Interview on English in Korea

I was recently interviewed by a student magazine on campus for an upcoming feature on English education in Korea. The interview is unapologetically opinionated, though some of my facts might be a little off — it was a kind of hurried thing, conducted by email. In any case, it ranges from the challenges faced by Korean students, and what I think would improve English learning experiences both inside and outside the classroom, to “English mania” and the adoption of required courses that use English as the language of instruction at many top Korean universities. It seemed a shame to only have the text go into print in a small magazine where most potentially interested readers won’t be able to get at it, so I decided to crosspost it here.

What major problems are faced by Korean students studying English?

This is a really big question. You could write a whole book about it!

Well, most student problems are related to attitude, in my opinion. I don’t mean students have a bad attitude. I mean their attitudes towards their English studies, towards their own abilities, and towards their classes. Generally, and not just in terms of students at [our University], a lot of students I’ve taught in Korea are too afraid to speak much, especially at lower levels. Often they’re just scared of making fools of themselves by saying something “wrong,” and this is a pity because people only really learn things like languages by trying, making errors, and learning from those errors. Making mistakes isn’t foolish: it’s courageous. However, many students have such high expectations of themselves. I think high expectations can be a trap sometimes. Big goals are good, but if you demand too much of yourself, too quickly, you can get frustrated and burn out.

Students sometimes have unreasonable expectations of their courses, too. I’ve met a lot of people who became fluent despite limited interaction with native English speakers, but a lot of schools and hakwons seem to think that putting a native English speaker (especially a white, good-looking foreigner) in a room with students is a magic formula for fluency. It really isn’t! Fluency takes a lot of work — inside and outside the classroom — as well as practice, and boring stuff like homework. But hakwons are businesses. Their purpose is to make money. Most people are willing to pay for “fun” but less-productive classes, while relatively few people are willing to pay money to suffer — that is, to have a teacher give a lot of homework and suggest out-of-class group practice sessions. People get what they demand, and since most people already feel that learning English is a burden, they want something that at least feels fun, too. Many students who get sucked into this waste enormous amounts of time and money, which is a big problem.

What is the most important key to improvement among professors, students, textbooks, programs, and so on?

I think the most important thing to remember is that students are people who are learning to become independent learners and self-teachers. The model for a lot of earlier education — even up to high school — is that students are passive and empty, and teachers are active and full of knowledge. It’s as if teachers pour knowledge into students like we pour water from a pitcher into cups — which is terrible! There are well-known historical reasons why schools were designed to make students passive, silent, and obedient to teachers’ authority. Essentially, it makes a good, dependable, easy-to-control workforce. But it’s terrible for student autonomy, for teaching students how to be citizens or make their own decisions. So for me, a teachers’ role is someone who acts like a guide, like a supporter to the student who is “learning to walk” on his or her own academically.

We don’t go to university just to prepare for jobs, after all. Students come here to learn how to teach themselves new kinds of skills, how to understand and become able to use new knowledge. Really, university is about learning to think in a new, adult, independent way, equipped to survive and so well in a fast-changing world where nothing can be taken for granted. Elementary school, middle school, and high school socialize us and give us common knowledge we need to be workers and consumers. We go to university to become citizens.

So in my classroom, I try to give students the responsibility for their learning. Students are told to choose their individual goals for the course. Students sometimes rank their work and work of their peers. I give a fair amount of homework, so students engage with the subject outside the class. I try to stay away from anything that I find limits students from expressing their ideas, values, and desire to explore. (Like textbooks, most of which are boring!) Students lead class or group discussions regularly. Students submit topics for debates and discussions, and work on major projects where they have to make decisions individually and as a group. I always try to give students some control over what they’re doing, the responsibility to choose, and a range of choices. When someone has made a choice, it’s easier to become passionate about what she or he is doing, and I find that passion is like rocket fuel for students.

Recently, many universities have begun requiring that students take courses in all majors in which English is used as the language of instruction. What do you think about this?

Honestly? I get the impression that Korean universities are in a kind of “educational arms race” now. That’s sad, because if what Universities are competing for is just some abstract ranking or status, then how can they focus on students’ needs? Any educational organization that has administrators running things risks getting out of touch with students and their needs, and this is a problem worldwide, of course.

But in Korea, you have the added problem of “English mania”. There’s this common feeling that everyone (or everyone educated) needs to learn English. Why is that? I’ve met plenty of poor people in third world countries — homeless beggars, taxi, rickshaw, and bicycle-rickshaw drivers, shop owners, and street vendors — who speak English quite well or almost perfectly, yet their countries are nowhere near as rich as South Korea, and they were individually relatively poor. English in itself isn’t the key to prosperity, individually or nationally. However, everyone is competing to succeed in this society, and like any society, resources seem limited, so the requirements for success are pursued relentlessly. Some upper-class people can’t speak English, but nobody moves from lower- or middle-class to upper class without English anymore. The problem is that it’s a wholly arbitrary requirement. (Yes, there is a long history of language study and class/employment in Korea but that doesn’t mean language study isn’t an arbitrary requirement.) Why not require mathematical skill? Or the ability to program computers, or conduct experiments? Arbitrary, general criteria are bad criteria for encouraging practical success.

I think this is something people in the future will regard as a major scam: the English-teaching industry, led by hakwons, convinced Korea that everyone needed to study English intensively. I imagine that Koreans a hundred years from now will think it was strange how so many people believed that, and I suspect they will probably also comment on how “English mania” only worsened regional inequalities, and led to even more social problems in Korea, since most of the best schools and English instructors are, for economic and social reasons, concentrated in Kyeonggi and in Seoul specifically.

I’m not saying Koreans should all stop studying English. It’s useful for individuals when traveling, it’s useful to have some specialists in any society who speak (and write, and read) English well. But the amount of energy, time, and money that gets poured into English study is so much — almost twice as much as Japan, these days, without any benefit, since Koreans are performing about the same as Japanese on standardized English exams. I can’t help but imagine the kinds of breakthroughs that would come if Korean society redirected some of that energy to scientific or technological research, the arts, the tourist industry, political and media reform, and so on.

What are your suggestions to students for actual improvement of English conversation ability?

I think the most important thing is to accept that there are no shortcuts, to get into a habit of speaking in English at every opportunity, and to find ways to enjoy it. Classes are useful, but speaking a few hours a week in a conversation class will never going to make you fluent. I always tell students to find some classmates or friends to chat in English with. The [English] cafe on campus is a great place to do that, but you can do it anywhere!

You can also find endless other ways to use English in your daily life. Subscribe to an English newspaper, or read on daily online. Start an English club with your friends and have debates or discussions in English every week. Watch English-language movies on DVD without subtitles. Keep an English diary. There are incredible amounts of media online that are both legal and free. Take advantage of that!

And for those who study abroad — don’t go to schools or cities full of other Korean students studying English, and don’t spend your time hanging out with only Koreans, speaking Korean. Speaking Korean most of the time in Canada or New Zealand isn’t going to make you a better English speaker! In fact, most of the people I know whose English improved from living abroad never went into a classroom once: they went on working holiday visas, and their daily work and living experiences forced them to improve their English. The Working holiday visa is a great option, since it’s cheaper and more educational in a lot of ways, but the main point is to force yourself into situations where you have to speak.

Students often think that these are crazy suggestions, but I know Koreans who have become fluent without ever leaving the country, just by making English their daily hobby. After all, people spend hundreds of hours mastering Starcraft, or breakdancing, or the Rubik’s cube. If more people treated English as a hobby, they could master it in the same way gamers and dancers master their hobbies. In a way, it’s all about creating a kind of relationship with the thing you’re studying — whether it’s a language, art, history, science, math, or anything. A good relationship with the thing you’re studying will help you face the boring, difficult parts.

10 thoughts on “Interview on English in Korea

  1. Heh.

    You’re right about the numbers of Canadians here — waaaaaay more than Americans or other Anglos for my money — but I’m not so sure about the Philosophy major thing. I’ve met people of all kinds of backgrounds here. Sure, lots of English majors like me. But then, I was tech writing before I came here, and most people I meet here aren’t here because they were unemployable back home — they came because they wanted to experience something else, or because they wanted to make a decent living for the same hours (as lots of jobs in Canada underpay) and because of the crap job market in Canada. I came for a variety of reasons, none of them being unemployability. (Though one of them was better employment opportunities here.)

    All of that said, honestly, I think a lot of non-credentialled people are fine teachers — my own credentials were not the strongest when I began here, with only a couple of years of college writing courses I taught in Montreal, but I figured out a lot of what I needed to very quickly when I got here, though I’m also constantly revising what I do as I think and learn more.

    Honestly, I think that if rules relaxed a little — if foreigners living here could open and run businesses, including one-employee freelance businesses — then foreign teachers would be put to the best use. Currently, a foreign resident can freelance if he or she is on a spousal visa. That’s a needless restriction. While making sure of taxes is a problem, that’s a universal problem, and Koreans aren’t any less likely to cheat on taxes than foreign residents, all things considered.

    The middle-man (the profit-driven hakwon owner with the necessary rent and business expenses) would be cut out of the equation, bringing down prices of extracurricular educational spending, teachers would be forced to compete (and a reputation economy would develop as there’s always be alternatives), “class” sizes would be smaller, and under the control of students and parents, and the sudden disappearance of free housing/free air tickets would keep a lot of the riff-raff out too. Hell, it’d even be safer for everyone concerned, since the kids (who are a major proportion of hakwon attendees) would not be in an unsupervised classroom but in their own home (as a lot of teachers would be expected to hoof it to the students’ house, as that’s how it’s done here).

    But that would put a bunch of foreigners out of “control” and might be hard to administrate in terms of taxation, so of course, it won’t happen. The closest approximation is for foreigners married to Koreans to start a business 51% owned by their spouse so they can teach more than the maximum number of students for a freelance private teacher. (Which I’ve heard is capped at 9 students or something silly like that.)

  2. I was reading Fooled By Randomness (at least I think it was in that book) and was shocked to find out philosophy majors can usually find work as stock brokers or in some other capacity at investment firms on Wall Street.

  3. Oh, yes. I remember reading somewhere that English majors are also among the more quickly-employed graduates. (I think the world is harder on history majors, for one example.) The statistic shocked me, but apparently it’s true.

  4. Life would have been so much easier when I was an undergrad if the people making the HR decisions had been reading the same books and magazine articles that we seem to have read.

  5. Sorry, I removed all the bitterness about the lack of jobs in Canada in that comment before I hit the “Submit Comment”. I guess it came at the expense of overall coherence. I love the “less is more ethic”, but that was a case of “less is less”.

  6. Right on the money, Gord. Couldn’t have said it better myself. I especially appreciate the part about making students self-starting and self-perpetuating when it comes to English study. You find all sorts of situations in India and Singapore where English is a Second Language, where students are taking action and speaking English among themselves in order to improve their skills. That very rarely, if ever, happens here. Trying to get students to speak English with each other makes me feel like a Dentist.
    Good on ya.

  7. Mark,

    Ah. Well, I’m certainly with you on unhappiness about the job market in Canada. It absolutely sucked, the last time I cared enough to check.


    Thanks, I’m glad to know I’m not utterly misinformed. :) Students always have so many excuses about how they can’t speak English together, because of social pressures and the kind of attention they’ll get, and so on. I actually noticed students yesterday (during midterm exams) always trying to hedge discussions of things that annoying people do on, say, public transportation with effusive explanations that they have no choice but to put up with it, because, “In Korea, we can’t ask people to stop being rude. It’s just rude.” Yet I’ve seen individuals ask people to stop being rude. The world did not crash down.

    There’s probably something to be said for the difference between a proscriptive culture versus our more prescriptive culture — the Western cultures I’ve lived in have tended socially to exhort people to do acceptable or praiseworthy things, whereas in Korea it seems it’s more about how people are exhorted not to do unacceptable or offensive things. When people don’t follow the rules in the West, it’s easier to criticize them since public criticism is not proscribed when warranted while it seems to me in Korea this isn’t the case: there are all kinds of caveats governing whether one can publicly criticize behaviour that everyone would agree is unacceptable, such as age, gender, location, and so on.

    But I also think it comes in handy when one needs an excuse for not practicing English. “I can’t — my culture won’t let me!” is the most common excuse I hear, though not in so many words. I no longer accept it, because I’ve seen people swim upstream in many ways here, including finding places to speak English with their Korean friends. And in the end, cultures don’t control us, they just govern what we perceive as our range of choices. The prescriptions and proscriptions cultures afford us are not rules, they’re guidelines. Adulthood is about seeing that and about trying make decisions informed, but not governed, by one’s culture, even when it’s difficult to do so, so I try to urge my students to think critically in that way.

  8. Thanks for posting this! I totally agree with you about the English mania and the inequity it creates. Alexis K. gave me your blog link. It’s nice to read something written by an ESL teacher in Asia that is actually reflective and not imperialistic. I work with lots of Korean students in Vancouver. I just blogged about annoying ESL teachers (specifically white males)…

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