want to act upon. So I tattooed three words, for the present memory itself.
First: love. No living being should live without love. This may sound like a cliché, but hey, if you deem love worthless, who would celebrate your achievement with you no matter how successful you become? Being loved means there are people who you do not have to prove your worth to in this given time. Second: discipline. I have struggled a lot for an exceptional outcome in every walk of my life. It is not about being successful, but about being better and not remaining a victim of status quo. I am a climber who cannot see the peak of the mountain but I know it is there, wrapped in the clouds, and so, I keep on going. Last: the integrity. It is the one you should be aware of when you achieve success. Well, I do consider myself a success. I work hard to cultivate the “growth” mindset and reap my benefits. The thing is that there are a lot of successful people who at some point, see what they want to see, that actually can be a distorted truth we cannot accept. I do not call that success. I will keep on with my journey, not losing sight of what my priorities are!
By Kwak Hyun-jeong Associate Editor of Theory & Critique Section