Lee Myung-bak’s English Education Policies

February 25th, 2008 · Education and ESL, Politics · 22 comments

English education policy in South Korea is a seemingly-neverending source of contention. President-elect Lee Myung-bak’s presidential transition team (대통령직 인수위원회) has been making one proposal after another to reform the nation’s ESL classrooms, so with his inauguration being today, let’s take a look back at what’s been said about the possible directions the new government will go.

Back on Hangul Day, in November, the then-presidential candidate said it might be a good idea to teach Korean history and language classes in English and got himself roundly criticized as being “like the Japanese imperialists”. Since then, however, the ESL trends have gone in precisely that direction: after his election education boards across the country have moved for more English-only instruction. Seoul is experimenting with English-only math and science classes, English teachers in Gangwon-do are being told they must do more lecturing in English, and as president-elect Mr. Lee restated his desire to see more English-only classes — in fact, every single high school English class starting in 2010 — and last week saw Seoul National University come back to the man’s original proposal by bringing in American scholar Eugene Park to teach a Korean Studies course exclusively in English.

As president, of course, Roh Moo-hyun also stressed the importance of sound English educational policy but not to the same degree — and considering that his policies failed to achieve one of their most prominent goals, a reduction in spending on hagwons, they, well… failed. I don’t think that is entirely his fault, though — Korean parents seem to take any excuse to spend more money on hagwon English lessons whether the current government is seeing English as more or less important. With the new government poised to expand the importance of English education, hagwons are being swamped with new students just as they also cope with a shortage of foreign English teachers caused by more restrictive visa rules.

So, of course, all of this is great news for English hagwons, and for the foreign teachers who work there.

After the announcement of the government’s decision to strengthen English education, the market for English lessons for children has gone up slightly. The new government’s roadmap of English immersion, tests of English ability, and early English education beginning in first and second grade is lowering the age of first English learning.

We are at a kids’s English hagwon in Hwanggeum-dong, Suseong-gu, Daegu. At this “English Kindergarten” 10 kids, ranging in age from 4 to 7, are in the middle of an English conversation about “winter life”. Their parents want them to have English immersion lessons taught entirely by a native speaker, heedless of the expensive fees which go from 500,000 to 800,000 won per month. Jeong, the owner of the school, says, “for a while there was a pause due to the stagnant economy but recently the importance of English is being emphasized and students are increasing again. With the trend towards English immersion parents think that age four to six is the best time to learn to speak a foreign language naturally.”

Attention is on the growth of hagwons in the Seoul area. With headquarters in Seoul, hagwons like P, M, S and so on have name recognition and since the second half of last year have set up 7 to 8 branches in southern Daegu and10 to 20 in Daejeon. These hagwons, proud of the high-quality educational services they offer through differentiated programs, offer lessons 10-20% more expensive than those of other Daegu-area language hagwons and parents are beating down their doors.

They were originally created as language hagwons and are now preparing “English kindergartens”. In southern Daegu recently there are a handful of new language hagwons with attached kindergartens. English lessons are exploding in department store culture centers. This spring semester department store English lessons are taking aim at parents with titles like, “Ballet Lessons in English” and “Musicals That Teach English”.

Park Jin-heung, director of the Daebaek Plaza Culture Center (대백프라자 문화센터), said, “the program is very popular for its special nature of using more games and fun activities than other language programs. We’re in an age where whatever you do English is needed.”

The kids education market is already saturated and the population of children is shrinking, so psychological pressure on parents is causing an uptick in the market for kids’ English lessons.

Jo Jun-hyung, chair of the Daegu Foreign Language Association (대구시 외국어교육협의회) said, “because the age of English education is being lowered and English is being more emphasized in school, parents are worried. But programs that just give you an ‘English experience’ are not going to give significant result towards mastery of English.”

But not everybody thinks all of this political emphasis on English is such a great thing. Poet Kim Heung-suk has harsh words for the new president’s thoughts, from the proposal that English speakers be exempted from military service to altering how English words are written in Korean.

During my lifetime English has been my livelihood but recently it is becoming wearisome. English is being politicized. When I look at the policies promulgated by the presidential transition team I feel distrustful of their announcements. The masterstroke of them all is the proposal that young men who speak English well can teach in public schools rather then serving their military duty. Society is becoming stratified by the measuring stick of English, with those on the wrong side of the English Divide having to take up arms in the military, which will give rise to discontent with their homeland.

When I look at the statement by transition team chair Lee Gyeong-suk, I’m left with the thought that there will someday be trauma and pain inflicted by English. A few days ago at a public hearing I wasn’t sure whether to feel hurt by hearing the example of “orange”. What is the meaning of saying, “if the orthography of English in Korean isn’t radically altered it will be hard to speak with the pronunciation of a native”?

The principle here is that English orthography can be changed for our convenience to avoid pronouncing English with a Korean accent, but is that going to make us sound like native speakers? Does chairman Lee think that writing “orange” not in English but as 아린지 or 오렌지 is really going to make for better pronunciation? People who speak English well live in London, Manila, Melbourne and other places too, and have different accents so what does chairman Lee think native-speaker pronunciation to be?

A friend living in a foreign country was once mortified when the foreigners there asked, “your country, why is it having a war over English?” We aren’t America or London or a colony of an English-speaking country, so my friend had no good answer when asked why we have to study English just in high school and then be able to communicate in it.”

People who think that if Korean citizens can speak English well it will help attract foreign tourists would do well to look at nearby Japan. Tourists coming to our country can’t get good information about it and there isn’t good information about things that tourists like — the problem isn’t our English ability.

If there are foreigners who want to learn our language but can’t because every Korean around them can speak English, of course there are also people whose responsibilities include communicating with foreigners and want to show off their English ability and don’t use interpretation. Diplomacy is war conducted through language so appearances are just as important as the content of what is said, but if you get the English disease your judgment is clouded.

The transition team says it wants to change the framework of English education and reduce the burden of private lesson costs by having all English classes taught in English from 2010, and will do so by making a “tremendous investment” in the training and education of English teachers. Korea is already a world leader, known from every English-speaking country from America to Africa as having the English disease, what a “tremendous investment”!

With the market for those private lessons increasing the way it has been, there is no way to change the framework of English education. It isn’t just English but we see the same thing in other subjects. Rather than making a worthless investment or dividing young people, they should bring teachers in from private lessons to the public schools.

From the presidential transition team to the parents of schoolchildren, everyone should pay attention. There are many things in the world more important than English and schools have more to teach than English. First of all they teach how to speak our language, and who we are as a people, and English won’t be too late. Language is an ability, and no ability is useful unless used. I’m doubtful of the highly-paid transition team’s intention to mass-produce English ability. An ability that is already abundant.

The Joongang Ilbo also charges that Lee is reckessly promoting new policies without having considered them sufficiently, which sounds about right for a guy whose nickname is, after all, “bulldozer”.

Update: President Lee apparently doesn’t think his campaign promises were such hot stuff, after all.

22 comments

  • Does the new President speak English at all? That was something I’ve been wondering about.

    Izz · February 25th, 2008 at 7:44 AM

  • “Society is becoming stratified by the measuring stick of English, with those on the wrong side of the English Divide having to take up arms in the military, which will give rise to discontent with their homeland.”

    This, imo, is his strongest argument and potentially the most harmful to Korea. If military service becomes a disease of the poor and “uneducated” like it has at home, then Korea is on it’s way to a stratification that it has not yet seen or prepared for.

    arirang · February 25th, 2008 at 9:46 AM

  • “These hagwons, proud of the high-quality educational services they offer through differentiated programs, offer lessons 10-20% more expensive than those of other Daegu-area language hagwons and parents are beating down their doors.”

    Yeah… I worked in that area a few years back. Parents who live in that district can be a little “crazy” when it comes to English. Any new hagwon from Seoul gets a ton of attention from Daegu ajumas. They send their kids to the expensive hagwon and brag to their ajuma friends when they go drink coffee and gossip for five hours. This “keeping up with the Jones’s” quickly drives up demand.

    Demand tapers off once most of the rich kids in the area are in attendance. Eventually some new hagwon comes from Seoul, and the whole process repeats.

    I guess what I am trying to say is that there isn’t so much a “demand for English” as there is “demand to be better than the family next door.”

    With that said, I haven’t lived in that particular area for a year, so things may have changed since then.

    Anonymous · February 25th, 2008 at 12:51 PM

  • arirang,

    I don’t think that the US military, assuming that’s the “home” you’re referring to, really does skew as much towards to poor and uneducated as a lot of people assume. Although it’s true that the last few years have seen a lowering of recruitment standards.

    Korea Beat · February 25th, 2008 at 4:09 PM

  • KBS is looking for English Teachers to state their opinions about President Lee’s English plans in a round-table format sometime next week.
    The contact e-mail is here.
    trachaea@hotmail.com

    AgentX · February 25th, 2008 at 4:38 PM

  • […] Beat has a summary of English policy proposals from Lee Myung Bak since his candidacy as well as the controversies that have […]

    ZenKimchi » “Hagwons like P, M, S and so on have name recognition” · February 25th, 2008 at 10:26 PM

  • No doubt English is essencial to survive in dog-eat-dog competition taking plce around us. However, I can hardly understand why every class has to be taught in English, even studying history of Korea not America.

    Anonymous · February 26th, 2008 at 8:24 AM

  • “A friend living in a foreign country was once mortified when the foreigners there asked…”

    Wouldn’t the “friend” living in a foreign country be the foreigner? The foreigners in a foreign country are natives, not foreigners.

    David tz · February 26th, 2008 at 10:22 AM

  • “However, I can hardly understand why every class has to be taught in English, even studying history of Korea not America.”

    Although I am not exactly sure what you are trying to write, English would be better linked with England, where the language originated.

    Anyways… I agree that not every class should be taught in English. It’s not even an official language!!!

    Anonymous · February 26th, 2008 at 11:34 AM

  • The poet is brilliant, many thanks for the translation.

    arirang, I think it will be some time before social stratification approaches Joseon-era levels, but I agree, this is clearly the direction the nation is traveling .. in place of examinations based on the intricacies of Confucian thought, banal tests like the TOEIC act as gatekeepers

    jay · February 26th, 2008 at 6:55 PM

  • […] Beat has a post on local reactions concerning the President Lee Myung-bak's English education policies. Share […]

    Global Voices Online » South Korea: Lee Myung-bak’s English Education Policies · February 27th, 2008 at 3:06 PM

  • […] which is quickly becoming one of my favorite sites. Here’s one talking about some of the new English Education Policies the new president is discussing. And an interesting look at the day in a life of a subway driver. […]

    Weekly Blog Roundup « Your Daily Shot of Soju · February 29th, 2008 at 2:23 PM

  • Want a headstart? all your textbooks must be in English from lower grades up. Encourage kids at home to do pleasure reading, books they like to read in english. Korean education and all others must be patterned from that of Finnish education system. Check this out and you will revolutionized your learning.

    suzette · March 5th, 2008 at 12:44 PM

  • I think learning the second language is great. Think about it, English is already an international language. It is understandable that the President is proposing to revolutionize the school and private lessons by teaching kids entirely in English. But I think this would hurt them even more so because they have to learn English first in order to understand what they’re taking.

    Even I endorse learning multiple languages, I don’t believe in forcing the children to learn English especially from the government. The choice should be up to the children and parents should encourage them while providing them freedom to choose.

    Also, this could hurt the older generation because if the children would only speak English because they have to so they would lose the ability to communicate with their parents who could only speak Korean. In my case, I had to learn English because I am living in USA but as I was learning English, I forgot more and more Korean language. Thus, I can’t communicate with my parents because they don’t speak English. It’s going to happen if parents are pushing the kids far more than they can handle.

    Korea people need to learn that being better than someone else isn’t the way to build success. The way I was raised in Korean culture, I hated myself. I’m never going to be good enough in my parents’ eyes because there is no way I can be better than most people. My parents are always in competition with their friends on whose child(ren) are better.

    Even though I dislike Korean contemporary culture, I certainly don’t want to lose any that define us as unique: Korean language, food, and history. I believe that President didn’t even think about consequences that could occur especially more negatively than positively.

    SHK · March 14th, 2008 at 7:48 AM

  • […] my background story and to relate to the title, here is the article called Lee Myung-bak’s English Education Policies from Korea Beat.  I just discovered it today by Google Reader and it posts the English translated […]

    I hate my race even more « Speak My Mind · March 14th, 2008 at 8:47 AM

  • wtf?

    Anonymous · March 15th, 2008 at 4:36 AM

  • […] appears to be walking back his previous grand statements about the need for a strengthened English education policy across the country. On the 20th president Lee mynug-bak spoke about the policy of strengthening of […]

    Oops! No English Immersion After All : Korea Beat · March 21st, 2008 at 11:30 AM

  • […] that can shape the whole English Education industry in Korea, than Samsung HR. Some may claim that Lee Myung Park’s English policies set the tone and/or the Ministry of Education. Some foreign teachers look to Immigration as being […]

    Galbijim.com » Blog Archive » Interview with Samsung HR, “TOEFL & TOEIC requirements will be scrapped” · June 6th, 2008 at 10:02 PM

  • […] and found that English immersion wasn’t the popular product he thought it would be (see Lee Myung-bak’s English Education Policies) but the relentless drive for English education continues apace anyway. Seoul City has decided to […]

    Native Speakers Everywhere! : Korea Beat · July 8th, 2008 at 9:47 AM

  • President Lee speaks English well… actually he is a quite expert user of the english language… BUT his methods…er…

    Learners · May 16th, 2009 at 1:54 AM

  • which is quickly becoming one of my favorite sites. Here’s one talking about some of the new English Education Policies the new president is discussing. And an interesting look at the day in a life of a subway driver. […]

    mann · July 6th, 2009 at 10:03 PM

  • […] can shape the whole English Education industry in Korea, more than Samsung HR. Some may claim that Lee Myung Park’s English policies set the tone and/or the Ministry of Education. Some foreign teachers look to Immigration as being […]

    Interview with Samsung HR, "TOEFL & TOEIC requirements will be scrapped" - EverydayKorea.com | EverydayKorea.com · March 21st, 2014 at 3:00 PM

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