You and I know that knowing English is necessary in navigating today's world. A command of the language is certainly a huge advantage which is why a majority of South Koreans are under pressure to learn it. They are clamoring to earn fancy certifications, but not really mastering the language's nuances, thus creating a basic problem which I will talk about having received English education myself for decades in South Korea.
The un-pretty side of prestige
English is really a big thing in Korea, it's used by the media and in TV shows, and if you speak a bit of American English, people will instantly find you intelligent. Speaking broken English is typically the norm and a bit silly, and has created a culture of “자조(self-deprecation)”. A lot of American news (politics to be specific) is readily available in the country as the U.S. is currently the strongest ally of South Korea. So, it is a no-brainer that we are somewhat brainwashed to idolize America and the language.
So, why is English so "prestigious" here? There are quite a few reasons as detailed below. If you want to change the paradigm of English education in Korea, these will enlighten you on some things.
1. Relying on too many books.
In most best-selling books about English, people are obsessed with the idea of speaking like a “native speaker.” Koreans learn English at school through technical methods or exams, and not practical methods like conversational speaking exercises. Parents have even thought about hiring American, British, or Australian babysitters for their children so that they can freely express themselves in English.
There are hundreds of English learning books coming out each month, yet native English teachers in South Korea have to settle with the fixed curriculum and textbooks from their institutions, which can be quite discouraging for both the teacher and student.
Learning a foreign language without personal motivation is a foolish task. It gets even worse when there is no pragmatic approach at all in the learning method and materials. "Textbook English" started in elementary school in 1996. Now, Koreans hire private English teachers for their five-year-old kids for $1,000 a month just to up the stakes. It's time that Korea learned in a more personalized, colloquial, audible environment, and let go of wordy books that only make English more "unreachable."
베리 나이스 미츄 (veli nice meetyu) 아니여 (isn't it)
Konglish is not just about abused English terms in Korean, but also about broken grammar structure and syntax — as English and Korean have almost “backward” linguistic orders. For instance, “A/S" (after service) is directly translated from 사후서비스, and some people misarrange the sentence such as, “I school go (나 학교 가),” following the Korean language word order.
People know that it’s wrong and just laugh about it. As with other countries who speak localized versions of English, they have lower self-esteem when it comes to English proficiency. For instance, "Singlish" in Singapore proves a more serious linguistic conflict because English is their first language while only 37% of them speak English at home (2015); the rest use Mandarin, Hokkien (a dialect of Chinese), Malay or Tamil as their mother tongue. When they gained their independence in 1965, people needed something Singaporean in order to bond, and the government failed to control this natural movement towards self-identity through language; which turns out to be "Singaporean English," or "Singlish."
So I’m not saying that Konglish is bad English, but more of a cultural reflection of our past, and maybe present. But there is a tendency of thinking that one's English is inappropriate so there's preference to hiring western people because of their undesirable accent, and it can certainly cause confidence issues and miscommunication. To support a more global native-English-speaking mindset, some big corporations like Siwon School are entering the market. Start-ups like Ediket have helped Koreans use the “right English.”
3. Hierarchy in English
If you're familiar with Korea, you know that there is always a strong hierarchy that is evident in prestigious speeches and even social drinking situations (회식: Hoe-sik). People basically live by the basic reality that the purpose of studying is to go to universities, which will lead to good jobs. And the more you know the English language, the further you can go in your career.
It's a hard truth that many talented employees can not get promoted just because of their average English proficiency, and this is even in companies where there is no need to use English at work. This is particularly true with conglomerates like Samsung, LG, and Hyundai. It doesn’t make sense but they are just doing it to get better positions. The good news is, companies have now switched the standard of English certification from TOEIC/TOEFL to “OPIc” held by ACTFL, which proves speaking proficiency as well.
On the subject of universities, there is immense pressure to graduate with decent English scores in TOEIC/TOEFL, that do not really prove whether or not one's real-life English oral communication skills are legit. English becomes a stressful thing that one needs to survive instead of absorb. Now this isn't any way of developing global talent right? People should govern languages, and not the other way around.
English becomes a strong tool for social acceptance, even power, in South Korea. Some argue that Korea needs to make English a second language, which is a long shot. As long as Hangul exists, Korean will be the official language used in the country.
It's high time that better English is taught by creating locally relevant, authentic ways of learning with the support of native language trainers at the corporate-level. Old school ways aren't just cutting it anymore. It's time to get creative and to make learning fun and not a chore.
Cebin Jeong | Content Curator
Did I miss anything? What do you think is hampering English-learning in South Korea?