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Skyping the cultural divide Canisius College students set up company to help South Koreans improve their English skills in face-to-face contact online

It's hard enough to teach English to someone sitting across the table from you.

Try working with a student who's 6,600 miles away.

That's the challenge for a group of students at Canisius College, who set up a company to help university students and professionals in South Korea improve their English skills.

The teachers in Buffalo and their Korean charges connect online, watching and talking to each other over Skype while bridging a cultural divide.

"We've been getting a lot of e-mails, right after the lessons," said Kaylynn Crumb of the Korean students' response.

"It's good to read them and know they're appreciative," said Crumb, the marketing manager and a former teacher.

The company, MyLinkFace, is operated as a not-for-profit. It provides experience for the student officers and instructors and gives the Korean students a chance to get better at pronouncing and understanding the trickiest English phrases.

The program also serves as a cultural exchange, with each side learning about the other's interests and way of life.

"Their schooling is a lot different. I ask them what their weekends are like, and every one of them says they studied," said Erica Jackson, a teacher and freshman adolescent education major from the Town of Boston.

The students have big plans for MyLinkFace. They want to expand the program to other countries, and they want to serve the Buffalo community by teaching English to refugees.

"We strongly believe they should deliver social value and give back to the community," said Ji-Hee Kim, MyLinkFace's faculty adviser and an associate professor of entrepreneurship.

MyLinkFace has its origin in Kim's social entrepreneurship class at Canisius.

Kim wanted her students to get some real-world experience, and suggested in spring 2009 they try to create a company that also served a greater good.

Her students researched which type of company would match their skills and thought a venture providing online instruction in English as a Second Language, or ESL, would be a good idea.

They looked to South Korea because of Kim's contacts in her native country and because it's a big market for English education.

Initially, the students were going to teach Korean children, but they ran into a problem with the time difference. South Korea is 13 or 14 hours ahead of Buffalo, depending on whether daylight saving time is in effect.

"It didn't work," Kim said, so the team changed its focus to college students and workers, and developed a business plan.

They couldn't begin offering English instruction in 2009, but encouraged Kim to return to it when she taught the class again.

Her spring 2010 students were enthusiastic about the venture, now called MyLinkFace.

Why a name that doesn't say teaching, English or ESL?

Kim said they tried combinations of those words but the Internet domain names were taken.

"We feel we linked each other through Skype, and we can see each other's face through the camera," Kim said, and www.mylinkface.org was free.

Instruction began last June.

The teachers, who receive training, work with their students twice a week for 25 minutes at a time. The sessions take place sometime between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., Buffalo time, Monday through Thursday.

Instructors work from the modern languages computer lab. They talk on headsets and, using a Skype connection and computer webcams on both ends, can both see and hear their students in South Korea.

Some are university students who want general help with their English. Others want specialized training in, for example, handling a job interview or business meeting in English.

The teachers, who are paid $8 per hour to start, draw up lesson plans following MyLinkFace guidelines. Tongue twisters such as "Lucy loves lollipops" and "a big black bug bit a big black dog on his big black nose" are used regularly.

The sounds for "R," "L," "V," "F" and "TH" are tough for Koreans, Kim said.

For example, "DVD" can sound like "DBD."

On a recent evening, Lexi Finn selected a sentence from a list on her computer screen,

"If we can all form a single file line, we will head to art class," she slowly and clearly read.

Hae-Jin Kong silently mouthed the words as Finn, a sophomore from Williamsville, spoke the sentence. Then, Kong, a college student herself, took her turn pronouncing the phrase.

"Try the 'D' in head one more time," Finn said, as Kong carefully repeated, "Head, dih, dih," and the two moved on.

One of Brad Beiter's students loved "Desperate Housewives," but didn't understand when characters on the TV show said they're "freaking out," Beiter said, so he explained the term.

Later on, Beiter told the student that he had a lot of papers due soon.

"You must be freaking out," her Korean student responded.

"Perfect," said Beiter, a freshman Spanish and education major from Hamburg.

Part of the value of the sessions is the cultural exchange.

Crumb, a senior marketing major from the Rochester area, said she talked to her Korean student on Groundhog Day and they compared holidays.

"He told me there was a similar tradition in Korea, but with frogs," she said.

MyLinkFace doesn't charge its students for their English instruction, and relies for now on donations to cover its expenses.

Students fill the management jobs and handle everything from hiring and scheduling to fundraising and marketing.

A few of the managers will leave next month for a trip to South Korea, the first formal visit to that country by a group of Canisius students, Kim said.

One former MyLinkFace instructor already has gone to South Korea to teach English.

The current managers and their successors want to expand MyLinkFace to other countries, and they want to work through groups that serve refugees here to reach that pool of people.

"I think that's a great service that they're providing, and I'd love to talk about ways that it could be applied to the local population," said Eva Hassett, executive director of the International Institute of Buffalo.

For the Canisius students, it's another way MyLinkFace can fulfill its mission to serve.

"We didn't just want to make it international, because we know there's a need here and we want to help meet that need," said Kevin Valletta, a senior from Ohio, who is co-chief operating officer with Lindsey Rizzo.

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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