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[Kim Seong-kon] How to improve English proficiency

My recent column, “Crisis of the university English department,” drew a considerable amount of feedback from foreigners, visiting or living in Korea, who are keenly interested in the problems surrounding English education in Korea. 

Michael Haenel, a German documentary filmmaker who recently visited local Korean high schools for filming wrote me about his experience with the Korean students he met:    “I regret that most of them do not speak one word. And speaking to me would be very easy: my ‘English’ comes from watching CNN.” Since he was not a native speaker of English, Korean students could have spoken to him in English more comfortably, even if they were not sure of their own English. Unfortunately, however, they did not say a word to the German filmmaker when they met.

Since English shares many characteristics with the German language, we may argue that a German can learn English easily from watching CNN, whereas Koreans cannot. That may be true to a certain extent, but not entirely. My father, for example, learned English from listening to the AFKN (American Forces Korea Network) radio for about three months and then passed the exam to become an English interpreter at the U.S. Military Government in Korea right after the liberation in 1945.

In his e-mail to me, Haenel also pointed out another phenomenon he noticed during his sojourn in Korea: the serious lack of Korean understanding of foreign cultures. He wrote, “In my point of view, many people here from 10 to 70 years old think all social circumstances in other countries are the same as in Korea.”

He calls those silent students in uniform that he met “scholar soldiers” who have had few chances to communicate with others or learn other cultures. In this age of multiculturalism, homogeneity is no longer appreciated or valued. However, Haenel laments that the “one nation, one race” mentality is not gone yet in Korea.

Meanwhile, an American scientist who lives in Korea also wrote to me and pointed out that people should know that English literature is no longer the national literature of the United States or the United Kingdom per se, but is now a global literary art form.

“In college we are confronted, whether explicitly or implicitly, with questions such as: ‘What are some of the greatest examples of thinking and doing in history? How might I, someday, somehow, achieve such accomplishment?’” He implied that English literary masterpieces such as Shakespeare’s works can provide a superb example.

Nevertheless, the American intellectual poignantly criticizes the highly inefficient, wayward English education system in Korea: “With Herculean expenditures of time, effort and money, the outcomes seem slim.” He writes, “A year of study gives rise to a single, nervously uttered, ‘How are you?’” Perhaps Korean students can utter a little more, such as “I’m fine, thank you. And you?” This is because at school you learn mainly English grammar, not conversation.

That is precisely why hagwon are prospering in Korea. At a hagwon, you can gain instruction that is not available at school. But the abovementioned American reader is quite cynical about hagwon too, which he thinks “seem to be woefully inadequate to the task of teaching English.” Sometimes, instructors have dubious credentials and backgrounds. Other times, the goals are misleading. In the TOEFL or GRE classes, for example, what you learn is not English proficiency, but how to cunningly choose correct answers on a multiple choice exam.

The American reader contends that in order to command excellent English, reading English literature is imperative. He writes, “Reading great authors and discussing their works ― writing about them ― is the best (and the most efficient) way to learn excellent English.” And he adds, “For Korea to succeed in the global economy it likely needs more English literature majors than electronic engineers.” Although Korean administrators and politicians would never agree with such an opinion, they need to listen to it if they really want global recognition.

Perhaps the only way to solve the chronic dilemma is to switch the English SAT from the current grammar test to an oral test to be graded by native speakers of English. Then undoubtedly, all Korean high school students will be able to speak English fluently within a year. They would do anything to achieve higher grades on the SAT in order to enter prime universities, upon which their future largely depends.

In fact, however, it is not as simple as that. Korean parents would never succumb to the outcome, unless the exam is graded by computer and there is a crystal-clear correct answer to choose. That is why the format of the SAT in Korea must be multiple choices. Meanwhile, our students will continue to have difficulty communicating with foreigners, even after learning English for more than 10 years at school.

As for university English departments, they can fulfill their goals by helping students learn excellent English from reading and discussing great English literary works. A retrenchment of English departments will only hinder the globalization of the university and the nation as well.

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon, a professor of English at Seoul National University, is president of the Association of Korean University Presses. ― Ed.