In Korea many people tend to mistake English professors for language and grammar instructors. That is why whenever people discover I am an English professor, they begin to ask many questions about what they can do to study and learn English. It never occurs to them that I am a scholar of English literature, not an English teacher. Even if they knew however, they would think, “English literature is written in the English language, so what difference does it make?”
One of the questions people ask me most frequently is, “How can I master English?” or “What’s the shortcut to learning English?” But as an English literature scholar, I am unsure of what to tell them. Though I am inclined to respond, “To be honest, I don’t know,” I do not want to disappoint them, especially after seeing their faces full of expectation. So I always try to conjure up something to satisfy their curiosity.
Most of the time, I tell those people, “There’s no shortcut to mastering English. I can only give you a piece of advice out of my own experience.” Then I provide them with three answers, which I believe are the most effective ways to learn a foreign language: enjoyment, motivation and immersion.
The importance of enjoyment in language acquisition cannot be stressed enough. You should learn English with pleasure, not pain. If you are a movie buff, for example, watching movies and television dramas is an excellent way to learn English. If you like music, listening to pop songs is another effective way to improve your English. If computer games are your thing, you can also learn English by playing games. I learned English by watching movies and listening to pop songs, both of which were my personal favorite pastimes.
Since then, 50 years have passed and now my own daughter speaks fluent Japanese thanks to her indulgence in Japanese games, animations and comics. Although no one forced her to study Japanese, she naturally acquired the foreign language while joyfully playing games, watching animations and reading comic books.
Unfortunately, instead of employing this method of education, instructors in Korea have emphasized rote memorization of English vocabulary and grammar without meaningful and enjoyable contextualization, partly leading to the failure of English education in the country today.
Another important factor in learning English is motivation. If you have a strong motivation, you can learn English quickly. If the college entrance exam required students to speak in English, for example, all high school students would immediately become fluent speakers.
When I taught at Brigham Young University in the mid-1990s, I noticed that all of the BYU students learned foreign languages quickly because of their determination to become missionaries. As future missionaries, they knew that they would need to become fluent in the target language in order to effectively spread the gospel message. This sacred mission prompted them to dedicate themselves to learning foreign languages with all of their might. If you are determined, therefore, you can easily master a foreign language.
The third important factor in learning English quickly is immersion. Spending a month or two at an English-speaking camp where you are required to constantly speak English for 24 hours a day with native speakers is an outstanding way to drastically improve your English speaking ability.
At BYU, I saw American students speaking fluent Korean after spending two months in the Korean zone where they were required to speak in Korean only. Likewise in Korea, many fluent speakers of English who are now in their 70s and 80s have a history of complete immersion, living for one or two years in an American or British missionary’s home as a house boy to improve their English. Some foreigners, as well, come to Korea and learn Korean by fully embracing the culture, listening to K-pop and watching TV dramas during their homestay.
Today, English has become an international language. Thus the ability to communicate in English gives you a tremendous advantage, especially for diplomats, businessmen and politicians.
When King H. M. Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden delivered a speech in Seoul a few weeks ago, he enchanted the audience with his fluent English. When the Swedish king spoke in English, he did not speak in the language of the U.K. or the U.S. but in an international language. Though some parochial Korean writers today complain as to why our literary works must be translated in English, the answer is simple: because English today has become an international language.
A few years ago, our high-ranking diplomats and airline pilots were required to take TEPS (the Test of English Proficiency developed by Seoul National University) because English proficiency was vital for their professions. Perhaps our politicians, including the president, cabinet ministers and National Assemblymen, should also be required to take the English proficiency test as a prerequisite for their election or appointment. Then they would be able to truly communicate with the world and steer the country in the right direction.
By Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. ― Ed.