[Eye on English] English fluency required for better life

By Park Hyung-ki

Schools, institutes focus on practicality

  • Published : Jan 8, 2014 - 20:11
  • Updated : Jan 15, 2014 - 17:16

Elementary school students take an English lesson. (The Korea Herald)

Kim Yoon-jeong makes her son study with his teacher who visits her home from a language institution for one-on-one tutoring once a week, and allocates an hour every other day of the week to studying the language online.

This is “the least” she says she can do for her son, when compared with other fourth-graders whose parents commonly send them to institutions or have them study at home with a tutor every day.

Anything more than once-a-week home tutoring would cost extra and would be further burdensome. Study materials, which periodically change almost every two to three weeks, cost 200,000 won to 300,000 won, she noted.

Not only has Kim been pressured by seeing other parents vigorously scheduling and outlining their children’s language education, but also the awareness that English fluency would help advance her children later in life.

“When parents meet at a parent-teacher meeting or while waiting at bus stops before sending them to schools, education ― whether English, math or science ― is the only thing we talk about,” Kim said.

“Speaking the language fluently, as we all recognize, has definitely become the basic minimum requirement for a better life for our children.”

This fervor for English has been around in Korea eversince the country rigorously implemented its economic development plans in the 1970s to overcome poverty.

Korea then sent a large number of civil servants abroad for education to learn the Western methods of development and other fields of studies such as science and engineering, while parents who could afford it started to send their children overseas so they could quickly learn and adapt to English as if it were their first language, a government official said.

The private sector followed this move. Employees took the opportunity to work abroad, not only for their employers’ expansionary vision, but also to give their children the chance they never had when they were young ― to study in an advanced environment that speaks the global language.

As globalization and development pushed Korea to become Asia’s fourth-largest and the world’s 15th-largest economy, the importance of English practicality is being more emphasized in the public, private and education sectors.

Companies of Samsung Group, the country’s largest conglomerate, use the Oral Proficiency Interview by Computer, or OPIC, testing system to evaluate their employees’ language proficiency.

Samsung companies use the OPIC before either dispatching employees to overseas units or deciding to give them a promotion, industry sources said.

Credu, a subsidiary of Samsung Group, has managed the English test for employees of all Samsung subsidiaries since 2005.

“Companies have moved on to look at communication capability and practicality rather than just written test scores of (exams) such as TOEIC,” said an official working in the insurance sector.

“Most nowadays evaluate them by having them take TOEIC Speaking,” he noted.

This overzealous drive for a better life by learning and speaking the language fluently has created serious social side effects such as increased depression and suicide attempts by gireogi appa, or “goose dads,” who send their family abroad, including his wife, while he stays behind to work for their overseas living expenses.

Also, a recent global survey showed that Korea’s English language skills have not improved much despite huge investments over the years.

Korea ranked 24th among 60 countries where English is not a native, official language, according to the English Proficiency Index by Education First, an international education company based in Switzerland.

Korea was below Asian neighbors such as Malaysia (11th) and Singapore (12th) and only slightly higher than Japan (26th).

By Park Hyong-ki (