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.