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(Yonhap Feature) English language education in Korea, fad or the future?

All Headlines 09:00 September 24, 2010

By Rick Ruffin

Donghae, Sept. 24(Yonhap) -- About one-third the size of Japan, South Korea now outspends its Asian rival by a margin of three to one in English language education, according to unofficial industry estimates.

Dave's ESL Cafe, an Internet site where learners and teachers of English convene, is significant for having its own “Korea Job Board.” The only other country that has its own job board is China, and China has the most people on Earth.

While Japan spent billions of yen in the 70's and 80's trying to learn English and later gave up, the South Koreans' craze for learning English continues.

“Selling English lessons here is like selling pot back in the United States. The door opens, a face appears, and money changes hands in a small white envelope," says a long-time Korea-based American English language teacher, who wishes to remain anonymous.

Due to its largely underground nature, estimates as to the exact size of the South Korean market vary widely, but experts agree that South Koreans spend the equivalent of between US$10 billion and US$15 billion annually on English language education.

Given an economy of this size, is it just a fad, or the future of Korea?

A walk along Seoul's Jongno on any given day will lead one past several well-known English language institutes. Students spill out like lemmings into the streets from places such as YBM/Sisa and Pagoda. Neighboring coffee shops and fast food haunts are full of people studying English.

Why do they do it?

"Most Koreans don't really want to learn English. They just do it because they have to. The system makes them do it," says Garam Han, an education major at Soongsil University in Seoul.

So, if the system changes, will the bubble burst?

"Perhaps,” she says.

But the government is pumping a lot of money into the system to keep things afloat.

Because so much money (the number of Korean elementary school students who go abroad to learn English has increased more than 12-fold since 1999, according to government figures) is being spent abroad on English language education, the Korean government has embarked on a series of projects aimed at keeping some of that money here in South Korea, while at the same time boosting the country’s English proficiency, and hopefully luring much needed foreign investment.

Once “Jeju Global Education City”-- a sprawling campus that will hold more than a dozen top English-only schools and thousands of students -- is completed sometime in 2015, Koreans will be able to live in a totally English environment without having to leave South Korea.

There are already several “all-English” theme parks and communities spread throughout South Korea. In addition, several all-English schools are due to open in the new Songdo International Business District in Incheon, billed as the largest private real estate development in history.

Kim Su-hyun, who majors in translation at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, thinks that the “mono-cultural nature of Korean society makes it hyper-competitive,” and Koreans use English to compete.

Timothy Sullivan, a long-time English language professor at Dongyang University in Punggi, North Gyeongsang Province, agrees. “As long as there's this attitude of keeping up with the Kims,” he says, “Koreans will continue to use English as a tool for getting ahead.”

Kim Mi-hyun, a Gwanghee High School student in the eastern coastal city of Donghae who is also fluent in English, knows that competitive nature well. She spends 80 percent of her study time studying English, not math, not science, not Korean, but English.

“Often, my friends and I joke with each other. ‘Why aren't we learning Korean at all?’ We ask each other ironically. But perhaps it's not a joke, after all,” she laments.

Then she goes on.

"I thought I spoke English well, but at the last conference that I attended, a Global Leaders conference sponsored by the U.N., there were countless numbers of kids who speak much better than I do.”

Some argue that Korea's historical feeling of inadequacy also feeds this passion for learning English.

Korea, once destined to languish in the long shadows cast by superpowers such as China, Japan, Russia and more recently the United States, is now determined to step to the front of the world stage.

With the Korean government constantly looking for new ways to promote and project Korea into the international arena, English will remain in high demand as public servants have to launch numerous public relations campaigns in _ you guessed it _ English.

There is a lot of skepticism, however, over whether these projects will pay off linguistically. When all is said and done, will South Korea become an English-speaking nation like Singapore?

Some people think whether Koreans really ever learn English is not the issue, as long as a lot of money keeps changing hands. And change hands it most certainly will.

Education, especially life-long learning, is highly valued in Confucian Korean society.

Cha Sa-soon is a good example of the South Korean education spirit. Undaunted after 949 failed attempts, she tried once more and finally got her driver’s license _ on her 950th try.

Some people would call this stubbornness, but others call it determination. South Koreans are equally determined to learn English, and it looks as if English language education is here to stay.


(Editor's note: Born in Brazil of American parents, Rick Ruffin claims no allegiance to any paricular nation or flag. His hundreds of articles on natural history, politics and travel have been published in the best newspapers and magazines around the world, from Seattle to Singapore, from Hong Kong to England. He speaks five languages well enough. He currenlty lives in Donghae with his Korean wife.)

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