The Ministry of Education’s recent proposal to ban the teaching of English in kindergartens and nursery schools brought English education back in the news after a long quiet. Bowing to public pressure, the Ministry withdrew the proposal earlier this week. The ministry pushed the proposal in the hope of reducing the financial burden of private education on families and to increase educational equality.
Opponents of the plan argued that early English education helps children become familiar with English, making it easier to learn in elementary school. Another argument was that the government should not squelch parental desire to provide educational opportunities for their children. Surveys have shown that most parents would like the government to do more, not less, to support early English education.
The controversy has deep roots that go beyond English education. After Park Chung-hee set the nation on the course of economic development, mass education became more important. As the economy boomed, the demand for a more educated workforce increased. For most people, the surest way to get ahead was education because it opened doors to secure white-collar jobs in the government and rapidly growing companies. A university degree was the primary means of socioeconomic advancement and competition to enter universities was severe well into the 1990s.
The parents of young children today are the last generation to grow up with the idea that university degree is a ticket to socioeconomic advancement. Subsequent generations have found that a university degree alone is not enough and that other skills, such as scores on standardized English tests, improve competitive advantage. At the same time, employers have become more sensitive to the name value of the university.
This has created a situation in which English is both part of getting into a big-name university and improving competitiveness in the job market. English is the only school subject required in school, required for university entrance and required, in the form of test scores, for employment. This makes it only natural that parents would want to put their children at an advantage in the competition by giving them an early start in the race. The desire to do right by their children, combined with social pressure to conform is the driving force behind early English education.
The Ministry of Education’s plan to ban early English education has done nothing to address the reasons for the demand. It also does not address that more fundamental question of the goals of language education and how English fits into them.
If English, as defined by achievement on tests, influences life opportunities, then demand for private education will remain strong. Reducing the influence of English on life chances will reduce demand for private education. Making English an option within a foreign language requirement for university entrance, for example, would encourage some students to switch to other languages. Employers, in turn, would gradually move toward making English proficiency test scores optional.
This approach would increase the pool of people who have learned foreign languages other than English. Chinese would be the most popular, followed by Japanese, but it would open the door to expanding the teaching of other important Asian languages, such as Vietnamese and Indonesian, that very few Koreans study now.
The problem with this approach is that it does not address the core problem of language education and life chances. Parents will do what they can to put their children at an advantage and parents with greater means will do more, ensuring that educational inequality continues.
If the Ministry of Education wants to address educational inequality, then it should work to provide quality education for all children without the need for private education. This means offering what many other advanced democracies offer: free public nursery school and kindergarten education. English could be introduced gradually and continued in the first and second grades as preparation for formal English lessons beginning in third grade.
Making English an optional foreign language, both in school and for university entrance, would encourage the development of magnet programs at lower levels in other languages. To attract students, these languages would need to develop attractive programs and focus on effective teaching. Over time, this would stimulate more interesting and effective teaching of English.
All this would cost money -- lots of money -- and taxes would rise, but it would shift the financial burden of education of the future generations from parents to the entire society. What, after all, could be more valuable than offering quality education to all children?
By Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean-language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Ed.