For Koreans, English is much more than a lingua franca.
It is a crucial measure of personal marketability, intelligence and even academic assiduity that would facilitate their entry into top-tier schools and high-paying professions, and their rise up the corporate ladder.
Since the 1990s when the government’s mantra of globalization resonated throughout the whole country, English skills have become a vital means of survival in Korea’s hypercompetitive society.
Most students and job-seekers have spent a big chunk of their time and money on picking up the language due to its formative impact on their social and economic lives.
“English has long been a critical part of college entrance exams. Also due in large part to the country’s close relationship with the U.S., infatuation with English has become a sociocultural phenomenon,” said Cha Kyung-whan, the dean of the College of Education at Chung-Ang University.
“English proficiency, measured in specific scores, has greatly influenced many aspects of people’s lives and in many cases, it has actually attested to correlations between one’s English skills and his or her social success.”
Indeed, the influence of English is so profound that Korean parents are overly enthusiastic about the language and teach it to their children even when they have yet to acquire a good command of their mother tongue.
According to last year’s survey of 5,470 parents by an anti-private education civic group, nearly 70 percent of their children received preschool English education with many having started to take private lessons from age 3.
On the back of the English obsession, English kindergartens have gained great popularity despite their high monthly tuition exceeding 1 million won ($946). There are more than 200 English kindergartens in Seoul only.
English education costs for schoolchildren were tallied at 6.5 trillion won in 2012, surpassing the expenditures for any other subject, according to government data. The costs would rise much more considering those who went abroad to study. In 2012 only, 14,340 students flew overseas for education purposes.
“It is a great financial burden to send my twin kids to English kindergarten. But when almost everyone tries to give their kids a head start, I don’t want to let my children lag behind,” said Chang Min-soo, a 42-year-old office worker in Seoul.
“The language is vital for young generations to perform well in this era of globalization. I am sure that this invaluable investment will pay off in the end and will help brighten their future.”
Parents’ enthusiasm for English education is equally strong, but the level of their spending on it varies widely according to their income levels. This has created an increasingly worrisome social problem of what observers call the “English divide.”
“Sending your kids to English kindergartens and to English camps during vacations … it is all about money. Those from high-income families almost complete their basic English education before entering middle school,” said Won Kyu-wang, an English teacher at Goyang Global High School in Gyeonggi Province.
“But those who didn’t receive early education start to recognize their lack of English fluency, hesitate to speak English, try to avoid English-speaking situations and lose communication opportunities. Therefore, their upward social mobility could be restricted in a way.”
According to a 2012 survey by the Korea Development Institute, 20 percent of the students with parents earning less than 1 million won per month received private English education, while nearly 70 percent of those with parents earning more than 5 million won took private lessons.
Beyond the school age, English continues to have a substantial impact on Koreans’ lives as English competence is viewed as a core barometer of their adaptiveness in this information-oriented society with easy Internet connectivity to the outside world.
“In our company, English is a must-have as you should communicate with your business partners abroad. Even though you have special technical expertise, if you don’t have English skills, you can’t carry out your job,” said Cho Sang-il, an employee of a local conglomerate.
“When you are in a global company like ours, communication is of paramount importance. That is why our company offers financial support for English classes and many employees here take lessons, either online or offline.”
The country’s engrossment in English has also affected those who do not need the language in their day-to-day work life. From the civil service sector to local marketing firms and to hospital service, English skills are called for to make their profiles look better.
“I just can’t understand why graduate schools of nursing want their applicants to show their English proficiency,” said Kim Ah-young, a 27-year-old nurse in Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province. “When a professor of the school told me that I scored nothing in the criterion of English proficiency, I was dumbfounded.”
Song Seung-cheol, an English literature professor at Hallym University, expressed concerns that Koreans have developed such a strong penchant for English that they appear to forget the true meaning of learning a foreign language.
“You learn English to better understand English literature or the outside world, or to better communicate with foreign friends. That is the original purpose of learning English,” he said. “But if you learn English to become a community service worker (as required in the application process), that is ridiculous. That should stop.”
This year marks the 130th anniversary of the beginning of Korea’s English education curriculum. It was officially launched with the establishment of a special institute called Dongmunhak to cultivate government interpreters and translators.
Despite such a long history of English education and people’s zeal for mastering the language, the outside evaluation of Koreans’ English skills has been far from satisfactory.
Last year, Korea ranked 24th among 60 countries where English is not the first language, according to the English Proficiency Index announced by Education First, a Switzerland-based educational institute.
Korea was slightly above Japan, which ranked No. 26, but far below other Asian countries such as Malaysia and Singapore, which ranked 11th and 12th, respectively. The institute pointed to Korea’s education methods focusing on rote memorization and grammar as partial reasons for the lack of improvement.
“Among four areas of language ― listening, speaking, writing and reading ― Koreans have focused largely on the passive aspects of English ― namely, listening and reading. But if you want to communicate, you should focus on active aspects such as speaking and writing,” said Kim Hae-yoon, a 38-year-old interpreter who lived in the U.S. for some 10 years.
“Rather than focusing only on the input, Koreans need to put more weight to the active production part of the language. That would help them improve their English competence.”
Despite seemingly lackluster English education here, professor Cha of Chung-Ang University painted a positive outlook of Koreans’ overall English skills in the future.
“If you look at Korea’s English education in a microscopic manner, then there are problems you would want to point out. Yet over the last several decades, there has been much improvement in teaching methods, teachers’ capabilities and overall,” he said.
“Given the early English education, improvement in public education and an increase in the overall language skills of teachers and their experience in the English speaking environment, the country’s education will see a greater improvement in the coming decade.”
By Song Sang-ho