A group of teachers engage in discussions at the annual KOTESOL
Seoul - Yonhap
No English. No job. No future. At least that\'s what many Koreans believe these days, and they will do almost anything to improve their English skills.Parents pour huge amounts of
money into a bottomless English-craze pit, while students stay late into the night at private cram schools finding ways to hack the \"terrible\" TOEIC, as many here call the dreaded standardized English test.
\"In many countries around the world, there is a push from governments, employers and parents to improve levels of English, but Korea probably tops the league table for anxiety about English proficiency,\" says David Graddol, a well-known British writer, broadcaster, lecturer and consultant on issues related to global English and educational trends.
The British Council commissioned Graddol to write two of his most famous works: \"The Future of English\" and its follow-up, \"English Next.\" Both books report on the global development of English as a world language.
He says that in Korea, \"too much emphasis is placed on the power of English to transform people\'s lives.\"
Few countries in the world spend more time and money learning English. According to a 2006 study by the Samsung Economic Research Institute, Koreans spend around US$15 billion per year on private English education.
That\'s more money than the gross domestic product, or GDP, of Laos, Jamaica or Iceland.
Another study performed by the Statistics Korea in 2009 shows that 75 percent of Korean primary and secondary students attended private institutes that year. This ultra-competitive Confucian country, where collecting knowledge and diplomas is paramount, has become one of the most educationally \"wired\" nations on the planet.
Despite a massive investment of time and money in learning English, the British Council ranked Korea 19th out of 20 countries on its English proficiency test. In another popular English proficiency test, the TOEFL, Koreans dropped from 71st out of 163 countries in 2009 to 80th in 2010.
In subjects other than English, Korean students dominate almost every country in the world. In a 2009 test of what students know and can do proctored by the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), Korean students ranked first in mathematics, first in reading and third in science among the most developed countries in the world.
Korea\'s stellar PISA test results are the envy of governments and policymakers around the world. However, some argue that the process for attaining high test scores has dehumanized education in Korea.
In his soon-to-be-published article, \"The Decline of European Languages in Education in Korea and the Rise of English,\" author and Kyungpook National University professor Andrew Finch points out the challenges associated with Korean\'s lust for learning.
\"This enthusiasm for education and resultant social position has, however, brought about social and educational problems: excessive private education expenditures, disharmony between the rich and the poor, promotion of an academic attainment-oriented society, and \'an examination hell\' for college entrants, fostering educational instrumentalism and human capitalization,\" says the article in part.
Many teachers here say English education in Korea has become about feeding an economic supply and demand
machine -- a Darwinist fight for an ever-dwindling supply of jobs. Finch agrees that Korea is just one more country following an unfortunate international trend.
\"English has become a means of getting a good position and then a good job. Thus, the role of the teacher is to help students pass entrance tests and satisfy the number crunchers. Test-preparation is the key, and this does not necessarily mean language learning.\"
Finch says adamantly, \"In Korea\'s global economy, in which English functions as a lingua franca for business, trade and tourism, English language teaching needs to find a student-friendly way of getting the same sorts of results.\"
With all the challenges surrounding English education in Korea today, educators are looking for ways to become more effective in their jobs. Many teachers recognize the need for change within the current educational system.
\"I hope the schools can treat the teachers better. As a Korean English teacher, I have to work so much extra time for which I don\'t get paid,\" says Lee Hyun-jung, a professor at Seoul National University of Science and Technology.
\"I feel like I work 24/7. I get really tired. I want to be really excited when I go into a class, but sometimes I can\'t help showing my tiredness.\"
Another issue many teachers complain about is poor teaching methodology.
Jang Ji-young, a Seoul elementary school teacher, believes \"the way of teaching English in Korea is very limited. ... The content of the curriculum is not interesting or realistic enough. We learn English with grammar first, and we use the textbook.\"
Jang says emphatically, \"Outside of the classroom, students need to experience some cultural events or something that gives them more interest in learning English. But I think Korean students in general don\'t really have the chance to experience what language really is.\"
One of the biggest surprises about working in the Korean public school system for the over 20,000 native English speakers teaching here is the large classes.
\"The one thing I find constraining is the class size. The students need more speaking time, and time to be heard, and more personal attention in the classes,\" says Michelle Saunders, a middle school teacher from Cape Town.
During her three years of teaching in Korea, she quickly realized that with up to 40 students in a class, \"It\'s so hard to keep everyone\'s attention and have an impact.\"
Kim Young-kyoung, a retired secondary school teacher from Daejeon who taught English from 1964 to 1991, has seen the changes his country has gone through.
\"When I began to teach, very few teachers spoke English, but now quite a few teachers speak English, not only in their classes, but anytime they have a chance to speak.\" Kim pauses as if to put everything into perspective, and then says grinningly, \"But still we have miles to go.\"
The Miracle on the Han River a phrase which denotes Korea\'s meteoric economic rise has become somewhat cliched. Now, Korea is looking for a new miracle, an English miracle more aptly named for the River Thames that runs through England.
Graddol advises Koreans that becoming proficient in English shouldn\'t be their only goal.
\"In a globalized world, English skills are important, but so are skills in other languages, along with the kind of broad experience and education that leads to creative and innovative thinking.\"
He adds: \"English allows you to communicate to the world, but you need to have something, a unique cultural and educational offer that the world wants to hear.\"