“Language Education and Global Citizenship” (7): English Education Fever in South Korea

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Editor’s note: This is the 7th article in the series “Language education and global citizenship“. Ms Chaeeun Park from Seoul National University of Education was an international student at the University of Education Karlsruhe in the academic year 2018/19. Her majors are elementary school education and English, and she works as a part-time English teacher in “Hagwons” (private tutoring institutions in South Korea with a focus on English).
I asked Ms Chaeeun to introduce the topic of education in South Korea in my “Global English(es) & Global Citizenship Education” class, and the effect of this on her German and international fellow-students was palpabable – the atmosphere in the room thickened, eyes widened, and eyebrows shot up. The Q&A time afterwards went on for longer than usual.
Ms Chaeeun also took several of my other classes and then developed the wish to apply for a place in the Laos project. This, however, will have to be postponed as finishing one’s studies in Korea should be achieved before one gets “too old” (23) – this, and good English skills, increase the chances of a good job.

Another note: “Global English(es)” in the context of this blog means that contributions by international students are only mildly edited, to preserve the authenticity of their English(es).


Having an ability to speak English fluently is considered as an essential skill to be successful in South Korea. The South Korea society believes that in order to compete in the globalized world, it is crucial to have as many English speakers as possible. Thus, it has been more than 30 years that English education has been emphasized over the whole nation. Having an English skill is not only essential for the entry exams for universities, but for seeking jobs. It is a common to write down one’s TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) scores in one’s CV.1 Furthermore, in some cases, the score of one’s English evaluation test can also determine a worker’s promotion.

Consequently, the need to learn and practice English pressures all Koreans from a very young age and lasts throughout one’s entire life. Thus, there is a huge hype to learn English. In South Korea, this phenomenon is coined as an “English Education Fever. ” English Education Fever can be defined as “a national obsession for attaining better English education” (Park, 1). This craze and craving for better education have a very deep-rooted history which can be traced back to the end of Korean War (cf. Trailer “Reach for the Sky” below).

 

Exam room (source: http://www.polinews.co.kr/news/article.html?no=45077)

Before the Second World War, Korea peninsula was under the colonization of Japan for over 30 years (1910-1945) . During the Second World War, the “Axis Power” (Germany, Italy, Japan) was defeated, and Japan declared its surrender in 1945, ending the war.  Thus, in 1945, Korea was freed from the control of Japan all of sudden. While the Allies of the war (USA, Soviet Union, China, Great Britain) agreed that Korea peninsula should be an independent country, they all had different ideas about the country’s future. At the Potsdam Conference, (a conference between the USA, the Great Britain, and the Soviet Union) it was decided that the Soviet Union would regime the northern part of Korea while the USA would regime the southern part. Thus, Korea became the victim of the World War Second and the Cold War.

The North communist-Koreans strongly believed that the country should be united and be a whole communist country. Thus, the North communists invaded the non-communist southern Korea in 1950, armed with the Soviet Union tanks. This was the start of the Korean War and over 5 million died during this war – 2,5 million population being the civilians which was 10 % of the pre-war population (cf. History website).   The Korean War (1950-1953)  destroyed everything in Korea. Thus, the tradition hierarchy of people – the royal, middle-class, lower class was destroyed all at once. Every cities, every facilities was destroyed and with a rare exceptions of a few people, namely the politicians, everyone was poor. Traditional hierarchy system did not matter anymore as most of the population struggled to survive famine and poverty.

Due to the collapse of traditional class system and the influence of United States, up until this day, there is a strong belief in South Korea that one can improve his or her life, social status, economic status by one’s own efforts (Park, 1).

Education is seen as the most powerful way to improve one’s life. It is also worth noting that South Korea was occupied by USA after the Korean War, making English the most prominent second language in the nation. English is considered as the most powerful tool for an individual to have. Thus, most Korean parents strongly believe that if their children receive high-quality English education, the lives of their children will be better than their owns. Parents – specifically “tiger Moms– sacrifice to ensure that their kids listen and speak English as much as possible. Private English education is very common in South Korea and the market of private education is so huge that although there were several attempts by the government to kill those private education markets, none were successful.2

Generally private education can be seen in three categories. First one, Hakwons. Hakwon(학원) is an institute for after school programs. Some Hakwons have more students than the school itself, because students from different schools gather to get after-school help. English is the most popular subject for Hakwons. In most Hakwons, classes are taught by teachers who are native English speakers or who have been abroad in English-speaking countries. Whether the teacher has a degree or certificate of education is not an issue, as long as the teacher’s pronunciation of English sounds like a native English speaker.3

Secondly, there is Gya-wae (과외), which is private tutoring. Lastly, there are English Camps. Students participate in English camps during their school holidays. Students could go to the English Villages in Korea where they hire native English speakers and spend a month with them doing various activities. Or if their parents could support them with enough money, some students go abroad to English speaking countries and spend their school holidays there, or they may stay with relatives who live there for an entire school year.

The “study-box” shuts out distractions from studying (source: https://news.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2015/10/06/2015100602180.html, copyright: Chosun.com).

How common are these private education among students in South Korea? The table below shows the percentage of students who are participating in private education.

 

In elementary school, 83,5 % of students are participating in private education. In Middle school, 71,4 % of students are participating in private education and in high school 61,0 % of students are participating in private education in the year 2019. Compared to 2018, the number of students participating in the private education have increased slightly in general. Overall, out of the total student population 74,8% of them are participating in private education. (Please note that this is the last statistics, as the government announces all the survey results in March. The statistics of 2019 were announced for March, 2020).

The high rate of private education participation means that students have no time for their hobbies, sports, or any private lives. This might be a huge reason why according to the report, Korea has the lowest percentage of students who agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I feel happy at school”. Also, it is not a big secret that South Korea has the highest rate of suicidal in the OECD countries.

 

I would like to end this article with a quote I heard once from a grade 3 student. “I wish I was born in America. Or I wish Korea was so powerful that Korean was the main language of the world. That’d be nice. I feel like we are all English-language victims.”

Perhaps it is time that everyone stopped believing in this myth that fluent English skills would guarantee better lives.

It is time to break away from the belief that “fluent English speakers are well-educated elites ” – and to look after our children.

 

Text by C. Park, editor’s notes by I. Martin

Photo of Ms Chaeeun by Y. Hyuang; other photos & illustrations by copyright holders (with their kind permission)4

Video “Reach for the Sky” (we thank the producers of the video for their kind permission to include the official trailer in this post)

 

Notes

1 Test of English as a Forein Language  and Test of English for Internationational Communication are the two most prominent English evaluation tests in Korea.

Editor’s note: In Laos, TOEFL and IELTS  (International English Language Testing System) are the ones students study for, in the hope of scoring highly enough to be able to apply for a grant to do a Master abroad. These three tests, however, do not only test language skills. The cultural assumptions underpinning some of the questions are markedly Western, so that Asian test-takers may get the answer “wrong” although they linguistically understood the question. Examining cultural bias in language tests would be an interesting topic for a doctoral dissertation. 

2 Editor’s note: “English as a Foreign Language” and “English Education” (e.g. university degrees from British, American, or Australian universities) have become profitable commodities and multi-billion dollar industries, sometimes employed to neo-colonial effect. This complex topic will be explored in a future article in this series ny Mr Julian Bissinger. For more background cf. Jakob, ch. 5: “Western influence: Foreign teachers”.

3 Editor’s note: Regarding this tenacious, but outdated “Native Speaker Fallacy” (Robert Phillipson, 1992), African and Asian scholars (e.g. Ngugi Wa Th’iongo, 1986, Kumaravadivelu, 2003) have formulated the necessity of decolonizing the teaching of English. An article about the “post-method method” is forthcoming by Ms Selina Stegmeier in this series. 

4 Editor’s note: Ms Chaeeun was going to take her own photos of schools and study situations once back in Korea at the beginning of February – only to find herself more or less instantly in lockdown. No regular school life could be photographed since.

 

References

Park, Jin-Kyu (2009). “English Fever in South Korea: its history and symptoms”. English Today 97 (25/1, March),  1-50.

https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/english-today/article/english-fever-in-south-korea-its-history-and-symptoms/9BBA3AF0F8D34F57B5CB5D5A48545E77

 

Online references

History website. https://www.history.com/news/north-south-korea-divided-reasons-facts (last accessed 20 May 2020).

ISA 2012 RESULTS IN FOCUS, OECD 2013. http://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/pisa-2012-results-overview.pdf  (last accessed 20 May 2020).

Jakob, Laura (22 December 2019). “Language education and global citizenship (4) – 30 years of teaching English in East Asia: An Appraisal”.
http://www.thelaosexperience.com/2019/12/22/language-education-and-global-citizenship-4-30-years-of-teaching-english-in-east-asia-an-appraisal-by-l-jakob/ (last accessed 20 May 2020).

Korea Herald. http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20150830000310 (last accessed 20 May 2020).

Statistics Korea. http://kostat.go.kr/portal/eng/index.action (last accessed 20 May 2020).

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