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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.

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