Korea’s EFL Education is Failing, But What Can Be Done About It?

Is Korea’s EFL teaching failing? This question was asked by Groove Magazine in its March issue. The article was a comprehensive account of the history of Korea’s attempt to make its population more competitive by making English language skills key to a child’s education. I thought that the answer was pretty straight forward. Yes. Korea’s EFL instruction programme is failing. But maybe it was an easy question.

Of course it’s important to set out from the beginning to establish the fact that you’re talking about the governments drive to instil native speaker capabilities among the populace. And it’s important to know that whenever you read an argument like this you have to remember that opinions have already been forged on the barstools of waegdom, so convincing any new comers to the discussion will allow for short work.

I always scratch my head when I read these kind of articles which kind of derive expert opinion from English teachers, especially when they talk about Korea. When it comes to teaching English here, there’s a surprisingly large element of teachers who have done two things: never formally studied how to teach language, and never taught English students from a country other than Korea.

Now I will mount my high horse briefly and say that I have gone counter to this trend to a certain extent, but not to the extent that I would like to preach too much about it. Still with even a small amount of experience, I think that doing this would change anyone’s opinion about how their learners function.

A typical Korean classroom (photo courtesy of Schplook on Flickr)

Of course in Korea there’s always a rush to focus on cultural elements, notably the evil Confucianism which is apparently embedded like a cancer in the minds of every individual. While it can be a hurdle to cross, you’ll find teaching students from other countries also have their own cultural problems.

Italians students who I taught in Dublin for example, who were the same level as many of my Korean writing students, struggled to put sentences down because, well I’ll give my blunt and honest opinion, they didn’t care about these aspects of the language. All they wanted to do was to be able to talk, talk, and talk. They were certainly garrulous and opinionated, but I found that the Korean students I taught were more technically competent. There’s a certain amount of humility required for perfecting a second language, and many Korean learners have that in spadefuls.

But I’m not really here to launch a scathing critique of the article, as it is, despite my comments above, a very comprehensive analysis of what is a jaded and overstretched system which is not meeting the demands placed upon students when they enter university and even the professional world. It’s also a system which is struggling to keep up with a private sector which is bolstered by wealthy and competitive investment which sees the English language as a key ingredient in securing a secure rung on the professional and social ladder. There are some very good points supported by opinions of people who know what they’re talking about.

I suppose what bothered me about the findings was that, essentially, there was nothing here that anyone working in the ESL industry in Korea for some time didn’t know already. As I said, it reinforced those barstool dialogues. I wonder if there could be more done though. Could we analyse this situation a little more critically, and also creatively? What can Korea do to make its investment more valuable?

I’ve been working in Korea for eight years, which isn’t nearly as long as some people, but I’ve a wide variety of experience in almost every area (except, it must be admitted in the public sector – after-school programmes don’t count). I’ve met a lot of people from many different backgrounds and with varying levels of English, as well as varying levels of enthusiasm for learning and also varying levels of necessity. Both of these are very important.

Take my beloved Herself. She is a prime example of the fallacy of English language education in Korea. She went through school studying English, and she studied her arse of it has to be said, and then she went through university studying English again, not as a major but nonetheless she studied, but it wasn’t until she got a job where she actually need to English to communicate with clients and her employer (she worked in an international trading company in Yongsan) that she really learned how to use English.

As far as I can work out, she didn’t get the job due to her English ability, but it certainly helped in all her succeeding jobs that she had this experience and ability to use the language in a professional and appropriate manner, which many would say is lacking in much English communication in Korea. But she was fortunate enough to have the necessity for the language to build up her career.

One of the main reasons English is so important, and it’s also where the seeds of Korea’s English problem lies, at the moment is because someone decided the language would be very useful for Korea reaching out to the world, and therefore many jobs require a particular standard of English. In many cases it is even used as the defining factor in selecting new employees. This would be fine if these employees actually needed English.

There are two problems that I’m hinting at here. The first is basically a lack of necessity or any clear goals for learning English, and the second is a lack of respect for the language and its users. Because it’s not thanks to effort that there has been a failed attempt at teaching the country.

It’s clear to anyone who spends a lot of time here that the private sector, both the hagwons that are bulging and the employers who are demanding, is both driving the demand for English. However, it’s also clear to anyone who has spent any amount of time in Korea that other than the basic ability to read and pronounce the language, English is not necessary for every person in the country. But because of the notion that if everyone in Korea can speak English well then Korea will attract foreign investment, and thus strengthen the economy, or something like that. This is beside the point that not everyone in ever company needs to be able to speak English.

What is clearly making English a political issue right now is the necessity for English in the 수능 (Korean SAT). However, if it was not necessary and the importance of English was made comparable with other useful second languages (such as Chinese and Japanese for example), the demand for English would dissipate. Now, I know that this would not solve the problems, as it would still put wealthy families at an unfair advantage as they would still be able to afford good quality private education. Still less time would be spent on English and learners who struggle with a language which is completely different to Korean, allowing them to concentrate on subjects in which they have a higher intelligence for.

The day after 수능 (photo courtesy of Jens-Olaf on Flickr)

If you’ll allow me, I’d like to offer an example from Ireland. Here we also have to sit a state examination, called the Leaving Certificate, and your results from this examination determine where in the university world you go. For many universities and colleges the basic requirement is a pass in English, Maths, Irish and/or a modern language, with different requirements regarding your level of maths and English depending on your course. There are still exams in other subjects which allow you to beef up your score if you happen to be particularly poor at maths (me), English (me too in terms of my exam performance), or languages (I was no soldier here either).  These are core subjects, which are obviously important, but I had strengths in other subjects which allowed me to get enough points to eventually get accepted into a course of my choice.

One major obstacle to this which Ireland actually clears is the national obsession with university, which is something that I don’t think will change in Korea. In Ireland, not everyone needs to go to a four year university to be in with a chance of getting a satisfactory job. While of course you can get a job if you don’t go to a four year university, or even a four year university which is not in Seoul, there is a strict social contract which is inhibiting this kind of acceptance.

If the Korean system were to allow for more diversity in its student body, not only would it increase competition, but it would also develop a student body which had a better understanding of its interests, its weaknesses, and of course  its strengths, especially in the case of languages. Those who necessitated learning languages could do so, while those who were focused otherwise could concentrate on more important and relevant subjects.

The problem though with being idealistic like this is that I’m leaving myself open to the trap of the reality of the situation. This reality is wrapped up in a mesh of social norms which are connected to the level of respect that language acquisition has in this country from the perspective of popular culture.

Popular culture dominates in Korea, much like every other country, but in Korea it is a very specific national engine fuelled by a demand for a particular variety of music, television, and the characters which inhabit it. Other than occasional western – i.e. American – celebrities, Korean popular culture presents a particular set of norms.

While I’m not much of a TV person even for western TV, and the obvious armchair cynic would automatically regard Korean TV as seemingly all the same – it’s not – but the top programmes do seem to stick to a template. That template is loud, brash, and full of people clowning around.

Now that’s fine, as many of these programmes do with they’re supposed to do, and that’s entertain. If they ever have English on them they frequently do two things; the speak poorly and make their poor English out to funny, and they act like a person who can string a sentence together deserves some sort of reverence.

There are a lot of people in Korea and a lot of them already speak excellent English. Give them some credit. (Photo courtesy of APM Alex on Flickr)

If you want to have English communication on your television show, use someone who speaks the language well, not some numpty who recites it as if written in Hangul. The same can be said for using people who have clearly spent many years living in the US; you don’t need to sound like an American to communicate in English, and using this as the standard is, again, an unfortunate and unnecessary comparison, as it is far from the norm and ignores all the hard work put in by millions of learners across the country.

This is damaging how people deal with the language. When you ask teenagers to interact in a language that is frequently portrayed in comic manner, can they be expected to act maturely when television convinces them it’s hilarious?

The seeds of this issue are the belittling of basic English skills by the reverence paid to someone with basic language skills, or even relatively advanced language skills. Yes, these people should be applauded for their language skills, but let’s take a step away from the television and walk into the offices of many major corporations for a second. Here is where you are expected to have advanced language skills. There is no clowning around. It is a standard that is to be met and if you can’t meet it opportunities will be passed over you.

Despite what the statistics say in the Groove piece, Korea functions exceptionally well through English, because most of the English communication is carried out at the highest level of business, dealing with international partners, co-workers, and clients, as well as preparing for conferences and trade shows among other reasons.

There are thousands, if not millions of Koreans with highly acceptable levels of communicative English, many of whom use it on a daily basis in the private and professional lives, and they do not struggle to do so. But as long as popular culture continues to make a mockery of these people by not choosing to use good, or at least passable-to-decent English, then how can they expect children to take it seriously?

If the norm was seen as communicating comfortably and happily in both English and Korean, with less focus forced on learners by necessitating incredibly levels of perfection in exams, there would be a change.

There is no need to applaud a person who has studied hard to learn English, or any language or skill to a level of proficiency above the basic requirements. The person who acquired this skill did not do it to be applauded. They did it to make their life better. And to use the words of my grandfather here, it would take a lot praise to fill a pint. What I mean by this is for all the praise in the world, you’re not going to have much in your bank account.

For these people English is a means of communication, not an exam subject, and they do not run around blaming a lack of foreign friends or contact with foreigners as an excuse for their language skills. That excuse is like saying I don’t have a computer so I can’t write well.

There is no doubt that learning English is not easy for Koreans, but this process is been complicated by the image the language creates in the public eye. To secondary school students this image is undoubtedly negative, symbolised by the necessity to excel to find a place in a leading university, and comical as presented by the (admittedly very intelligent) goons who populate popular loud-mouthed TV shows. Korea can present a more appealing and approachable image for language learners but it needs to take the people who have worked hard more seriously and use them as positive examples of what can be achieved.

It’s clear that whatever policies have been chosen in the past have not worked as well as desired. Korea’s education culture is always going to take the steps taken by the government to a more extreme level and a change of strategy is required. Yes, keep investing in classrooms, but a different kind of investment in the people who are the living products of the system will encourage a new mindset in young learners, and hopefully realise the value of the national investment in a language from the other side of the world.

11 thoughts on “Korea’s EFL Education is Failing, But What Can Be Done About It?

  1. This is all really thoughtful. I’d only emphasize this:

    “it’s also clear to anyone who has spent any amount of time in Korea that other than the basic ability to read and pronounce the language, English is not necessary for every person in the country”

    Korean education does many things well, but it really falls apart when it comes to specialization. American (speaking as one)/Western education has many problems, but it really does specialization well.

    When I taught high school in the US, I was constantly encouraged to look for the one passion and/or skill a student had plenty of, and then focus on it and nurture it. I taught history and English lit., but hell, if the kid was good at basketball I was supposed to try and think of creative ways of integrating this love into a writing/reading/critical thinking situation.

    So I agree that it’s really cliche to blame Confucianism for Korea’s educational issues, but there _is_ a problem with emphasizing a mastery of all subjects at the expense of most kids who, like most people, can do one or two things really well but probably aren’t suited to other subjects.

    tl; dr: South Korea’s educational system is all about working hard. It would be better off if it learned to work smart, i.e., allow students to focus on the areas they want to focus on, and don’t write this off as “laziness.” It’s quite the opposite, actually — it’s efficiency.


    • Thanks man.

      I’d agree with you on these points also. But it’s such a broad subject that I think it’s only appropriate to keep it focused without get lost, which is how I felt a few times writing it.

      One thing I would ad about the thinking smartly thing is that it’s fairly difficult to expect secondary school kids to think smartly about a subject which they are being forced to study, and which can have such a detrimental effect on their future if the fail to excel. Mostivation is key in this regard and if I can remember correctly from my own school days, being made to study things usually resulted in me not trying at all. I think the older they get the more focused they become as they realise the importance of goals, and what needs to be done to achieve them.


  2. A really well-written article that brings up a lot of great points, which I feel are probably valid at least somewhat in other places in Asia, too, such as Hong Kong. Interesting especially as I have considered returning to Asia and going to Korea specifically someday to teach. We’ll see.


    • That’s interesting that you mention Hong Kong, which has the history of being a British colony.

      One issue which I had with the original Groove article was that there were comparisons made with other countries in the rest of Asia, namely Singapore, India, and Malaysia. But what struck me was where was the comparison with China – I think Hong Kong is somewhat different but close enough I suppose…maybe – and/or Japan, too countries which would have much more in common with each other than the other more fluent countries with the distinct connection with Britain.


  3. Very insightful. I liked where you seemed to be going with your point about there being, for most Koreans, essentially a lack of necessity for English beyond university entrance and possibly job placement. I think that this basic issue has to be addressed, first and foremost, if Korea truly wishes to become a bilingual state.

    Your suggestion of providing language learners with better popular role models might win a few converts to a new mindset more intent on fully learning, but consider the example that you provided, of your wife – did she eventually become fluent because she saw an inspiring figure on TV or in her personal life, or did she do so out of necessity once she found herself in a job (or in a position to obtain a job) requiring English language skills beyond those she possessed?

    I think that the requisite effort would be testing of Korea’s desire, but should it wish to, Korea could create an environment in which English is a practical necessity in both the public and private sectors, rather than only an arbitrary one. There would be a great deal of inconvenience, especially for older generations (who would likely present too great an obstacle for such a plan to actually be implemented), but the nation would surely benefit in the long run. Should Korea refrain from going that route, it might as well give up on the English education program of the status quo, given how little return the vast majority of students put through it get from it.


    • I don’t think Korea wants or needs to be bilingual. It’s more to do with being globally competitive, but it already is globablly competitive so it’s kind of a moot point at this stage.

      My main point about trying to create role models was to try to counter the immaturity which saturates the English learning environment. I came across this repost of my blog on Tumblr, where the person presents an all too realistic situation, and it’s worth a read: http://sequinedstrawberries.tumblr.com/post/46489014414/rihammond-ifihadaminutetospare-blog-post


      • Korea’s motivation for mandating English education may well have been to increase global competitiveness, but that increased global competitiveness resulting from the English program would come only as a result of the population becoming – at least to some extent – bilingual, and would be maximized with the degree of bilingualism. Korea is globally competitive at the moment, but global competition is ongoing and ever-intensifying, so I do not think that it can be called a moot point. Korea has done remarkably well to advance as far as it has, but has great momentum and strong potential to push on even farther.

        The main point you make is certainly an important one as well, as elaborated on in the post you point to. Such negative attitudes would certainly work to undermine English teaching efforts. But consider the practical status that English currently has in Korea, and how attitudes about the language might change in schools and on TV were it an essential part of everyday life for all Koreans.

        In many years of Spanish language classes in the US, I observed many different students – the vast majority of whom took the classes to fulfill requirements or bolster their resumes. Those students, even after several years, knew practically nothing other than what was necessary to barely pass each disturbingly easy exam. The common excuse for the lack of effort and enthusiasm was always something along the lines of, “we’re never going to use any of this, anyway – just need to pass” – and the same went for most other subjects as well.


  4. Great article. Like you mentioned, a lot of credit needs to be given to many who speak English here – especially at such a young age. In the states, I didn’t start with foreign languages until high school and some of my middle school girls are fluent in English already. Amazing!

    Re: the title of your article. I feel as though Korea wants to retract slightly, the whole English effort and this concerns me. With countless other countries forging ahead with their English programs, it makes me scratch my head. I’m sure the educational system here knows what they are doing though! Let’s hope they change course in the coming years.


    • I agree with you about crediting students with their ability. I have students who are highly capable in two, even three or four languages, and there I am lecturing them about how to use one language…

      Some would disagree with you about the educational authorities knowing what they’re doing. I think they’re unsure how these things should happen, and by setting their goals to high and not giving enough time and focusing on other issues the results will be limited. There seems to be an idea (now realised to be not a good one) that by putting students in a classroom, they’re going to learn the language.


  5. Interesting post, I just found it while looking for the article online. I was interviewed via email for it, and liked your response.

    There are two points that need to be considered, too, and I brought them up in the series of questions with the author. First, Koreans don’t rank that poorly in English at least when you compare TOEFL scores among Asians. Furthermore the average scores among Koreans have gone up 10 points from 2005 to 2011. The challenge of using the TOEFL as tool for measuring nationwide English ability is that so many Koreans take it, whereas elsewhere it’s reserved for those interested in studying abroad.

    Second, the native speaker experiment isn’t that old. While poor planning and implementation can be criticized, miraculous results of course wouldn’t follow over fewer than 10 years.

    The organization and implementation of the whole thing can be criticized, but when the discussion is monopolized by people who have been in Korea for a few years (or, often, for a few months), it’s going to reveal a cringe-worthy lack of perspective. Of course, something else to consider is why so few established, experienced teachers and academics have chosen to work and stay in South Korea.


    • Thanks Brian. I agree with both of your points. I could have gone into this in a lot more detail but I felt if I did that I could never have finished the blasted writing it. I think that once you get away from secondary schools and into the universities and professional world you find ample effective users of the language. And in the end so much of it still boils down to necessity. If you ask a 16 year old to think about their future, it’s more likely that he or she will think about what will they do when/if they finish their homework tonight. If there is anything wrong with the system it’s the whole thinking of if we spend money on this problem then it’s bound to work which needs reassessment. I think that there are plenty of quality teachers in Korea, but many have long since vacated positions where they see no point in continuing on in due to a distinct lack achievable goals.


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