Reforming Korea's English education
By Jang Joon
Koreans who speak English fluently get recognition. In Korea, if you want to enter a university or land a job, you will have to take an English test and get a high score. Or if you want to be promoted in a company, a high English score will be very helpful even if your practical business skills are a little weak. If parents want their children to be competitive, they focus on English in early education because it is the most important subject in Korea.
All parents want their children to live successfully in the future. So, they invest in their children’s education and ask them to study hard. They can’t bear the thought of their children falling behind other students. Some of them don’t trust public education anymore and choose private lessons, academies and even study-abroad programs. That is why Korean students begin studying English at elementary school and even kindergarten. And parents spend a lot of money on their children’s education.
At university, students spend more than 80 percent of their time studying English instead of their major to get high TOEIC, TOEFL, TEPS, and TESOL scores. According to an article from the Hankook Ilbo newspaper, Korean people spend about 15,548 hours on average studying English from middle school to university. Adding early and private education, about 20,000 hours are spent. If students from elementary school to university take private education in English, the cost is estimated about 1.43 billion won a year.
Why do they devote their passion and waste their money on studying English? Should all students speak English very well? Only a few jobs in most Korean government agencies and companies― overseas sales and marketing, international cooperation, some research―need people who can speak English very well. All workers don’t need English. Most workers don’t speak English at their work place and it is not an official language in Korea.
However, they do have to be able to read English in order to search and understand information written in English related with their jobs. The proficiency level of a high school graduate or the equivalent is enough to do their work. They already have reading ability in English even if their listening and speaking skills are poor. In their case, English speaking ability is a plus but not a must.
To solve the problem, Korean education policy must change. We must break the pattern of low efficiency and high expenditure. We need a positive environment to improve students’ speaking ability in English, even if we invest the same cost and time. It is important that we train English teachers who can lecture and speak English to the same level as native speakers. And then we have to expand the environment and places using English, such as specialized programs and English media, English schools and English villages.
Fortunately, there have been some signs of change in government policy. Public schools have introduced TEE (Teaching English in English) Certificate for English Teachers.
All Koreans don’t have to speak English accurately. It is important that we reach a certain standard of English and can converse in daily life with foreign people. Public education in English has to change from reading and grammar-oriented teaching to listening and speaking-oriented methods. Students should only take supplementary private classes
Also, government agencies and most companies have to relax hiring specifications. They must not require all candidates to have English ability. They should require English ability only from applicants who would use English in their particular position. One should not judge jobseekers by his or her English ability. If agencies and companies continue to demand English ability, our society will be trapped in a vicious cycle: Many students will continue to waste their passion, money and time studying English. They could better invest their time on their interests, emotional development or physical training.
English has grown in importance as the central language of a knowledge-based society. According to research, about 375 million people are native English speakers. That’s only 5 percent of the world’s population. But about 70 percent of the information on the Internet is written in English. Nobody can deny the importance of English but we don’t need to force all students to study it.
The writer is an engineer living in Daejeon. He can be reached at email@example.com.