“Language education and global citizenship” (4) – 30 years of teaching English in East Asia: An Appraisal (by L. Jakob) (& blog article no. 300!)

Academic Research, All Posts, Global English, Research

Editor’s note: “30 years of teaching English in East Asia: An Appraisal” by Ms Laura Jakob is the fourth research article in the new series “Language education and global citizenship” edited by I. Martin (University of Education Karlsruhe). It summarizes the main findings of the thesis while looking at English education in East Asia from an academic viewpoint. 

Ms Jakob’s research is based on her Bachelor thesis of the same title (37 pp.), which she submitted in 2018 after having participated in “TheLaosExperience” in the spring of 2017 (Team IV). Ms Jakob co-wrote several blog articles (First impressions, The March Oktoberfest in Vientiane, Installing new language-learning clubsOur personal highlight) during this time and has recently rejoined the project. This time she works in our pilot at the VEDI (Vocational Education Development Institute) in Vientiane together with Phi Ha Nguyen until the end of February 2020.

It is therefore a pleasure to note that her astute appraisal of the terms, conditions, misconceptions, intercultural barriers, and consequences of “30 years of teaching English in East Asia” is simultaneously also the 300th post on this blog!

Ms Jakob has studied and lived in Japan for one year, in South Korea for one semester, and in Laos for 8 weeks. Asked why she likes to learn and teach in Asia so much and is even considering settling down there in the future, Ms Jakob wrote:
because 1. there is more room for development and creativity and this makes working in Asia more challenging and more diversified than in Germany,
2. fascination how different cultures reflect on education and what ways can be taken to creatively improve teaching,
3. self-development not only as a teacher but also as a human being.”



Many Lao leaders say they like to observe how other countries deal with a difficult situation in order to decide which course to take in their own country. This post hopes to contribute to this learning process by illuminating the development of English in other countries and focuses on Laos’ neighboring countries in East Asia. Despite considerable economic growth in recent decades, research shows that insufficient English proficiency continues to persist in East Asia. Are these perceptions factual? Why is English education still lacking in East Asia when compared to other (“developed”1) countries?

East Asia is a sub-region in the eastern part of Asia and encompasses China, Hong Kong, Macau, Japan, Mongolia, North Korea, South Korea, and Taiwan. The region is geographically close to Lao P.D.R., and, although many considerable differences between the countries exist, parallels can also be drawn. The focus of this post  will be put on Japan, South Korea, and China.


Table of contents

1 History of English education in East Asia
1.1 Japan
1.2 South Korea
1.3 China
2 Current situation of EFL in East Asia
2.1 Cultural understandings of education in East Asia
2.2 Current school systems and curricula in East Asia
2.3 English education as a business model
3 The role of teachers
3.1 Teacher education in East Asia
3.2 Didactic approaches
4 The role of students
4.1 Reasons for insufficient English ability
4.2 Student motivation and well-being
5 Western influence: Foreign teachers
6 Conclusion


1 History of English education in East Asia 

English education takes on a unique shape depending on the history of a country. East Asia with its rich and diverse background is no exception.

1.1 Japan

Japan’s history of English education started with “Sakoku”, which translates as “locked country” and means that Japan would not interact with other countries. Japan would remain “Sakoku” until 1853, due to fears of negative influence from foreigners, before opening up to the outside (cf. Williams 2017, 31–32). After abandoning Sakoku, English suddenly became of immense importance within the country (cf. Ike 1995, 4–5). The English boom, due to massive modernization and a desire to understand Western innovations to adapt them for domestic purposes, became manifested (cf. Williams 2017, 32). However, increasing nationalism led to a decreased interest in English again. The general dislike for English stayed this way until 1945, when the Second World War ended (cf. Yamada 2016, 20–22). After 1945 American occupation brought forth an increased interest in English once again (cf. Yamada 2016, 20–22). From this point on English education would be under continuous reform. With newly revived interest, English education would undergo tremendous changes. It took on a new image, as it was now the language of a globalized world.

1.2 South Korea 

South Korea’s history of English education does not go back as far as that of other East Asian nations and was continuously held up by war and other historical events. Despite this, the motivation to catch up and the interest in the language remain incomparable within East Asia. The annexation of South Korea by Japan that lasted from 1910 to 1945 heavily influenced education. English was a mandatory subject for the few that could actually afford education but the focus was on the Japanese language above anything else. Korean, the native language, was often banned (cf. Williams 2017, 34–35). After WWII ended and a U.S. Army Military government in South Korea was formed, the importance of English grew massively, and it quickly became the foreign language of choice.
The North-South conflict would continue to worsen, and with it, the need for English-speaking Koreans grew, so as to be able to communicate with the U.S. forces (cf. Williams 2017, 35). Tremendous economic growth solidified the strong foundation of English education. Ultimately, the first national curriculum in 1955 would include English as a subject (cf. Williams 2017, 35). The popularity of English has since not decreased. This might also be due to the positive image the language holds for many Koreans on a personal level, as it was always the language of resistance against oppression and stood for better living conditions and growth in the country.

1.3 China

China’s start with English education cannot be considered easy. English became part of the core subjects in the secondary school curriculum officially with the foundation of the Republic of China (1912) (cf. Hu and Adamson 2012, 1–17). Due to important historical events such as the Japanese invasion, the Communist takeover, and ultimately the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, English education and its development was put on the back-burner for a long time (cf. Hu and Adamson 2012, 1–17).
The Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s sparked another period of intense negative sentiment against the English language. While English classes were reintroduced after having initially been banned, they would only promote Communist teachings and Mao ideals (cf. Williams 2017, 30). The “open door policy” in 1977 would start the serious implementation of English into the Chinese school curriculum for the first time (cf. Hu 2005, 7). A strong emphasis was put on reinstating English education to keep up with current Western innovations (cf. Hu 2005, 7).
Oral proficiency became important now, so as to be able to cultivate citizens who would be able to communicate internationally and partake in global trade. China developed into an economically strong country, and this also caused many educational reforms. However, regional differences in economic ability and prosperity also led to unequal provision of English education, which favoured economically strong urban regions (Hu 2005, 10). In current China, English has become a language of prestige – and more importantly, English is seen as a vital necessity for success on the highly competitive job market.


2 Current situation of EFL in East Asia  

The necessity of learning English in East Asia can be pinpointed by the fact that the world is getting more globalized and English continues to be the lingua franca of the world. This is supported by English becoming the sole working language of the ASEAN (Kirkpatrick 2016, 6), which shows the importance of this language on this continent.
In China, English is perceived by the government as essential in helping the nation to further open up, and as an important cornerstone in international competition. On a personal level, many Chinese need English to enter and graduate from university, to go abroad for further education, and to secure desirable jobs (cf. Jin and Cortazzi 2004, 119–20).
A very similar situation can be found in South Korea regarding the public and personal level, though the importance of English was recognized earlier than in China. Japan stands out a little more, as its government started to put great emphasis on the use of English, but on the personal level, many Japanese feel that English is not as essential in their lives as it would be for Chinese or South Korean citizens. This view is slowly changing, but it might take some time before the general public has reached a consensus on the importance of English (Honna and Takeshita 2004, 216-217).

The three countries all share a strong economic development in recent decades. The Japanese economic miracle, the miracle on the Han River, and the Chinese economic boom are all proof of the strong economic force they displayed in their growth. A correlation between strong economy and English proficiency is usually assumed and in many cases proven.
To investigate English proficiency in East Asia the “EF English Proficiency Index” (EF EPI) will be used to explore English proficiency levels in East Asia. While the findings of EF do not fully reflect on all English learners and the EF EPI is also used by the company for marketing purposes, it still gives an indication of basic situations and trends. The EF EPI shows generally low English proficiency within the countries investigated. China and Japan rank as having low English proficiency with place 36 and 37 respectively (EF Education First 2017, 22). South Korea ranks slightly better at place 30, being classified as having moderate proficiency levels (EF Education First 2017, 22). Usually a correlation between strong economy and English proficiency can be seen, but from the EF EPI it can be concluded that English proficiency is still low in East Asia – despite great economic achievements.

Presently, the EF EPI results 2019 release shows that South Korea and China are ranked at moderate proficiency level with place 37 and 40 respectively. Japan is classified as having low English proficiency at place 53. This shows a slight improvement in English proficiency in China and a slight decline in Japan.

2.1 Cultural understandings of education in East Asia

While Japan, China, and South Korea are very different from each other, their shared history and geographical closeness has led to many similarities in their educational beliefs.  This is also important to note because culture defines education. Educational settings in East Asia are largely based on Confucianism, a life philosophy based on the teachings of Confucius (Williams 2017, 25-27). Up to now, Chinese and South Korean society is still based largely on Confucian values. Japan shows signs of influence but takes on a more distant stance. Education is very highly valued in East Asia, as, following Confucius’s thoughts, a person does not become a competent human being unless educated through deliberate efforts. Additionally, education can also provide the means to escape poverty, which is relevant especially in rural China.

Confucius also emphasized the importance of “keeping face”, which means that the “face” or public image of a person always has to be “kept”. This means that avoiding confrontation will be the usual recourse (cf. Peng 2007, 251). For students, this means that they are reluctant to participate in a lesson in a way that could lead to a loss of face, such as answering a question they are unsure about, or even challenge teachers. A student in a study conducted by Peng said this about the situation: “I fear that I’d get stuck standing there while the whole class are [sic] looking at me. That’s terribly embarrassing’” (Peng 2007, 257).
For foreign language classes, where student participation and a communicative approach are vital for learning a language efficiently, this leads to problems. Teachers who follow Confucianist principles in the classroom will put emphasis on their students being disciplined and attentive, which means they are to take notes and memorize (Jin and Cortazzi 1996, 24). Teachers might also take on the expected social role unconsciously, even if they believe in different teaching strategies. Therefore, teachers must be aware of this issue and know how to appropriately handle this. Possible solutions might be to teach students how to ask questions in the first place instead of only having the teacher ask “any questions?” and then moving on. Another possible solution might be to voice questions in a way that will not lead to a loss of face for students, and not to respond negatively to wrong answers.

Parents are an integral part of education, especially in Asia. Another virtue emphasized by Confucius is “Xiaō” (cf. Williams 2017, 26). Xiaō (孝) translates as “filial piety”. Filial piety means respecting elders and showing the utmost obedience towards them. This can be considered an important part of conduct in Chinese society. Expectations from parents and teachers can therefore not be denied by children, as they are culturally obliged to follow orders and please their seniors unless they want to commit an offence. The concept of Xiaō also exists in Korea, where it is known as “Hyo” (효) and Japan, where it is called “Kou” (こう). In an educational context, this reflects in social relationships and the students’ inability to voice individual thoughts.
While neither Western nor Eastern approaches to education are inherently “good” or “bad”, as both have positive and negative aspects, it is important to realize how strongly cultural beliefs might affect the EFL classroom.

Japan has taken on a bit of a separate stance, as it does not build its entire belief system on Confucianism. Japan is still heavily influenced by the animistic religion Shinto and Buddhism (Williams 2017, 27). Sinification, the influence of China, was not as extensive as in South Korea, and therefore the country shows a mixture of cultural backgrounds. Even when it comes to comparing countries regarding the question whether they are a highly collectivistic or highly individualistic culture – which means one that favours collectivism or individualism above the other – Japan takes on an outsider’s stance. While China and South Korea are clearly collectivistic, Japan has begun to lean towards individualism. Their individualism score records at 46 according to Hofstede’s research (Hofstede 2018, n.p.). This score is a lot higher than that of their neighbours China and South Korea, which rank at 20 and 18 respectively. This makes Japan the most individualistic country in East Asia.

Conclusively it can be said that Confucius and his teachings have greatly influenced East Asian perspectives on teaching and conduct, especially in China and South Korea. Possible consequences for English education could be teaching problems in the EFL classroom, because a foreign language is hard to teach passively. Many steps have to be taken to become aware of all the cultural implications – and still design successful lesson plans.

2.2 Current school systems and curricula in East Asia 

The integration of English into the East Asian curricula must be looked at more specifically to understand the current situation better. English is a compulsory subject in all three countries. It is mandatory from grade 3 until grade 12 in China (cf. Williams 2017, 31). Interestingly, English is also compulsory in University and tested with the CET4 and CET6 (College English Test). English is a compulsory subject until grade 12 in South Korea. In a surprising move, South Korea recently banned English education in first and second grade of primary school in favour of strengthening the native language Korean (cf. Ghani 2018, n.p.). Responses to this have been broadly negative from parents and experts. The Ministry of Education (MOE) has however also implemented various revisions to the English curriculum in recent years to improve English education (cf. Kang 2014, 63–65). In Japan, English is compulsory only in middle school, which is three years. Ikegashira states regarding this: “Even though English is an obligatory subject in middle schools, the high school legislation states that any foreign language can be studied as a second language. In theory this gives opportunity for the high schools to choose which languages to offer their students, but in reality English is the only option, due to the fact that most university entrance exams put heavy emphasis on English” (Ikegashira 2009, quoted in: Løfsgaard 2015). The lack of English education in primary school has been heavily criticized. Though primary schools could offer a weekly English lesson targeted towards communication starting from grade 5 it was only until 2011 that they were made mandatory (cf. Williams 2017, 32–34). The ministry of Education in Japan has made plans to introduce English as full-fledged subject into primary schools starting at grade 3 by 2020 when the Olympics will be held in Tokyo (cf. Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), n.p.). This comes quite late when compared to their neighbors.

These facts help us to reflect the value English holds in these countries and their engagement with the language. In China, English is of immense importance as it is a required subject even in higher education. It is also perceived to be very important in South Korea as English is a compulsory subject that is integrated early on into the curriculum and revised often to bring forth better outcomes. English is elective in Japanese high schools and has not yet been fully implemented into the elementary curriculum, it therefore does not hold as much prestige in comparison to other subjects.

It is also significant to examine the current surroundings of EFL. The different school systems lay out conditions which influence the subject. Therefore, we will take a closer look at examinations. China uses the Gaokao, or University Entrance Exam, to determine students’ access to higher education. “The gaokao is widely considered to be the most important exam, which can make or break a young person’s future. It is also intended to help level the playing field between the country’s rich and poor” (Pinghui 2017, n.p.). Once again, the same system is used in South Korea, where it is called Suneung or CSAT, and in Japan with the nyūgaku shiken. It poses the only option to receive admission into university, and with few other options as vocational education remains underdeveloped, many students are desperate to pass with high grades. The great focus on passing university entrance exams makes studying a matter of training to graduate rather than learning content (cf. Pinghui 2018, n.p.). In this part, the Gaokao will function as exemplary model for the other university entrance exams as they are similarly built. In the Gaokao, English takes equal part with Chinese and Math (cf. Pinghui 2018, n.p.). The English Gaokao contains usually a reading, writing and listening segment. It also reflects the use of the grammar-translation method (short: GTM; a teaching technique that focuses heavily on translation of texts, grammar and vocabulary). It is heavily grammar-focused, contains mainly Chinese instructions and exercises are badly stylized (cf. Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China, n.o.).
University entrance exams in East Asia seem to contribute to the problems in ELT tremendously as they make it nearly impossible for students to focus on anything else other than passing them by repetition, memorization and focusing on grammar. They give no real opportunity to learn English for communicative purposes. This is reflected in the classroom as teachers focus mainly on exam preparation and leave little time for anything else (cf. Williams 2017, 79–80), and also in the “study cubes” that are installed for children in prosperous/ambitious homes.

2.3 English education as a business model 

The privatization of education has long been an issue within East Asia. This so called “shadow education” is considered a problem, especially in regards to providing equal education opportunities (cf. Bray and Lykins 2012, 6). Parents invest a lot into the private education sector as they believe that regular schools are lacking and cannot provide their children with the best education possible. China, Japan and South Korea rank at the top when it comes to money spent on private education (cf. Sharma 2013, n.p.). “[In South Korea] the market for private English institutes for children amounts to one trillion [W]on (approximately US$800 million) and the market for English education materials amounts up to 500 billion [W]on (approximately US$400 million) while more than 5000 kinds of English education-related publications are available throughout the bookstores” (Shim and Baik 2004, 250). With shadow education being an integral part of the education system in East Asia we will explore more on the example of South Korea.

South Korea ranked first in spending on private education among OECD countries (cf. Lee 2015, 47). South Korea is also known for its quick development into a highly modernized and developed country. This success was accomplished through hard work by its citizens and the Korean people take pride in this achievement. They want their future generations to be as hardworking as possible to secure future growth. Many children, teenagers and young adults feel that a lot of pressure is put upon them. Because of this, in South Korea and beyond, Asian parents have fallen for the so-called education fever (cf. Sharma 2013, n.p.). The term describes excessive spending on education, often in the form of extra-curricular lessons and cram schools, and sending children to study abroad even if they have trouble to afford it (cf. Sharma 2013, n.p.). From this, one can conclude that Asian parents sacrifice their time and money to provide their children with education, tutoring and extracurricular activities.

One such private learning institution are Hagwons or so called “cram schools” (because students are crammed together). They are very popular after-school programs in South Korea where students spent considerable amounts of time revising and preparing for exams. (cf. Williams 2017, 9). They exist in China and Japan as well, where they are called Buxiban and Juku respectively. Many such companies are trying to make (English) education a for-profit issue. It also opened a huge job market for foreigners seeking teaching jobs in East Asia. Heavy governmental regulations have been put on private education institutions to scale down on them, but despite that they continue to thrive (cf. Bray and Lykins 2012, 61–62).

The greatest criticism such approaches to education receive, is that they focus on teaching to give the right answer to examination questions (cf. Shim and Baik 2004, 251). Communication is never the focal point. One could argue that such institutions simply cover the supply to a demand. The amount of money involved, and the actual outcome of such teaching methods leave a bitter aftertaste however, as they do not stand in relation to each other. It is crucial, that tutoring companies must be regulated better and held accountable. A change in parents’ minds should also be striven for. While extracurricular studies are not to be discouraged and entirely viewed negatively, they must be overviewed better and the people behind it especially.


3 The role of teachers  

English language teachers occupy an important role in ELT, as their choice of teaching style influences learning outcomes the most. Though individual attitudes and practices are dynamic and varied, ingrained beliefs and environmental factors, that influence the classroom environment additionally to the teacher exist as well. Because of this, the role of teachers, their education as well as their didactic approaches will be investigated.

The social value of teachers in East Asia is extraordinary. They hold high status in their communities but pay varies in East Asia with Japan giving high wages and China comparatively low ones (cf. Shi and Englert 2013, 113) (cf. Miyajima 2013, 83–84) (cf. Jin and Cortazzi 1996, 16). The job is however also considered to be very labour intensive, as teachers invest unproportional amounts of time into their work. This can also lead to teachers being too tired to properly prepare outside the necessary and many loose enthusiasm for their vocation. Additionally, many report feeling uncomfortable in their communities, as they are under constant watchful eyes and must act as role model even in their private lives.

3.1 Teacher education in East Asia 

A look at teacher education must be made as well. Teachers in all East Asian countries must study and graduate from a University or other qualified higher school to become certified teachers. Japan and China face issues in implementing Elementary School English as the switch was made later than in South Korea. The rather sudden change created an urgent need for English Elementary teachers. Many secondary teachers were suddenly re-trained or elementary teachers had to start teaching outside of their subject area and were unprepared for the responsibility (cf. Williams 2017, 84). As a consequence there is a large number of elementary school teachers in East Asian with little to no English language background and/or training who are expected to teach it as a subject (cf. Butler 2007). In Japan 77% of these teachers reported to be significantly anxious about their English proficiency, especially in regards to their speaking proficiency and their ability to teach the subject (cf. Williams 2017, 86). Many cope by using ALTs excessively or rely on the familiar book-focused and teacher-centered didactics that do not challenge their abilities outside the framework given.  The strong effect of poorly trained teachers is immediate and can cause damage to long-term English studies. Students are early on disillusioned about the subject and miss the basic knowledge for later studies. A more thought-through approach to hiring and educating teachers would have been desirable. For now, steps to slow down the negative effects of poorly trained teachers such as thorough re-training and governmental incentives for teachers might help the issue.

Secondary school teachers have received better education as the history for the school form is more extensive. This will be elaborated on the example of Japan. Old teacher training practices stressed the importance of the GTM as recounted by a Japanese teacher in 1998: “When I began teaching I taught English focusing on the grammar translation.” (Lamie 1998, 522). More than 40 years ago Smith already wrote about issues in East Asian teacher education, complaining:

“Teachers usually lack training in language teaching techniques since they spent their university years mostly reading classic and modern English literature and translating it. There is tittle supervised practice teaching or study of methodology. A few teachers’ English proficiency is good but most have limited aural/oral skills. All of them can read and translate, therefore that is the principal classroom activity.” (Smith 1975, 3)

Unfortunately, it seems that little has changed to today. Revisions to teacher training legislation have been made towards a more communicative approach, but the changes did not seem to have the strong effect wished for, as teachers found them hard to implement in real life (cf. Honna and Takeshita 2004, 207–08).

After the revision, more importance is given to learning about classroom management and pedagogy for junior high school teachers. English-related subjects include “linguistics, English and American literature, communication in English, comparative culture, etc. […] Subjects on teaching include educational principles, educational psychology, English teaching methods, practice teaching, etc.” (cf. Honna and Takeshita 2004, 208). This shows willingness to include more communicative approaches into teacher training. MEXT has also spoken critical of the grammar-translation method and advocated to improve general quality of teaching through various teacher training courses and support systems (cf. Honna and Takeshita 2004, 208). Other East Asian countries have taken similar steps in their teacher training approach, such as South Korea with stricter teacher admission rules (cf. Lee 2015, 60–61). Overall, this shows a greater motivation to implement a more communicative approach towards English education in teacher training. However, the revisions should also reflect classroom realities and further revisions need to be made.

3.2 Didactic approaches  

Many students go through English education designed to teach them the language only on paper. Therefore, it is of importance to investigate didactic approaches – or the lack thereof – in the East Asian English classroom. Even though teachers are expected to adopt the oral communicative approach represented in the new curricula, the truth is that many still struggle to employ new regulations. The first reason why teachers are at odds with the communicative approach is because governmental top-down approaches cause many teachers to struggle in implementing changes because they force them to leave their comfort zone even though their abilities are not up to par yet (cf. Lee 2015, 61). For example, the language of instruction is very often the native language of the teacher. This is because unqualified teachers are too pressured to adapt their lessons to the enforced changes, so they teach English mostly in their native language. Greater focus on qualification for oral communication should be given during teacher training, examination and in the workforce and bottom-up approaches favoured in implementing new curricula.

Additionally, school material that is state-sanctioned, has not yet reached its full potential. In China for instance, school material, that is state mandatory, is based on passing examinations and ultimately the Gaokao. Revised textbooks, that have been designed in cooperation with foreign help, show great improvement, but they have created discussions between poorly and better qualified teachers (cf. Adamson and Morris 1996, 27). In the affluent regions, reactions have been favourable to the pedagogical innovations. Less developed areas complained about the difficulties met in handling the materials (cf. Adamson and Morris 1996, 27). Teachers’ struggle to realistically use it in the classroom as they simply lack the resources needed such as technical equipment or small class sizes. Teachers may use other materials as well, but because of the high focus on passing exams it is unlikely to happen. They are under great governmental and parental pressure to provide students with the best possible preparation for the final exams, so they rather focus on finishing material than on the students’ improvement. This means that teachers understandably favour state-issued teaching materials and textbooks in favour of other, maybe even self-designed ones.

If we review the English language education books currently used in China (cf. Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China, 1), a summary of  striking elements (especially on the elementary level) can be outlined as follows: While improvement can be seen, such as instructions being in English and the usage of songs, games and appealing designs, the tasks might not be related with each other and most exercises are passive, which means the teacher leads them while students follow. Listening and repeating are predominant. New vocabulary is not always introduced in a context but mostly randomly. If we consider that many teachers, especially insecure ones, will follow the textbooks closely, it is no wonder that a more communicative approach has not yet reached the classroom.They do however, include many songs and some games (TPR) and are considered to have developed a lot compared to older school material.

Another interesting fact to point out is that ELT for communicative purposes is often seen as learning about foreign cultures rather than facilitating cultural exchange (cf. Honna and Takeshita 2004, 214). An example would be Japanese students being ordered to write Christmas cards to friends overseas, a holiday that is not celebrated in Japan, instead of traditional Japanese New Year cards (cf. Honna and Takeshita 2004, 214). It is also important to re-think “English culture” as being exclusive to the USA and Great Britain. To foster a more international approach to English communication should be desired. If possible, students should be participants that can share their own experiences rather than be consumer of Anglo-American culture. Fortunately, there are signs that textbooks in Japan are changing in the desired direction (cf. Honna and Takeshita 2004, 214). But on “the pedagogical level, most teachers have just very rough idea of what culture should be and what should be taught in terms of cultural component” (Li 2016, 771). Language teachers task is not to teach cultural contents, but to enable learners’ interaction with said cultural content and to help them reflect this for themselves. A change in how intercultural communication is viewed will also help student motivation and engagement in the classroom.

Conclusively, it can be said that didactic approaches are not solely generated by teachers. Changes that have to be realised in East Asian EFL didactics are therefore:

  • take the focus from the teacher to the students
  • take the focus from textbooks to the improvement of didactics
  • and reduce the direness of exams.

This cannot be done by teachers on their own, they must be given the framework to develop their didactic approaches. This calls for strong political and societal involvement. Teachers should focus on improving their qualifications, especially regarding their own proficiency, intercultural competence and use of didactics. They would also profit from decolonizing their own minds, teaching materials, and teaching.

Additionally, they should give their students as much chances as possible “to listen to as much authentic English as possible; to read as much living English as possible; to have as many chances to use English as possible; to extend a cultural background knowledge; [and] to cultivate a sense of international citizenship.” (Lamie 1998, 518). This will help to improve current didactic approaches of English teachers in East Asia.


4 The role of students

Students are an integral part of the issue and many factors surrounding them have been identified. The focus shifts to students themselves and their experiences and part in English language education. Williams points out the importance of understanding East Asian learners when teaching there (cf. Williams 2017, 47–48). According to Williams, East Asian learners have different approaches to learning than, for example, Western students. He mentions a preference for introverted learning strategies, knowledge being viewed as something that has to be transmitted rather than uncovered, favouring visual learning and very small emphasis on the interpretation of information (cf. Williams 2017, 50). In addition, vocabulary learning is usually achieved through memorisation strategies, where words are viewed as single semantic units in contrast to learning them in context (cf. Nakamura 2004, 232–33). This passive approach to learning explains students’ behaviour in the foreign language classroom. Being aware of this and involving students and their learning behaviours, while still creating a classroom environment in which students can speak up and communicate is therefore of great importance.

4.1 Reasons for insufficient English ability  

There are several factors that influence the English proficiency of East Asian students. One major factor that has been pointed out by many linguists and experts is, that the differences in language make it hard to acquire English as a second language. Japan will serve as example in the following part, though similar difficulties apply for Korean and Chinese English learners as well. For example, Japanese is a syllable timed language and thus in contrast to alphabetic scripts which are used in the English language. Moreover, Japanese is written from right to left and from top to bottom, making it hard to switch in between the two forms. English words are also often transferred to the Japanese language in Katakana such as the word juice which will turn into juusu. This evidently will confuse a Japanese learner of English. The Japanese grammar differs from the English one as well, for example the usual word order in English will be S V O, while in Japanese it will be S O V (cf. Yuasa 2010, 147). Different methods should be applied to teach English to Japanese EFL students than to European students, as Ike points out: “The method of teaching English in Japan, whose language bears no linguistic similarity to any of the European languages, is not much different from that used in continental Europe, and, therefore, has proved inefficient and unproductive.” (Ike 1995, 7). If this is not done, it will make it more challenging for a Japanese learners of English to become fluent and accurate in English. Another systematic, phonological difficulty concerns English word stress and sentence stress, as the Japanese – and Lao – language is tone-based. This will be researched from a Chinese perspective by Ms Miaoxing Ye in her doctoral dissertation starting in 2020 (Erasmus+ project of the University of Education Karlsruhe and Savannakhet University).

4.2 Student motivation and well-being 

Another important factor is student motivation. Student motivation is lacking considerably and incentives to learn English are almost exclusively extrinsic in East Asia. That means they come from the outside instead of the own will of the student. However, motivation and activation of the student are essential to the foreign language classroom (or any subject, for that matter) to start any kind of learning experience. Butler and Iino summarize it as following: “Many students start studying English in junior high school with eager anticipation. Unfortunately, due to the emphasis on memorization and learning about English, rather than using English for the purpose of communication, many lose interest.” (Butler and Iino 2005). In Japan, for example “the majority of students have no motivation to learn English, since proficiency in English is not needed in Japan except for those in a special category of profession.” (Ike 1995, 7). In contrast, South Korean & Chinese students experience a lot of pressure because of the high-stakes put on English during exams. Studies suggest that the intense test-related pressure demotivates many students. The findings of such studies lead to recommend that test-designers “seriously consider the potential impact their tests can have on young ELLs and their educational environments” (Fox and Aryadoust 2016, 505-506). This means that they lack any motivation besides outside factors. Raising student motivation can thus help to improve students’ English proficiency. Solutions would be more active learner involvement and student-focused lessons, but this is easier said than done. Making students see the worth in learning an active foreign language, not for the sake of exams or necessarily professional success, but for personal gain and self-realization, would be another solution.

In direct relation to student motivation is student well-being, as they correlate with each other. It is an important issue in East Asia, as many criticize the highly success-focused system leaving behind weaker students. Ranking system add to this as well – students do not only receive a grade but their rank in the group. The problem will be explored on the example of South Korea, which has the most data and statistics available regarding this topic. Schooldays in South Korea are long and study intensive. Students in higher grades will often spent all their free time studying in school, at cram schools and at home. They design their life completely around studying. PISA reports that:

“On average, 15-year-old students in Korea reported a level of 6.4 on a life-satisfaction scale ranging from 0 to 10 (OECD average: 7.3) […] About 22% of students reported very low life satisfaction (4 or below) (OECD average: 12%) […] Some 75% of Korean students reported that they worry about getting poor grades at school (OECD average: 66%); 69% often worry that a test will be difficult (OECD average: 59%); and 42% get very tense when they study (OECD average: 37%)” – Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 2015

Students score higher than the OECD average regarding life-satisfaction and anxiety which indicates generally worse psychological well-being than what is average. This is also reflected in the suicide rates of the country. The leading cause of death for the age group 10-39 years is suicide. Many students are reported to commit suicide due to academic stress and during exam season the number of articles covering the issue of student suicide rise tremendously as teenagers jump off high buildings shortly after the announcement of the exam results (cf. Yoon 2015, n.p.). The academic stress teenagers face is also reflected in modern media. Korean idol groups targeting school-age children sing about societal pressure and school related stress such as BTS with their song “No More Dream”. TV-dramas such as “School 2013” which also received high viewer ratings during their primetime airing spot deal with issues such as depression, stress, and suicide in school (cf. Chosun Ilbo 2013). The effect of exam-focused studying does not only affect academic performance regarding foreign language education but also human beings, and it is important to re-evaluate the worth of such a system.


5. Western influence: Foreign teachers

Western influence is strong in East Asian English education as the countries search for support and innovations for their own systems from foreign assistance. This is particularly noticeable regarding foreign teachers in the education sector. The job market for English teachers in East Asia is big. The demand for English language instruction by native English speakers keeps constantly rising. Cosmopolitan East Asian cities have up to 1,000 language schools employing up to 15,000 foreign English teachers (cf. International TEFL Academy 2015, n.p). In South Korea alone 24,000 native English-speaking teachers are employed per year (cf. International TEFL Academy 2015, n.p). The efficiency and sustainability of such involvement will be explored in the next part.

Native teachers and mainstream schooling are seen as „inferior“, which creates great demand for private schooling and experienced teachers (cf. Bray and Lykins 2012, 27). Foreign English teachers are considered better than their native counterparts and popular with students, because they speak „real“ English and use student-engaging didactics. Perceived notions, such as this, fuel the demand for foreign teachers. The teaching jobs for foreign English teachers are various as the market is vast. Interested teachers can use the JET programme in Japan, and also the similar Korean EPIK programme that employ Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) for public schools (cf. Williams 2017, 2). With governmental backing and extensive preparation, the jobs are secured and generally considered more sustainable than their private counterparts. The JET programme provides participants even with an extensive information handbook as well as a teaching material collection designed by former participants to help assist teaching, quicken acclimatisation and soften the possible culture shock (cf. The Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR) 2013, 2018). MEXT has also defined the promotion and expansion of ALTs and strengthening and enriching ALT training programs as one of their English Education Reform goals for 2020 (cf. Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), n.p.). From this it can be seen that governments invest a lot into the maintenance of their ALT programmes.

Private schools or “cram schools”, also employ foreign teachers but jobs are not as secured, as firms can quickly go bankrupt. This was the case with Japanese chains Nova and Geos, where many teachers suddenly found themselves unemployed in a foreign country (Matsutani 2010, n.p). Generally, the sustainability of such employments is questionable as 100,000 new teaching positions open up abroad every year. Out of those only 50% stay a second year and only 10% stay a 3rd year which means schools need to constantly hire new teachers (cf. International TEFL Academy 2015, n.p).  If teachers and students can not get used to the foreign teachers and the foreign teachers themselves leave shortly after getting acclimated and with few time to reflect what they are teaching, it does not seem to be a productive cycle.

Motivation and qualification from foreign teachers themselves is also questionable. Many books and blog articles are published on the issue of teaching English in Asia. Looking at different literature that caters to people interested in teaching in East Asia, the question arises whether they are teaching manuals or tour guides? If we take for example a quote regarding living as a foreign English teacher in China: “If you follow the steps in this book, you will find and excel at a job where you earn enough money to pay for all the delicious food you can eat, an apartment, travel expenses and be able to save at least $1000 US each month for 20-30 hours of work a week.” (Lonergan 2016, The Little Red Book. Kindle Positionen 29-33). The author seems to focus on the appeal of living in a foreign country while making “easy money”.
Motives such as wanting to improve students English, experience foreign pedagogic settings and other educationally related purposes for teaching cannot be found. The author assumes that the motivation of the target reader to teach seems to be solely for personal reasons. While this is a more crass example, general beliefs and notions that reflect such thinking can be found in many foreign teachers, who might want to use their gap year for travelling or living in a foreign country, but also make some money along the way. Other motivations besides “seeing the world” might be “saving the world”, “hiding from the world” or “becoming worldly” (cf. Stanley 2013, 26). This is also backed up by the fact that most foreign English teachers are in their 20s or early 30s and in a period of their life where adventure rather than professionalism take priority.2

Furthermore, the only qualifications needed in private as well as governmental programmes, such as EPIK, are often a bachelors’ degree that does not necessarily have to be related to English language or pedagogy and citizenship of an English-speaking country (cf. Lee 2015, 52). Teacher training is also not necessarily needed. Of course, not all foreign teachers come to teach in East Asia because they believe it to be an easy job while they get to travel around. This can be seen on the extensive, reputable and professional literature and the careful preparation of some governmental programmes. But with little regulations put in place or qualifications being necessary, the problem of questionable motivations by foreign English teachers keeps growing.

The question of whether foreign English teachers are actually needed is also relevant and should be analysed closer. Actual research shows that native speakers are not necessarily better teachers than local ones. “It is generally accepted within the literature on educational pedagogy that foreign language instructors need not be native speakers of the target language to be effective, but simply need to be well versed in the target language” (Williams 2017, 19). Additionally, native teachers have the advantage of having gone through the same learning process as their students and are aware of differences between the native and target language. But because many local teachers struggle with the target language English, the foreign language teacher is seen as the better teacher. Instead of promoting more efficient teacher education the invitation of foreign teachers is seen as the solution to the problem. The culture shock many foreign teachers experience should also not be underestimated. Many foreign English teachers are not adequately prepared when they start teaching in East Asia and suffer from culture shock when they are faced with an unfamiliar classroom environment. Problems between native and foreign teachers are also often reported (cf. Lee 2015, 52). Difficulties during team-teaching, verbal misunderstandings or cultural differences can quickly ruin a lesson or cause a loss of face for one party (cf. Williams 2017, 86–87). However, positive aspects have also been reported with many native teachers being able to improve their own English skills through daily communication and foreigners being able to convey their own culture authentically (cf. Lee 2015, 52).

While many success stories have emerged, a vast majority of foreign teachers remain unsuitable for the job and their motivations questionable. As long as not more clear and strict qualifications are put in place the invitation of so-called English teachers is not sustainable and harming the system. The improvement of native teachers should be considered as the better long-term solution. If teachers are not taught properly to help themselves, it is like giving water to a parched person and leaving, instead of building a well.


6. Conclusion

East Asias’ history and development of English education has been diverse and individual to each country with considerable setbacks due to historical circumstances. With the rise of English as a lingua franca East Asia has been quick to implement English into their school curricula, but with substantial struggle regarding its efficiency. The current system of English education is widely considered to be ineffective and not sustainable. Many factors contribute to this issue such as cultural understandings, English curricula designed for exam-taking and the influence of shadow education. The teacher education, though improving, is still not able to generate enough proficient teaching personnel. This, along with many governmental circumstances, contributes to the didactic approaches, that have long been critized to add to the problem. Students’ motivation and well-being is directly influenced by the school system and teachers, that are unable to nurture a healthy and productive outlook in students regarding English as a foreign language and their studies in general. Especially concerning student well-being it is necessary to decrease the pressure put upon students. Foreign English teachers, predominantly Western, have mixed influence on the issue and stricter qualifications and control of motivations should be implemented to foster more productive collaborations. Overall, while many positive developments can be seen, a more sharp redirection of thinking and taking on new attitudes, especially in the didactics sector need to happen.

With the ever-growing importance of English, especially for economic advancement and globalization, communication is more important than ever. It is in the interest of the countries involved, the economy and individual people to improve their English proficiency. Continuous research for the improvement of English proficiency in East Asia, such as the adaptation of methodology for East Asian students’ learning needs and improvement of teacher education would be supporting the issue. The same goes for Laos and its development of English proficiency. The research and work carried out by the Laos project can contribute greatly to this and will help to shape the future of Laos.


Text by L. Jakob, notes by I. Martin
Photos by S. Huijia
Images by Koyos & Ssolbergj, EF EPI 2019, Song Huijia



1 “The common usage of the word developed implies that there is a gold-standard for “development” overall, with a desirable (refined, superior) state of development at one end of the scale and an undesirable (“raw”, unrefined, primitive, inferior) one at the other. The binary of “developed countries” and “undeveloped” or “underdeveloped countries” is a value statement rooted in eurocentricism and colonialism; the criteria by which a country is deemed developed are chosen by those who deem themselves to be developed.” (Note by I. Martin in: “Interview with a Chilean expat” by J. Unterweger & M. Frahm, 1.3.2019).

2 U-tube hosts many videos by travellers in their twenties explaining how to become an English “teacher” in Asia the easy way. It seems that not all schools check qualifications before they hire “the token white face“. As long as this remains the case, not only convicted pedophiles, but also student drop-outs will find employment in those countries. The jobs are advertised through several portals and are easy to find.



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